Many artists prime their canvases with gesso and never consider the alternatives. There are a number of reasons why you may not want to use gesso, such as not wanting to work on a pure white surface. Some artists prefer the natural beige color of the canvas, and want it to show through in the final painting.
What are the alternatives to gesso? You can prime a canvas with acrylic mediums, clear gesso, or rabbit skin glue. If you work with acrylics, you can also paint directly on raw canvas without priming it first. Oil paints require a primer to protect the canvas from the linseed oil found in oil paints.
Below are a variety of alternatives that you can use instead of gesso. Each has their own advantages. You’ll have to experiment with them to see which ones you prefer.
Acrylic Based Gesso Alternatives
You can use acrylic mediums to prime a canvas. Gesso is basically acrylic medium with the addition of a white pigment such as calcium carbonate. It makes the surface rougher and more absorbent when it dries.
Matte acrylic mediums provide a rougher surface to work on than gloss medium, but they may dry cloudy. This depends upon the thickness and how matte the medium is. In the examples above, the ultra matte gel has the cloudiest appearance, followed by clear gesso, and matte gel. Matte medium is the most transparent of them all.
The acrylic medium will protect the canvas as well as regular gesso. There are a number of acrylic mediums available. The following are my recommendations.
For general purposes, acrylic matte medium works well for priming canvases. It has a consistency similar to gesso so it’s easy to apply to the canvas with a brush. You can thin the first coat with a little water but I find that it works fine straight from the bottle. Diluting the first coat may help it to absorb into the fibers of the canvas. Apply any additional coats of matte medium at full strength.
Matte medium is cloudy when wet, and transparent when it’s dry. However, very thick applications can dry slightly cloudy. This is because of the matting agents that they add to it aren’t as transparent as the pure polymer medium.
Acrylic gloss medium is clearer than the matte version even when you use it in a thick manner, or apply multiple coats of it.
The reason why I recommend the matte medium is because the surface isn’t as slick as the gloss medium. This extra bit of roughness makes it easier to draw and paint on. In my experience, the slick surface of dry gloss medium doesn’t take pencil marks very well. It also affects the way thin washes of thin acrylics behave. A glossy surface does make it easier to wipe off wet paint if you make a mistake though.
If you prefer a surface that’s rougher than matte medium, then you may want to try the clear gesso below, click the link to jump to the section below.
Acrylic gels are very similar to the mediums, except they’re a lot thicker. They have a paste like consistency and they’re great for building up texture on the canvas before you paint on it.
The finish that you select depends upon your preferences and the type of materials you want to paint or draw with. The matte gel dries to a surface that’s not as slick as the gloss gel. Thick layers of matte gel will dry with a cloudy appearance. This may or may not be what you’re looking for.
Some artists prefer the cloudiness of matte gels because they’re trying to emulate the look of encaustic, which is traditionally a mixture of wax and oil paint. You can even add a very small amount of a warm color to the acrylic medium make it look like beeswax. Use the gloss gels if you prefer a clearer finish.
There’s also ultra matte gel which dries to a semi opaque and matte finish. Two coats of this gel will dry noticeably whiter than regular matte gel, see the comparison photo at the top of this post.
One issue with using very thick layers of gel is that it takes longer to dry. Normally, this isn’t an issue but it can cause the impurities in the canvas to migrate into the gel and discolor it. This is called substrate induced discoloration, or SID. You can read more about how to prevent SID in Goldens technical information. Look for the section titled “Controlling SID in Acrylic Paints” in the link above.
Golden recommends applying two thin coats of gloss medium and allowing it to dry before applying thick layers of gel. The layers of gloss medium should form a barrier so you can apply thicker coats of gel on top of it without worrying about discoloration.
The matte gel works fairly well, but sometimes you need a rougher surface. For instance, various drawing materials work better on a surface with a little more tooth. It’s very difficult to draw on a smooth and glossy surface.
Clear gesso is essentially matte medium with an addition of very fine transparent aggregate. The aggregate makes it easier to create darker pencil lines. The rough surface will grab more of the pencil material as you draw. It also provides a subtle texture that paint can cling to.
One issue to be aware of is the aggregate is rougher than regular acrylic gesso and it may be create extra wear on your brushes. It has a texture that’s similar to fine sandpaper. I wouldn’t allow that to deter me from using it because all paintbrushes will wear out eventually. If you prefer the clear gesso, then just be sure not to use your most expensive brushes on it. The synthetic nylon brushes work well and they’re very inexpensive. You may be interested in reading my post about how to take care of artist paintbrushes. This post include tips and pointers for making your paintbrushes last longer, and how you may be ruining your brushes without even knowing it.