The versatile hemp plant has been used in the mass production of textiles, clothing, jewelry and rope since ancient times. Before hemp was banned in the 20th century, it was also common for artists to work on hemp canvas. In the past, hemp was considered one of the predominant materials for the production of canvases. Various sources even claim that well-known painters such as Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Gainsborough created their classic works on hemp canvas over the centuries.
Due to their sustainability, hemp fibers have regained popularity in the textile industry in recent years. This means that artists of today are again offered the opportunity to use this environmentally friendly cotton and linen alternative for the production of their paintings.
During the Italian Renaissance, in the 15th and 16th centuries, canvas was made from, among other things, tightly woven fibers of linen or hemp. Venetian painters in particular preferred the use of canvas due to the high humidity, as they dry faster than frescoes and do not warp as quickly as wooden panels. In addition, they are less prone to tearing, significantly lighter and can be easily rolled up for quick transport.
Over time, more and more artists began to move away from painting on heavy and expensive frescoes and wooden boards. Because the canvas material was also used to make sails for the Venetian naval fleet, canvas was relatively easy to obtain even then. These factors, among many others, led to the increased use of canvas in art. By the 17th century, the production of canvases had increased significantly across northern Europe.
Today, most industrial canvases are made from either cotton or linen. However, the hemp plant can offer many advantages over cotton and linen: it can grow in different climates and in much larger regions, is less hygroscopic and cheaper to produce because it requires fewer resources to grow. Furthermore, using hemp fiber to make canvas also has many environmental benefits, as it is more resistant to environmental influences, such as mold and moisture, and interacts well with oils.
According to artist Leo Mancini-Hresko, hemp canvas is also less likely to contract and expand from exposure to moisture. Because of this, the likelihood of severe cracking of the paint over time, which often happens with stretched canvases that are susceptible to moisture, is reduced. Therefore, not only as a textile but also in the form of a canvas, the hemp fiber can be praised for its durability and longevity.
A few years ago, it was still a challenge for artists to find hemp canvases with a weave suitable for painting. Nowadays, however, hemp-based canvases are already available in a wide variety of fabrics and colors. Hemp fibers are often mixed with cotton muslin or polyester during manufacture. Artists have the opportunity to choose their canvas based on how coarse or fine the woven fiber is. They can order pre-stretched hemp canvas from online and art supply stores, or they can stretch their own canvases over a frame.
Only recently, the paintings by the Korean contemporary artist Ha Chong-Hyun were exhibited at the Venice Biennale 2022, some of which were painted on hemp canvas. The exhibition aims to shed light on the renowned artist's 60-year career. He made his own canvas out of hemp cloth, breaking away from the typical choice of cotton and linen.
Another way to use hemp plants for painting is hemp seed oil, which is produced from pressed hemp seeds. Today, it is used in a variety of ways in both food and industrial products. In the past, until the beginning of the 20th century, the oil has already been used in soaps, detergents, kerosene lamps, (printing) inks and varnishes. It was also considered a commonplace, eco-friendly, non-toxic, and sustainable ingredient in the average household that could replace many other oil-based products.
It is therefore not surprising that attempts have already been made to use hemp seed oil to make oil paints - albeit not yet on a commercial scale. Oil paints based on hemp are currently not offered by manufacturers, but with a little effort, they can be produced at home for private use. Given some time to experiment, it would be entirely possible to mix raw hemp oil with color pigments and paint with it. This would require a little effort, but one could end up with an oil paint that is biodegradable and free of chemical additives.
Art involving hemp is also expanding beyond the canvas into the digital world in the form of NFTs - defined as digital art tied to cryptocurrency and blockchain technology. Signature Products is also involved with the art project "50 Shades of Hemp".