Non Acrylic Alternatives to Gesso

Paint on Raw Canvas

If you work with acrylics, you have the option of working on canvas without priming it. Many abstract artists use this to their advantage. Diluting acrylic paint will allow it to soak into the fibers of the canvas, similar to a watercolor painting on paper. You can use the color of the canvas in your paintings as part of the design.

The surface of the canvas contains a substance that repels water, so you may want to wipe it down with a wet sponge to remove it before you begin painting. Whether or not you allow the canvas to dry before you start painting depends upon if you prefer painting on a wet or dry surface. Many watercolor artists work “wet into wet” which creates soft edges as the paint expands into the wet areas.

Painting directly on raw canvas has a unique look, but it’s not for everybody. In the following link, I wrote extensively about the advantages and disadvantages of painting on raw canvas.

Rabbit Skin Glue

Rabbit skin glue was used in the past and some painters still prefer it over gesso. You can only use it for oil paintings, it’s not recommended for painting with acrylics. Typically you size the canvas with rabbit skin glue, then use an oil painting ground to create a white surface.

I don’t recommend using rabbit skin glue, even as a sizing for oil paintings. Rabbit skin glue has a reputation for causing cracks in paintings. Apparently, it expands and contracts with the changes in the humidity. Years of expansion and contraction causes cracks to form in the layers of paint on top of it.

I tried priming a canvas with rabbit skin glue when I was in college and it wasn’t the best experience. It’s also not the most convenient material to work with. You have to mix it with hot water to dissolve the granules. According to the PDF instructions for using rabbit skin glue from Williamsburg, you don’t want to boil it or else it will lose its adhesive qualities. Once you prepare a batch of it, it’s best to use it up. Rabbit skin glue doesn’t have a long shelf life.

Since it’s made from the collagen of dead rabbits, it can take on an unpleasant smell. However, this may be related to the age of the granules which can go rancid in time.

Finally, there’s the ethical question of using art materials that are made from animals when there are many animal free alternatives available. The alternatives are easier to use and less prone to cracking. In my opinion, the acrylic mediums are a better choice but this is a decision that you have to make for yourself.

Oil Painting Grounds

If you’re an oil painter, there are painting grounds that are oil based. However, you can’t apply it directly to the canvas. You need to apply a coat of acrylic medium to protect the canvas from the oils. Follow the instructions from the manufacturer. Allow the acrylic medium to dry thoroughly before applying the oil painting ground.

The oil grounds available from Gamblin state that the advantage is that they’re supposed to be brighter and less absorbent than acrylic gesso. Some artists like having the option of being able to wipe off a layer of wet paint. The smooth surface makes it easier to remove the wet paint than traditional gesso. If you use acrylic gloss medium as a ground, I imagine the smooth glossy surface would make it easier to wipe off the wet paint.

Obviously, you shouldn’t paint over an oil based ground with a water based paint such as acrylics. Painting acrylics over oil is not a sound practice.

Another disadvantage to oil painting grounds is that they take longer to dry than regular gesso.

Do I Need to Use Gesso on Primed Canvas?

No, you don’t need to gesso a canvas that’s already primed. The white canvases that you buy from the art supply store are already primed with gesso. Most of the manufacturers apply two to three coats of gesso to the canvas before stretching it.

These canvases have been sitting on the shelves for weeks or months, so the gesso has had a long time to dry. You can take the shrink wrap off and begin painting on it immediately. Additional coats of gesso aren’t required.

Some artists still prefer to apply an additional coat of gesso. The artist quality gesso that you find at the art supply store can be slightly rougher and more absorbent than what you find on store bought canvases. Another reason to apply an additional coat of gesso is if you want to create subtle brushstroke textures with the gesso. There are brands of gesso that are extra thick for this purpose.

Mixing color in with the gesso is popular with artists who prefer working on a toned ground instead of the pure white of regular gesso. Neutral gray or earth colors are popular for toning canvases.

Do You Need to Prime Canvas for Acrylic Paint?

No, it’s not necessary to prime a canvas for acrylic paints. There’s nothing in acrylic paint that’s harmful to canvas, so you can paint directly on the raw canvas itself. There are advantages to priming the canvas before you paint on it though. For example, the raw canvas will absorb the moisture from the acrylic paint faster, which makes it dry faster.

Do You Need to Prime a Canvas for Oil Painting?

Yes, the purpose of the primer is to protect the fibers of the canvas from the linseed oil found in oil paints. Linseed oil is acidic and if it’s allowed to seep into the fibers of the canvas, it will cause the canvas to break down in time.

At first, the oil will only discolor the canvas. It turns dark yellow or a golden brown color. Inspect the backs of your old canvases for discoloration. If you find dark stains then that means some of the oil is seeping through to the back of the canvas. I’m not aware of anything that you can do to prevent this from happening to your old paintings. I wouldn’t panic because it takes a long time for it the oils to affect the canvas. As long as there was at least one coat of gesso it should provide some protection.

In the future, you’ll want to adjust the way you gesso your canvases. It’s important to apply multiple coats of gesso to make sure that it’s thoroughly sealed. You want to make sure you plug up all of the tiny pinholes between the weave of the canvas.

Another tip is to make sure that you allow the gesso to dry thoroughly before painting on it with oil paints. Water and oil don’t mix, so any moisture in the canvas may interfere with the adhesion of the paint to the canvas. The drying time of gesso depends upon the humidity, temperature, and air currents of your studio. Generally speaking, gesso should be entirely dry within 24-48 hours.

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  1. Hi, I’d like to start working on some larger canvases, 1 m sq, with acrylic paint first on raw canvas then maybe finish up with oil after lot of layers of acrylic. When you use a clear acrylic size instead of rabbits skin do you get good tension? I will probably be quite rough with large brushes and pallet knifes, don’t want canvas to go floppy. I like the color of canvas without gesso.Thanks

    1. Chris Breier says:

      Hi Barry, thanks for reading my blog. Yes, the moisture in the matte medium will cause the canvas to shrink. You can also preshrink the canvas by wiping it down with a wet sponge. Let the canvas dry and check the tension. If it’s tight enough then you can go ahead and apply the matte medium or clear gesso. If it’s too loose then you may have to remove some of the staples and pull it tight with canvas pliers and staple it back down. Be careful not to rip the canvas with the pliers though. Another thing to keep in mind is the tension of the canvas will change with the humidity and temperature. Many times when I buy canvases online they arrive with some slack in them. I just spritz the back of them with water and the canvas tightens up as it dries. I hope this helps!

  2. Excellent information. Thanks a lot 🙂

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