applying gesso with a brush

Gesso is the foundation of your painting, so it’s important to learn how to use it properly. In this post, I answer all of the common questions that you may have about it. I also share a number of tips that I have picked up over the years that I’ve learned through trial and error.

What is gesso? Gesso is an acrylic primer that is used to prepare a substrate for painting in oils or acrylics. It dries to a matte surface and it helps to create a bond between the paint and the substrate. You can use it on canvas, paper, and wood. In oil painting, it’s necessary because it helps to protect the canvas from the oil paint. Gesso isn’t necessary when painting with acrylics but it does provide many benefits.

How do you pronounce gesso? Gesso is pronounced “Jess-oh”. It’s pronounced with a soft “g” as in the word “giant.” Many beginners mistakenly pronounce it with a hard “g” as in “guess-oh.”

What Is Gesso Made From?

Traditional Gesso Ingredients

In the past, it was made from glue, chalk, and white pigment. Rabbit skin glue was often used as the glue, and unfortunately it’s literally made from rabbits.

Rabbit skin glue isn’t the best choice for priming a canvas. This is because it absorbs moisture from the air and this causes it to expand and contract. This movement can cause brittle layers of paint to form cracks.

If you prefer the transparency of rabbit skin glue, you can use acrylic matte medium as an alternative. Acrylic matte medium dries clear so it will allow the beige color of the canvas to show through. The matte finish is easier to paint and draw on than the glossy acrylic mediums.

There’s also clear gesso which I discuss in the section about alternatives to gesso.

Today, most painters use acrylic gesso to prime their canvases. When it comes to painting in oil or acrylics, there isn’t much of an advantage to making your own. You can buy a gallon of student grade gesso on Amazon if you’re trying to save money. It’s made by Liquitex which is a reputable company.

You want to avoid the generic brands because they may sacrifice quality in order to offer it at a lower price

I recommend using the acrylic gesso that’s available in art supply stores rather than making your own. Many of the online recipes for gesso contain ingredients that aren’t PH neutral or archival.

Modern Gesso Ingredients

The gesso that you find in art supply stores is made from an acrylic polymer, white pigment, and calcium carbonate.

According to the New Oxford American dictionary, sources of calcium carbonate include marble dust, limestone, and chalk.

The calcium carbonate makes the surface of the dry gesso more absorbent and increases the tooth of the canvas.

I provide a brief definition of tooth in my art terms post. A surface with more tooth will readily accept a mark made by pencil than a smooth unprepared surface. So applying a coat of gesso to canvas will make it easier to draw on.

Gesso contains Titanium White as the pigment because it’s the most opaque pigment available. There are other white pigments, such as Zinc White, but they don’t have the same covering power.

How to Apply Gesso to Canvas

Wash the Canvas

I prefer to wash the canvas with a sponge and warm water after I stretch it. While washing the canvas isn’t necessary, it does have a few benefits.

Canvas tends to repel water which makes it difficult to coat it with anything that’s water-based. Thin acrylic paint will bead up on canvas unless you wash it first. You can see this effect in the photo below.

Photo of water beading up on canvas
Canvas tends to repel water.

Washing the canvas makes it more receptive to the gesso which is water-based.

Lightly washing the surface of the canvas will help to remove contaminants such as dirt, dust, and loose fibers. This is important if you plan on painting directly on the raw canvas or if you’re going to use a clear gesso alternative. The contaminants are what cause SID which is Substrate Induced Discoloration. Washing it will help prevent SID to some extent.

SID is when the contaminants in the canvas discolor the acrylic medium. Here is Golden’s post on how to prevent SID. They recommend applying two coats of gloss medium before applying any other product.

I think the discoloration is more likely to happen when you apply a thick layer of acrylic medium to raw canvas. The medium remains wet for a long period of time and allows the contaminants to migrate to the surface. I have yet to notice any discoloration when I apply thin layers of clear acrylic medium to a canvas.

How to Remove Wrinkles From Canvas

Unless you buy canvas on a roll, it will more than likely have a few wrinkles in it. Most art supply companies fold the canvas when they ship it. One of the benefits of washing the canvas with water is that it will shrink and tighten the surface as it dries.

Washing the canvas with water after you stretch it should remove the wrinkles. This is important because you don’t want to gesso a canvas that has wrinkles in it because it may make them permanent.

I don’t recommend washing the canvas in a washing machine. I once washed a loose piece of canvas in my washing machine to because it was dusty. The spin cycle put some very deep wrinkles in the canvas which I was never able to completely remove.

The easiest way to wash the canvas is to use a sponge to wipe it down, after you stretch it.

A crease in a canvas
Gesso makes any bends in the canvas permanent. Repositioning the canvas after the gesso has dried can reveal the crease where it folds over the side.

Preshrinking the canvas also allows you to make corrections to the tension of the canvas before you prime it. Once you add gesso to the canvas where it folds over the edges of the stretcher bars, the creases become permanent.

If you were to loosen the canvas and make adjustments, the bends could be visible on the face of the canvas as shown in the photo above.

How to Dilute Gesso

You can apply the gesso directly to the canvas. If you prefer a thinner consistency, you can thin it with water.

