When it comes to painting, many people like to jump right in and start applying layers of acrylic or oil paints on their canvas, when in reality, they’ve skipped a crucial step.
Before you apply anything else on your clean, bright canvas, the first thing you need to lay on is a nice layer of gesso, and here’s why.
Gesso is a primer medium that has been used for centuries due to its advantageous ability to seal porous surfaces, such as canvas. As a result, it provides a solid, smooth surface for easy paint application and even adds some of its texture. Therefore, gesso should be applied as an initial canvas primer for the reasons previously listed and many others.
If your artistic passions lie with canvas paintings, we strongly recommend you use gesso, which is why we’ve dedicated this entire article to listing its benefits.
We’ll discuss using gesso properly, what this material is made of, and when you should and shouldn’t use it as a canvas primer.
Reasons Why Gesso Should Be Your First Canvas Layer
It isn’t uncommon for painters to struggle with painting on canvas if they haven’t heard of and/or used gesso before. We think it’s about time that changed.
Applying gesso to your canvas is the first step to making any canvas painting process easier for our detailed reasons below.
There are several benefits to using gesso on canvas when painting, but the most notable advantages are that gesso provides:
- an even surface for easy application of other painting mediums
- a more manageable absorbency level of the canvas
- a unique texture many artists prefer for their artwork
- canvas protection
Even a thin layer of gesso on your canvas could be the extra factor you needed to take your artwork to the next level.
But, if you’re still on the fence about using this material, we encourage you to read on as we cover each of its advantages in greater detail. You might find yourself convinced by the end.
Creates a Smooth, Even Canvas Surface
Arguably the primary reason why artists use gesso as their first canvas layer is because of its ability to create a smooth, even surface for future layers of paint. This is beneficial for both the quality of your painting as well as your workflow.
Gesso allows you to use more mediums, such as acrylic or oil paints, on top of each other without ruining the integrity of what you’ve already done or making it difficult to layer colors together.
Instead of slowly building up a painting with each layer, you can go right in with an opaque coat of paint.
If you were to apply acrylic or oil paint directly on top of an un-primed canvas, the absorbed mediums would make it harder lay down a smooth, even layer of paint using proper technique.
It isn’t uncommon for paints to act unpredictably when applied directly to the canvas, which is why gesso is so important.
Reduces the Canvases’ Absorbency
Gesso can create such an even surface on your canvas because it primes the surface, giving it more “tooth,” meaning your paints will more easily bind to the surface rather than seeping through the weave of the canvas.
This is a particularly common issue with oil paints since they are composed of heavier oils than regular paint, allowing them to seep into the canvas weave more easily.
As a result, the lighter paints on top of the canvas will show through, and your painting may not appear as vibrant or clean.
Additionally, without the gesso primer in place, you might find you spend a frustrating amount of time touching up or even removing paint because it won’t adhere to the canvas the way you want.
Not only is it expensive to use paints and other materials for touch-ups, but the results still might not yield the look you want, and you could be left with light patches that don’t match surrounded painted sections.
Many artists have scrapped entire paintings for reasons like this.
Applying gesso will ultimately alter the canvas’ absorbency level and make the application process much easier and less time-consuming.
Provides Useful Texture to The Canvas
The texture is an essential tool in a painter’s arsenal because it helps them add depth, creative expression, or balance throughout their piece. It also allows you to cover up some imperfections and make them into sources of character instead.
Applying gesso to canvas is a great way to start your piece off with a bit of unique texture before you’ve even applied any paint.
For instance, if you lay down a thin layer of gesso and then use a more textured brush to lay down the first layer of color, this will give it an immediately pronounced texture than if you had attempted to lay the paint without the gesso underneath.
This is because gesso can help diffuse and soften out harsh lines in your painting by creating an even surface for the paint to sit on top of, as we mentioned previously.
Alternatively, you can lay down a thin layer of gesso, let it dry, and then apply thicker layers of gesso on top to create various patterns as you please.
Different tools will help you create different textural appearances; for example, a metal brush can create a scratchy look while a sponge would reflect a stucco texture.
You can even use a damp cloth to rub back some of the dried gesso and create a fresco surface. Putty knives are great for creating clean, sharp edges with your gesso, and stamps can help you easily make numerous identical patterns.
As you can see, the textural possibilities are endless, and gesso gives you the means to create all of these without adding layers upon layers of expensive paint onto your canvas.
Protects the Canvas
Another one of gesso’s equally important benefits is its protective qualities. If you want some degree of security for your work even while you’re still painting, you’ll want to lay down at least one layer of gesso first.
Gesso also can create a protective barrier for your canvas against future materials like oils and acrylics, which will later be applied on top.
This protection is important because it allows other substances to adhere more easily without causing damage or wear-and-tear to the canvas’ fibers, reducing their longevity.
Directly applying paints to your canvas might make your artwork appear old and dull despite just finishing it days ago.
Oil-based paints are particularly problematic because as time progresses, the oil oxidizes, causing the canvas fibers to become brittle and delicate. This means your painting is unlikely to last more than a few decades.
