Gesso is an important art supply which prepares (“primes”) the surface for painting. It dries hard, making your painting support stiffer, slightly textured and ready to accept Acrylic Paint. Without gesso, the paint would soak into the weave of the canvas.
The great thing about gesso is that you can apply it not only to the canvas, but to almost any surface (for example wood), and then you can paint on that surface with acrylic paint.
Modern acrylic gesso is a combination of calcium carbonate (chalk) with an acrylic polymer medium (binder), a pigment (titanium white) and other chemicals that ensure flexibility, and ensure long archival life.
You can buy gesso from any art supply shop (however, you can make a homemade gesso, it’s cheaper to produce and can be adjusted to personal needs and tastes, however, it’s not needed when you are first starting painting).
Different types of Gesso
Grade. Just like in paint, there are two different grades of gesso: Artist grade and Student grade. The difference between the two amounts to the different ratios of pigment and filler. As with paints, the differences are reflected in the price, and also in the quality.
Artist grade has more pigment, higher opacity and is normally making it thicker than Student grade.
Student grade contains the lower quantity of pigment and more filler than the Artist grade. Student grade is usually available only in white.
If you are painting onto a raw canvas the artist quality would be best due to the increased opacity. For adding a bit more absorbency to a pre-primed canvas student quality would be fine (you can always add a bit more white pigment to it).
Colors. Gesso is traditionally white, but you can buy premixed black, colored, and clear gesso. You can also tint your gesso to make it any color you want: just mix a little bit of acrylic paint to it!
Consistency. The consistency and texture of gesso vary from brand to brand. Some are more liquid and others are thicker. Some apply more smoothly and others leave a more textured, toothy surface. You’ll have to experiment with different brands to find the one you like best.
Gesso is also available as a spray. What is gesso spray? You shake the can and spray the gesso directly onto your canvas, with no need for a brush.
What about pre-primed canvases?
“Pre-primed” means “pre-gesso”, so it already has a gesso layer applied in the factory. You can buy pre-stretched and pre-primed canvas (this will be indicated on the packaging), so you can start painting them with acrylics without any extra steps. By the way, most of the pre-stretched canvases are pre-primed.
Do you need to gesso it? This step is unnecessary, however, sometimes you may feel that the canvas lacks tooth and absorbency, especially if it a cheaper canvas. Therefore give the canvas another coat or two of gesso, and enjoy the difference!
How to use Gesso?
Using gesso is easy. The only thing you really need to care about is to make sure that you cover the entire surface of the canvas evenly. Follow these simple steps to prime the canvas:
- Buy a tub of premixed white gesso and give it a stir.
- Use a wide, flat brush. The bigger your surface, the bigger brush you will need.
- The first coat always needs to be diluted with a touch of water. Thinning gesso with water will make the layer more smooth.
- Apply the gesso in even strokes. Work from the top to the bottom of the canvas, in parallel strokes from one edge to the other.
- To ensure a nice, smooth coat, make sure you go over the surface enough times with the brush to make the gesso sink evenly into the canvas.
- Allow to dry, turn your canvas 90 degrees (to ensure even coverage), then apply a second coat. This can be applied thinly and does not be watered down.
- Turn your canvas 90 degrees again, and apply a final coat using the pure, undiluted gesso.
- If you want to create a really smooth coat, use sandpaper to gently sand in between each layer. Make sure the surface is completely dry before sanding.
- Wash your brush out immediately in running water then use a brush cleaner to thoroughly remove the gesso out. It’s worth cleaning it twice even if you think it’s clean.
Tip: You can mix gesso with texture gel to create a textured surface for your painting.
There are too many different brand available out there. I’ve tried a lot – student and artist grade – and came up with the winner. Gold goes to Liquitex Professional Gesso! Great quality for reasonable price. You can check my review of this product here.
Gesso is a great art tool, and it is popular among artists for a reason. Still, using gesso and pre-primed surfaces, or paint on raw canvas is totally up to you. It all depends on how you want your painting to look. I prefer primed support, but recommend you to try both just to see the difference in the painting process and the final look. Certain styles of contemporary painting might actually benefit from painting directly onto a raw canvas.
If you have any question about gesso, please leave a comment below! I would love to help you, as well as to talk about art 🙂