The directions from both Golden and Liquitex say that you can thin it with as much as 25% water. You don’t want to exceed 25% water because it can weaken the paint film and can cause cracking or adhesion issues.

Some artists like to thin the first coat because it makes it easier to brush the gesso into the texture of the canvas. You can apply additional coats at full strength.

If you’re only going to add a small amount of water you can probably estimate how much water to add.

However, if you prefer adding the maximum amount of water, it’s best to use a measuring cup or graduated beaker. This will make it easier to know how much water you’re adding to the gesso which ensure you won’t add too much water.

To create 1 cup of diluted gesso, fill up the measuring cup with 3/4 cup gesso and add as much water as you want without going past the 1 cup mark and mix it with a stirring stick or palette knife.

Make sure that you keep the measuring cup in your studio and never use it to measure food or beverages. Label it “Not for food” or something similar.

If you add enough water to reach the 1 cup mark then that’s the maximum 25% dilution. I’ve tried this exact ratio and it produces a gesso that’s quite thin, so I don’t see a benefit of adding more water.

The Best Brushes for Applying Gesso

brushes for gesso
House painting brushes can be used for applying gesso. Avoid the chip brushes, shown at right.

Applying Gesso With House Painting Brushes

I recommend buying a house painting brush for applying gesso. A good house painting brush can take a lot of abuse, and they’re relatively inexpensive in comparison to your art brushes. They have stiff bristles that will make it easier to work the gesso into the texture of a canvas.

Look for a brush that doesn’t shed bristles. Avoid the inexpensive “chip brushes” because they tend to shed bristles into the paint. The bristles also have a tendency to splay and become misshapen.

When a bristle does come loose, you’ll want to pick it out of the wet gesso before it dries. Then you can brush over any marks in the paint to smooth it out. If you were to allow the bristle to dry on the surface of the painting it will be visible in the painting. It’s possible to pick out the bristle after the gesso dries but it will leave a mark.

A house painting brush can make quick work of applying the gesso to a large canvas. For smaller canvases you can use an inexpensive nylon brush from a craft store. These brushes contain nylon bristles and they’re made for painting with acrylics.

Wash the brush out with soap and water when you’re done, and make sure to clean the bristles near the ferrule as paint tends to build up there. You may want to read my post for other tips on how to make your paint brushes last longer.

Applying Gesso With a Paint Roller

For a smooth finish, apply the gesso with a foam paint roller. I recommend the small paint rollers (link to Amazon) because they use less paint and they’re easier to handle. The have the regular roller covers and the smoother ones made from foam.

The foam roller leaves less texture on the canvas than the regular roller covers that you use for painting walls.

Gray gesso is applied to canvas with a foam paint roller.
A small foam paint roller can be used to apply gesso to canvas.

Depending on how thick the gesso is, you may have to dilute it to get it to roll on smoothly. The thickness of the gesso varies by brand so you’ll have to experiment with how much water to add. The maximum dilution of 25% water is far too much.

A small paint roller tray from the hardware store may be helpful. Otherwise, you can just pour a small amount of the gesso onto the canvas and smooth it out with the roller.

How Long Does It Take for Gesso to Dry?

I wrote an entire blog post on how long it takes for gesso to dry. It contains an in depth explanation of the variables that will alter the drying times.

Generally speaking, gesso will dry to the touch within 10-20 minutes. The times can vary depending upon the temperature, humidity, and other conditions. You don’t want to apply additional coats of gesso while the paint still damp because you may lift the previous layer.

You can use a hair dryer or a fan to force the gesso to dry quicker.

I usually prepare canvases a day before I plan to paint on them. It’s best to wait for the gesso to dry completely before drawing on it because a moist canvas won’t accept pencil marks very well.

If you were to start painting directly in acrylics before the paint is thoroughly dry, you may pick up some of the white and lighten your color mix.

Oil paint contains linseed oil which will cause the canvas to deteriorate over time. Priming the canvas with gesso creates a barrier between the paint and the canvas. This is why I recommend that you should wait until the gesso is completely dry before starting an oil painting.

Inspect the final layer of gesso for pinholes that will allow the oils to penetrate through to the canvas. If you find any, you’ll want to fill them in with gesso.

How Many Coats Should I Apply?

The number of coats that you apply for acrylic painting is a matter of preference because the acrylic paint won’t harm the canvas. I like to apply at least two coats of gesso so that it covers the beige color of the canvas.

Oil painting is different case because the gesso protects the canvas from the linseed oil in the paint. So, I recommend applying two to three coats to prevent the linseed oil from soaking into the canvas.

One way to determine if you’ve been applying enough gesso to your canvases is to examine the backs of your old oil paintings. If they have yellow stains on the back, that’s an indication that the linseed oil has penetrated through to the canvas.

Do You Have to Prime Canvas for Acrylics?

It’s tempting to skip the step of preparing the canvas with gesso because you want to start painting.

Technically speaking, gesso isn’t necessary when painting with acrylics. However, it does provide some benefits that I discuss in great detail in my post about whether gesso necessary when painting with acrylics.

Gesso provides a surface that’s easier to draw on. It also makes the canvas stronger because it’s like adding a layer of plastic to it.

