How to Prime a Canvas for Acrylics

Learn how to Prime a canvas with Gesso. When to buy ready gessoed canvas, pre gessoed canvas. How to apply acrylic gessso primer on canvas

What is Gesso?

Gesso is a white, paint-like substance that serves as a preparatory layer for various painting surfaces, including canvas, wood, and paper. It is a combination of paint and binder, like acrylic paint but thinner.

It's primary purpose is to create a smooth, absorbent surface that allows the paint to adhere properly. With a good base the paint cannot chip off, and hence artwork work can last for years. 

Gesso also helps prevent the paint from seeping into the canvas fibers, which could result in a dull and uneven appearance. It adds a high level of a tooth (rough texture) to the surface, gliding the paint smoothly. 

Before you start painting, check whether the canvas is ready enough to paint? Only a primed canvas creates a perfect base and texture for the painting to last many years. 

How do you check if the canvas is primed or not? 

Many of the stretched canvas you get in market are primmed. Even then, look at the label before you purchase a canvas board. If you see something like 'Titanium Acrylic Gesso Primed', this means it is primed with gesso.

If the title doesn't indicate anything, ask the supplier. Another way to check, if the canvas surface is a bright white color, then it is primed, and you are ready to go!

Types of Gesso

  1. Traditional Gesso: 

    Traditional gesso is made from a mixture of calcium carbonate (chalk), gypsum, and a binder such as rabbit skin glue. It has a thick consistency and provides a slightly textured surface, suitable for oil and acrylic paints. Traditional gesso requires mixing and can be time-consuming to prepare.

  2. Acrylic Gesso: 

    Acrylic gesso is the most commonly used type for priming canvases. It consists of acrylic polymer emulsion mixed with calcium carbonate or other fillers. Acrylic gesso is available in both pre-mixed containers and as a concentrate that can be diluted with water. It offers excellent adhesion and flexibility, making it suitable for acrylic paints.

  3. Clear Gesso: 

    Clear gesso is a transparent variant of traditional gesso or acrylic gesso. It maintains the absorbent properties of gesso while allowing the natural color and texture of the canvas to show through. Clear gesso is often used when the artist desires the canvas texture to be visible in the final artwork.

 Artist grade and Student grade

As the name suggests, the artist quality is higher, and hence the pigment is high. Student grade has less pigment and more filler.  Artist grade has more pigment than student grade, which makes it thicker and more opaque. I suggest you use artist quality even if you are starting out. The difference shows in the end result.

Clear and Heavy Body

Gesso is commonly available in clear, white, gray, and black colors. Clear and White gesso is widely used. But if you wish to give your painting any colored ground, add any acrylic paint to make it more pigmented.

Heavy body gesso is used for structural shapes and peaks, similar to how gels or heavy body paints are used. It would be best if you experiment with different brands to find the one you like best.

Apply a Primer to a Primed Canvas?

Yes! Some artists prefer a different smoothness and some experiment with various texture surfaces on the canvas. So they bring a primed canvas and apply gesso. You can also use a colored gesso.

Is there an alternative to Gesso?

Yes, there are a few alternatives to gesso like acrylic mediums, clear gesso, matte gel. You can still paint directly on the raw canvas without priming it if you are painting with acrylics.

If you are painting with oil, it is necessary to prime the canvas to protect the canvas from the oil. Oil makes the raw canvas brittle with time and eventually falls apart.

Steps to Apply Primer (Gesso)

Apply White Gesso on Canvas

1. Take Acrylic Gesso Primer 

Take a gesso bottle that is suitable for acrylic and oil paints. Stir the bottle thoroughly in its container using a stirrer. Before taking out gesso, check the surface and decide how many coats you want to apply, one or two.

2. Pour some Gesso

Into a plastic cup, pour just enough gesso to complete the first coat. If you are unsure how much to pour, just take a small quantity. You can take more gesso if required. Remember, gesso dries really fast. Hence, close the jar immediately after use.

3. Add water

If you are applying only one coat, do not dilute. Only if you are going for multiple coats, add water and dilute the gesso. Do not add more than 25% water for thinning. Stir well. The very first layer will penetrate the fibers of the canvas readily and will be easier to disperse.

4. Brush it on

Using a broad flat brush or a sponge brush (the bigger your surface, the bigger brush you will need), lay the gesso on the canvas, apply flat strokes, evenly dispersing the gesso from left to right, and back. Move the brush in one direction to completely cover the surface.

5. Allow it to dry 

Let the gesso dry for a few hours. Move the canvas to a different place so that it doesn't stick to the surface. Wash your brush immediately with soap and water, do not leave it unattended.

6. Sand the first coat

You should sand the gesso to create a beautiful smooth finish, apt for photo-realistic painting, sand each layer with fine sandpaper. Whenever you do this step, try to do it outside or within a well-ventilated place as particles move everywhere!

7. Apply a second coat 

If you are going to apply a second coat, use an undiluted gesso. This coat should be perpendicular to the first coat. Sometimes as you lay each brushstroke, lumps or lines of built-up gesso will collect at the edge of the brushstroke. Remove these traces using a different dry brush, and try to smooth them out.

8. Use sandpaper if required

Again sand the surface to get the right tooth.

9. Clean the brush immediately 

Wash the brush under running water. Then use a brush cleanser or soap water to get rid of gesso completely. It is worth cleaning the brush multiple times, even if you think it is clean! 

Can I begin painting on an unprimed canvas?

Yes, you can, but the surface will not be good ground and could suck up a lot of expensive paint. A canvas that is primed adds a tooth and is less absorbent. 

It becomes easy to work on the primed surface as it lets you move the brush quickly. It gives you more time to combine the paint onto the surface until it dries. If the surface is untreated, then the paint dries fast and is hard to blend. 

There is a stark difference when you paint on a primed and an unprimed canvas. The textured surface gives you the desired result when you blend or mix colors. The primed surface does make a lot of difference in the final result.

Buy a primed canvas if you do not want to prime it.

Ready-primed canvases are readily available in the marketplace. It is always a good choice if you do not want to prepare your own. They are available in the form of roll or stretched light wood frames in different sizes. 

A canvas-covered board is a cheaper option compared to a stretched canvas. You will find a variety of canvas surfaces, from very fine to coarse. 

Some Tips:

  • You can add some paint to the gesso if you are planning to paint the canvas background anyways.
  • Hardboard, paper, wood panels can also be primed with gesso before painting with acrylics or oil.
  • Most important, wash your brush immediately with water and soap. If you don't wash them, they will be ruined forever.
  •  Store the leftover gesso mix in an airtight container, so it can be reused.