Therefore, to prevent your masterpiece from deteriorating over time, apply a layer of gesso onto your canvas first, so your paints don’t come into direct contact with any canvas fibers.
Additional Benefits of Using Gesso on Canvas
By this point, we’ve listed some of the most influential benefits of using gesso as the first layer on your canvas. However, there are a few additional benefits we’d like to mention before moving on.
Gesso creates a smooth surface and a protective barrier between the first layers of paint and the canvas.
Therefore, when the water within the paint dries, its pigment sits properly on the gesso rather than seeping through into the canvas weave. As a result, the colors are much more vibrant and deeper than if the paints had absorbed into the canvas fibers.
Considering many artists purchase artist-grade paints for their improved pigments, it stands to reason that you’d want to see every bit of their vibrancy when applied to your canvas. So, gesso makes this investment much more worthwhile.
Another benefit of gesso is its versatility and user-friendliness. Typically, when you apply a coat of primer to any surface, you’re expected to cover the entire surface all at once for a cohesive and clean look.
Luckily, that’s not always the case with gesso. Instead, if you’re using it for texture rather than protection, you can apply this material incrementally as you work your way through your painting, section by section.
When necessary, gesso is also very easy to lift and alter, which gives you a little more freedom and a degree of forgiveness when it comes to mistakes or changing your artistic direction.
Is Gesso Considered a Paint?
We’ve talked a lot about what gesso can do for you, but we haven’t really discussed what this material even is.
Gesso originated in Italy, as indicated by its given name, which means “chalk” or “gypsum” in Italian. This is because chalk is one of the most essential components of gesso and paint pigment, and some binder.
To answer the overarching question above, no, gesso isn’t necessarily considered a paint. Instead, it is more closely related to a primer, considering its origin was to prime surfaces for oil paintings to ensure proper adhesion. At one point, it was more similar to glue in consistency than paint.
Although modern gesso looks like a thinner paint rather than a thick glue, it is considered a primer or a ground liquid for paintings rather than a pigmented paint itself. Paints typically consist of four overarching ingredients:
- solvents (liquids)
While gesso might share some of these ingredients, they differ widely overall. That is because their purposes are vastly different.
You can purchase gesso in white, black, clear, and various colors, but it isn’t used for pigments the way paint is. Its primary purpose is absorption, texture, and protection, reflected in its ingredients and how it reacts to canvas and other mediums.
What is In Gesso?
Nowadays, the gesso primer of old has changed slightly to incorporate more modern materials. Instead of being made with chalk, white pigment, and animal glue binder, such as rabbit-skin glue, modern gesso is actually referred to as acrylic gesso and consists of:
- Acrylic polymer medium (binder)
- Calcium carbonate (chalk)
- A pigment (usually Titanium white)
- Chemicals that ensure flexibility and long archival life
The chalk is really the star of gesso because it allows the material gesso to create its sought-after absorbent layer for paints as well as tooth (or texture).
The rest of these new ingredients are specifically tailored to acrylic paints, which are non-corrosive and stable over time.
Therefore, they are less of a risk to your painting’s longevity than oil-based paint, so most acrylic gesso won’t have a glue component to help it sink into the canvas fibers more easily since the acrylic paint is unlikely to damage the canvas even if it does manage to seep through.
How to Properly Prime a Canvas with Gesso
Priming a canvas with gesso is an easy process you can do with just a few simple supplies, but if you want a specific texture, you’ll want to be conscious of how you apply this priming layer.
Applying gesso to canvas is as simple as dipping a paintbrush into the gesso liquid and laying down an even layer of the primer over your canvas. However, you’ll want to make sure your canvas is properly prepared beforehand and that you’re using the proper tools.
If you’re new to gesso or are unsure of your application process, be sure to read our guide below on how to apply this primer to your canvas properly.
We’ll discuss technique, how many layers you’ll need, how long you should wait before painting on a gesso primed canvas, and more.
Prepare Your Canvas
You don’t want to lay gesso down onto a canvas that hasn’t been prepared, or it will become a difficult and messy process very quickly, and the gesso might not adhere properly to the canvas fibers.
If you purchased a canvas that has already been framed, you could skip this step. Otherwise, you’ll want to stretch and fasten the canvas tightly over a wooden frame, so it’s taught and easy to work with.
Afterward, use light sandpaper to gently sand down your canvas. This will remove any stray strands of cotton so you can apply an even layer of gesso.
When you’re done sanding, brush the canvas off with a paintbrush to ensure you have a clean and clear surface.
Wet Your Paintbrush
The next step is to wet the paintbrush you intend to use for your gesso application with water and then squeeze as much water out as you can. Wetting the paintbrush beforehand will help prevent it from soaking up excess amounts of gesso.
Ideally, you’ll want to use a gesso brush, but any soft-bristled paintbrush will do. The larger your canvas, the wider you’ll want your brush for a quick, easy, and even application. Some artists will even opt for a squeegee to ensure they have this ideal coverage more easily.