Some abstract artists like to work directly on raw canvas. The beige color of the canvas can be used as a color in the final painting. The thin paint will soak into the raw canvas which creates a matte surface.

The beige of the canvas will alter the appearance of transparent colors.

Acrylics will dry much faster on raw canvas because it’s so absorbent. You won’t have as much time for blending or manipulating the paint. The acrylic paint will dry at a normal rate once you build up a layer or two of acrylic paint.

The first few layers of paint may have a duller appearance, especially if you dilute them with water. This is because the paint will soak more into the fibers of the canvas rather than sitting on top of a layer of gesso. You can use this effect to create a stain painting that has effects that are similar to watercolor painting.

You may want to try one of the alternative to gesso if you want the paint to sit on top of the canvas while preserving the natural beige color of the canvas.

What Are the Alternative Painting Grounds?

There are a number of alternatives that you can use in place of gesso. Most of the acrylic matte mediums will work as a way to prime a canvas. The matte surface provides more tooth which makes it easier to draw and paint on.

Liquitex offers clear gesso if you require a ground with more texture than the regular matte mediums.

In my post about alternatives to gesso, I test 4 alternatives to gesso: matte medium, matte gel, and clear gesso on canvas.

These alternatives are a good solution if you want the benefits that gesso has to offer but prefer the natural beige color of the canvas.

Clear Gesso Examples

White gesso vs clear gesso
I tested pencil, charcoal pencil, conte crayons, and acrylic paint on clear gesso and white gesso for comparison.

If you want the look of painting on raw canvas then clear gesso might be what you’re looking for. It has an appearance similar to matte medium but the surface is rougher which is great for drawing mediums.

In the photo above, I applied two coats of white gesso on the left and two coats of clear gesso on the right. I drew lines across both sides with pencil, conte crayon, markers, and acrylic paint. The materials I tested are listed below.

  • HB mechanical pencil
  • Pencil hardnesses: 4H, HB, B
  • Sharpie Poster Paint Markers: Black, Red, and Blue
  • Liquitex maker: Burnt Umber
  • Conte crayon: Gray
  • Heavy Body Acrylics: Pyrrole Red & Ultramarine Blue
  • Fluid Acrylics: Quinacridone Magenta, Phthalo Blue, and Vat Orange
  • High Flow Acrylics: Quinacridone Nickel Azo Gold

The clear gesso is very similar to matte medium except it has a rougher surface. The slightly abrasive surface worked great with all of the drawing pencils. The clear gesso seems to work well for drawing.I think. I would hesitate to recommend it for the markers though because I suspect the rougher texture would cause the nibs would wear down faster than usual.

The beige color of the canvas provides a pleasing color to work on. Thin washes of color appear smoother on the clear gesso in comparison to the white.

Painting on a pure white ground has the advantage of making the transparent colors appear brighter and more saturated than on the beige canvas.

How to Tint Gesso With Acrylic Paint

You can use any type of acrylic paint to tint gesso, but I recommend using fluid acrylics. They have a thin consistency which makes it easier to mix without getting lumps.

The thicker heavy body acrylics tend to resist being mixed into fluid mixtures and you may end up with lumps of pure color in your gesso.

Gray gesso applied with a brush
Here I’m applying Gray gesso to a canvas that already has one coat of white gesso.

You can use any acrylic color that you have to tint gesso. Since you’re adding a small amount of color to a large amount of white, it will create a pastel color. Color Gesso is also available if you’re looking for a darker color such as black, red, or blue.

White gesso being tinted with black acrylic.
Gesso can be tinted with any color. Here I’m using Carbon Black fluid acrylic to create a Gray ground to paint on.

Can You Use Gesso on Paper?

Painting on paper with acrylic gesso is acceptable. You may have to stretch the paper first to prevent it from buckling. This is the same stretching process that watercolor artists use to stretch watercolor paper.

Stretching paper is an in depth process which I’ll only cover briefly here.

First, you want to wet the paper which will make the fibers expand. Allow the water to drain off and then lay the paper down on a rigid board. Then you want to staple the paper to the board before the paper dries. Place the staples roughly 2” apart along all 4 edges of the paper.

As the paper dries it will tighten which removes any buckling.

There’s gummed paper tape that you can use in place of the staples, but sometimes the adhesive gives out as the paper shrinks. The tape can even lift while you’re painting on it.

Once the paper is dry, you can apply a couple of coats of gesso. Leave the staples in place until the painting is complete. You can remove the staples when the paint is dry. The holes in the edges of the paper are distracting, so you’ll probably want to trim off the edges of the paper.

A simpler and easier option is to use a paper that’s made for painting with acrylics. I’ve tried out different acrylic papers over the years and my favorite one is the Canson Montval acrylic heavyweight paper  on Amazon. It has a texture that’s similar to cold press watercolor paper.

This paper is heavyweight and it has a sizing on it which prevents the water from soaking into it. The paper may curl slightly when you paint the first layer, but it won’t buckle. It should dry flat as the paper dries. I like to use it for smaller paintings so I don’t have to bother with stretching the paper or removing the staples.

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