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Understand Canvas and Paper Origins to Appreciate Their Importance in Fine Art Printing

Canvas and paper have been staples in the fine art production and printing world since before digital printing ever existed. One can appreciate how far the quality and consistency of canvas and paper have come with a brief look into their history.

Canvas originally was just a mundane tool of sailors and ship masters making canvas sails, pouches, and any number of sea-faring equipment for long voyages. The earliest recorded use of canvas was roughly around the 14th century with a French oil painting on linen. Even then canvas usage wasn’t a widely accepted painter’s tool until sometime in the 16th century with Venetian sails becoming readily available resources. Wood and stone were more common until that time.

Paper, on the other hand, has been around since Egyptians used paper-like papyrus as writing sheets. As well as Chinese paper pulp process during the Han Dynasty around 25 A.D.! There are many discussions on what is considered ‘true paper’ since papyrus, amate, and parchment are all considered to be precursors to actual paper products that are milled from plant fibers and textiles.

That said, it’s clear that canvas and paper were useful tools in the art world well before Breathing Color came along and revolutionized digital printmaking. Now that you have an appreciation for where canvas and paper originated, let’s talk about where they are in today’s fine art printmaking world and where Breathing Color fits in the picture.

The destination is part of the journey. Know your endpoint, know your medium.

Understanding what you’re printing for and the intended display location plays a huge part in choosing the right medium for your digital prints. For example, a paper print would not be ideal for an outdoor all-weather environment, it will quickly absorb moisture and ruin the print. Keeping in mind where your print will be displayed is key to appreciating the differences between canvas and paper and when to choose one over the other. Here is a brief overview of the main differences in these two media.

  1. Texture: Canvas has a distinct woven texture that is ideal for digital prints that seek to simulate a painterly look and feel. Paper is generally smoother and is ideal for photographic reproductions where detail and intricacy matter most.
  2. Longevity: Canvas is a durable medium in that it’s made from cotton, linen, hemp, or duck muslin fibers. It’s why sails were made of it as it resists tearing, shrinkage, and buckling when moisture is introduced. Combined with a varnish top coat, canvas can also have extended archival properties. Paper, on the other hand, is a very delicate medium that requires thoughtful care and protection in how it’s handled and printed. Paper is also more susceptible to deterioration over time.
  3. Environment: Canvas can be moisture-resistant and resist fading due to the varnishing or coating practices that are required with most canvases. (Check out Breathing Color’s “Crystalline” canvas for an exception to this rule!) The varnish coating can allow canvas to be displayed even in direct sunlight or in shifting temperature environments. Paper won’t ever be moisture-resistant nor can it survive in the outdoors without being framed in enclosed glass, or laminated heavily with a film. This makes canvas an ideal medium for most fine art printmaking.
  4. Material Price: Canvas is more expensive than paper due to its creation process and materials required. Cotton has to be farmed and woven, linen has to be sourced, and hemp has to be grown. Paper is sourced from plant fibers and textiles which are in greater supply across the world. This makes paper a very suitable option for quick, high-volume print needs where canvas costs make distribution prohibitive. For example, you wouldn’t print a band flyer, brochure, or digital concert ticket on a piece of canvas.
  5. Size: This one is a bit more obvious than the others as canvas prints do very well with large-scale panoramas in sizes exceeding 40”x60” whereas any fine art paper or photo paper within a glass frame would be impossibly heavy and cumbersome at that size. For context, canvas itself at that size would be more expensive than paper, but the additional supplies needed such as stretcher bars and varnish are much cheaper than the necessary tools to achieve the same look and feel for a paper print at the same size. A search online for a ‘floating mount’ at 40”x60” is priced at over $650 for the mounting service alone. That’s the cost of TWO rolls of canvas!

example of a photo paper “floating mount"

An example of a photo paper “floating mount” courtesy of

What does ‘archival’ even mean?

In the world of fine art painting and printing, the term ‘archival’ is a buzzword.

A bit of research online will show anyone that this term is thrown around without much consideration of the definition. Some manufacturers can consider “more than 50 years” truly ‘archival’ where others will claim ‘archival’ for something that lasts a few years.

Even at Breathing Color, we have canvases that have been third-party tested archival for 55 years as well as canvases that have been third-party tested archival for 100+ years. This helps to define the archival quality of that specific canvas.

The question for every printmaker should be: “which archival media is the best for me?” Read on to learn why archival media might actually matter for you.

  1. Cost of running your business: First of all, one needs to consider the costs of the printmaking process. As we’ve discussed, canvas is generally more expensive so the argument here is “what’s your bottom line?” If your business is mostly focused on producing large-scale high-quality archival prints that will last a lifetime, then canvas is the obvious choice. Conversely, if your business is mostly focused on fast turn-around and high-volume print production then a photo or fine art paper will fit nicely. Keep in mind that most papers aren’t considered archival by Breathing Color standards. Additionally, canvas tends to require additional steps and supplies that paper doesn’t.
  2. Additional steps and time: Any printmaker that works with canvas will tell you that canvas printing and finishing is an arduous process. Additional steps can make each canvas print an hours-long or even days-long process: Varnishing, Framing, and Hardware are all part of canvas printmaking. Fine Art Papers and Photo Papers are near-instant drying and can just be slipped into a premade glass frame once printed and outgassed†.
  3. Your Customer: This third and final point should be the most important for any printmaker running a successful business: What costs are you passing along to your customer? How are your sales going? Considering the time and effort it takes to varnish and frame canvas, incorporating fine art paper or photo paper in your product offerings can be a great way to quickly improve your return on investment (ROI). In this sense, archival quality of your medium should be factored into the costs of either canvas or fine art/photo paper printing.

What about media that isn’t archival certified?

Breathing Color offers a variety of archival canvas and fine art papers, as well as non-archival ones. The difference comes down to your personal artistic choices, budget, and print requirements for your customer.

Where ‘archival’ has been over-used as a sales buzzword, it shouldn’t prevent you from exploring options that aren’t touted as archival. For example, Breathing Color’s Vibrance photo paper line produces remarkable prints without meeting the standard of 100-year display life. This can allow you to save money, time, and deliver high quality prints to your customers at a better price.

Added to this, is the argument that a lot of customers may not even care about archival qualities in the final result. It’s up to you to determine if this is something you’ll promote or discuss with your customers when choosing the right medium for the print project at hand.


Ultimately, canvas and paper are great solutions for any printmaker seeking to improve the quality of their prints whether archival or not. The debate between which is superior matters less when compared to deciding for yourself which suits your project best. Both have unique advantages that cater to different styles and techniques of printing art and photography.

Whether you're a budding artist starting your journey or a seasoned professional exploring new frontiers, you can turn your artistic vision into reality with the right medium.

Here’s to a great print!


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