Work Your Gesso Into the Canvas
Finally, you can start painting your gesso onto your canvas. This guide focuses on creating a smoothly primed canvas with gesso, so you might need to prepare your gesso a little before you start pouring it onto your canvas, depending on its original consistency.
Its consistency should be slightly thinner than your average acrylic paint. For ideal results, water down your gesso slightly before application if you have a thicker gesso. This will help you apply thin layers more easily for a smooth, even result.
Once the gesso is optimal viscosity, pour a small amount onto the canvas and work it back and forth over the canvas in parallel strokes with your paintbrush.
Remember to keep the gesso application as even and thin as possible. You’ll be applying more layers, so you don’t need to lay all of the gesso on now.
You’ll also want to be mindful of your canvas edges, giving them their own layer of gesso and working any excess gesso that’s seeped over the sides back into the canvas using a smaller paintbrush.
If you have any drips or thick spots where it looks like there’s more gesso than necessary on the canvas, you can use a separate dry brush to smooth them out.
Wash Your Paintbrush and Let the Gesso Dry
After you’ve applied the first coat, you’ll want to leave your gesso-primed canvas to dry for at least an hour before you start applying additional coats. Leave the canvas in a well-ventilated room on a flat surface so the gesso dries evenly.
In the meantime, you’ll want to clean your gesso-stained brush to prevent the material from drying onto the brush and ultimately ruining this tool.
Most gesso is a water-based acrylic primer, so you should be able to easily wash off your brush under some warm water with the help of minimal amounts of dish soap.
However, if you have an oil-based gesso, running it under water will only make the cleaning process messier and more difficult. Instead, rinse it in denatured alcohol, and use a paint thinner to remove it.
Re-sand Your Canvas and Apply Your Second Gesso Coat
Once your canvas feels dry, you’ll want to lightly sand it again to create a smooth surface for your next application. Again, make sure you brush off any grit using a dry paintbrush before pouring more gesso onto the canvas.
From here, you can either decide to stick with one coat and start applying your paints, or you can lay down an additional coat of gesso for the ultimate protective barrier.
Personally, we recommend at least two coats of gesso on your canvas before any paint application.
For your second coat of gesso, you’ll repeat the same process as the first coat, except this time, you’ll want to paint perpendicular to your first coat. This will ensure the gesso has seeped fully into the canvas threads, and all paint you place onto is met with a gesso barrier.
Apply Additional Coats as Needed
Most artists won’t apply more than two coats of gesso onto their canvas, but sometimes, multiple coats are required to create that ideal texture.
If you want to create a canvas that is as smooth as possible for your future paints, you can apply three or even four coats of gesso in the same process as the steps listed above.
Alternatively, this is a great time for you to apply thicker amounts of gesso to create more pronounced textures you’ll paint on top of to give your art some dimension.
Some artists will even mix their gesso with colored acrylic or textured gel for more creatively textured canvases. The choice is ultimately up to you and what matches your artistic vision.
Do Pre-Primed Canvases Need Gesso?
Nowadays, many canvases are framed and primed, so artists don’t have to worry about these steps and get right into painting. It’s a convenience most appreciate and helps make painting a little more accessible to new artists.
So, considering these canvases come pre-primed, does that mean you don’t need to apply a gesso layer, or should you lay one or two on for good measure?
Whether you apply a layer or two of gesso on a pre-primed canvas is truly up to the artists. If your goal is to protect your canvas rather than adding more texture, then a layer of gesso isn’t essential. However, sometimes pre-primed canvases still lack optimal absorbency, and tooth artists want, so a layer of gesso wouldn’t hurt.
Priming a pre-primed canvas might be a precaution you’ll want to take, especially if you buy a cheaper canvas. It isn’t uncommon for lower-quality canvases to still lack a level of tooth and protection, preventing paints from being absorbed into the canvas fibers.
Therefore, if you really want to ensure that your paints lay on top of your canvas properly, we’d recommend laying down at least one layer of gesso, but it isn’t essential.
Gesso isn’t just for priming and protection. If you want to add texture using gesso, you can certainly apply it on a pre-primed canvas.
Many artists will create peaks, shapes, patterns, and more using gesso, so they don’t waste globs of paint. So, it might even be preferable to use gesso on your pre-primed canvas in these instances.
Ultimately, your canvas will perform adequately without gesso if it’s pre-primed, and higher quality canvases have a better chance of being primed with optimal tooth and absorbency; but, applying your own layer of gesso might give you peace of mind that your canvas is really as smooth and protected as you want it to be.
Gesso is a primer made from chalk, an acrylic binder, and other chemicals to create an even surface, texture, and a protective barrier on canvases and other mediums.
It is highly recommended that this primer be applied in at least two coats on any canvas to ensure no paint seeps through to the canvas fibers, ruining the material and visually degrading the paint.
The benefits of using gesso as a canvas primer are nearly limitless, rendering this one of the most versatile and essential tools to any painter.
When applied properly, gesso can help ensure paint grips to your canvas properly so you can create any artistic vision with ease and impact.