Gesso Basics 101: What is Gesso Used For?

As a beginning artist, you will probably come across the word “gesso” quite often and wonder what gesso is. Especially for people working with acrylic paint or with oil paint, it is useful to at least know the basics. If you have been working with acrylic or oil paint and don’t really know what gesso is used for in art, some alarm bells might start to ring. Don’t worry, you haven’t been doing it wrong all this time. At least, not necessarily.

What Is Gesso And What Is It Used For?

Traditionally Gesso is made with chalk, gypsum, pigment and hold together with a binder. This results in a rather thick kind of paint that can be applied to a surface to prepare it for other kinds of paint. Most notably, of course, is the canvas that most artist use to paint on.

Thankfully most stretched canvases you buy in the store nowadays are primed. This means that they already contain a layer of gesso and you can paint on them right away. However, some people still prefer to apply an additional layer of gesso to change the properties of the canvas.

Raw canvas can have a pretty rough surface. You can smooth out the surface by every layer you apply. Additionally, raw canvas will absorb all the paint you apply to it right away, making it impossible to mix paints later on or adjust things.

A big pro of gesso is that it gives you flexibility. Pre-stretched canvases that are already coated with a layer of gesso might be your first pick. But they only come in a limited range of set sizes and shapes. So if you want to paint on a circular canvas or any shape you can think of that you can’t find in the store, you will have to buy your own raw canvas and apply gesso to it.

What Is Gesso?

Before we can gesso a canvas or panel, we first need to know how to make gesso. The easiest way is to buy it in the store. If you have real difficulty finding it locally, you might search the internet for home-made alternatives you can use instead of gesso. Regardless of what you decide to do, keep in mind that there are different types of gesso.

Note that there is a difference between traditional gesso, needed for oil paintings, and the so-called acrylic gesso, needed for acrylic painting. Additionally, there is no need to buy colored gesso, since you can easily color the basic white one by mixing it with a little amount of paint.

How To Gesso A Canvas Or Panel?

Applying Gesso to any surface doesn’t need to be difficult. Although the process and results might change a little depending on which gesso you used, the general steps are as follows.

  1. Combine the gesso with water: mix the water and gesso in the ratio specified by the container and mix it vigorously. The resulting liquid should have a creamy consistency similar to melted chocolate. Make sure that there are no lumps of gesso left. If your gesso is very thick, you might leave brush stroke marks on it when applying it to the canvas. In this case, you can dilute your gesso by adding a little bit of extra water.
  2. Sanding the canvas: before applying any gesso it is good practice to lightly sand the canvas with some sandpaper.
  3. Apply the gesso: finally it is time to actually gesso the canvas. Before starting you might want to put some newspapers underneath the canvas since gesso can easily drip off the edges. Make sure your brush is not too wet and apply the gesso in parallel strokes. The trick is to do horizontal strokes during the first layer and vertical strokes during the second layer etc. You might even decide to use a squeegee if you want an extremely smooth surface. And of course, don’t forget the edges!

Those are the basic 3 steps to gesso your canvas. Normally step 2 and 3 are repeated several more times but it really depends on what surface you prefer to paint on. Depending on the roughness of the starting canvas, this can be a pretty tedious process since you only want to apply a thin layer of gesso each time.

If in doubt, check out this nice little video made by Howcast, explaining how to gesso a canvas step by step

How Long Does Gesso Take To Dry?

Of course, the drying time depends on a lot of different factors. Normally the gesso will be dry to the touch within 1 to 2 hours. So make sure to wait at least 1 hour before applying the next layer of gesso. Make sure the clean the brush you used to spread the gesso while waiting since the brush will be useless if the gesso dries up.

If the canvas has the desires texture and roughness, leave it to dry overnight. Although the surface might be dry after a few hours, the gesso underneath normally takes much longer to dry. Indeed, it takes a very long time, but nobody said it was going to be easy!

Buying Gesso

If you are brave enough to want to try prepare canvas yourself by applying gesso? There are a few things to keep in mind when buying gesso. As always, it’s best to buy a well-known gesso brand such as Liquitex or Golden.

Gesso brands normally offer artist grade or student grade. The first contains a larger amount of pigment. This, of course, makes it more expensive but you will need fewer layers of gesso when preparing your canvas. Student grade gesso is a cheaper alternative but the quality is also less and you will need to apply more layers than artist grade gesso.

Across brands, you will see a lot of difference in consistency. This consistency can influence the final canvas texture you will get. Keep in mind that thick consistency can always be diluted with a little water, but the reverse is almost impossible. If you are working with a surface that is not canvas, you might also need to adjust your gesso accordingly.

Some providers sell their gesso already in liquid form. In this case, you don’t have to mix it with water unless you want to dilute it. Others sell it in a powder form and you will have more control over the thickness.

We at The Beginning Artist recommend the Gesso by Liquitex. Their gesso can be applied to a variety of surfaces such as canvas, wood, paper and metal and their professional grade gesso normally only requires 1 coating. Additionally, their gesso can be used both for acrylic paint and for oil paint.

Although their Basic Gesso will be sufficient for most purposes, they do offer a variety of others as well. For example, their Clear Gesso can be used to paint over colored or patterned surfaces, whereas their Super Heavy Gesso can be used for sculptural application with a knife or brush.

Tired of painting canvas all the time? Consider painting on glass for a change! In the video below they apply a layer of gesso to bottles, pots and jars. This allows you to paint on glass and decorate any glasswork around the house. Obviously all those wine bottle around the house are only for creative endeavours, right?!

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