How to gesso a canvas properly is one of the first things you should learn as a beginning artist.
A correctly prepped canvas will give you much more satisfactory results and prevent the frustration of the paint not sticking or the brush strokes not being smooth.
Gesso can also be used to cover mistakes or start over when you don’t like the way your painting has turned out.
Read my post on practice canvases to see how you can use gesso to cover up a failed painting.
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What Is Gesso?
Acrylic gesso is used to prepare or prime a canvas, board, paper or just about any surface for painting.
Gesso is a combination of acrylic polymer ((binder), chalk and paint pigment.
Traditionally, gesso was only white, but now it is available in black, clear and various colors. You can also add a small amount of acrylic paint to the gesso to give your project a colored base.
You can buy gesso in various sizes from 2 ounce bottles to large tubs. If you gesso a lot of canvases, the large tub is more economical. Avoid dollar store gesso as it doesn’t have enough of the necessary binders and is not usually archival.
Why Gesso a Canvas
Most pre-made canvases and canvas boards come already primed. However, some manufactures coat the canvases with a type of silicone to prevent them from sticking together when shipping.
Silicone and acrylic paint don’t play well together, so you will most likely have trouble getting your paint to behave the way you want.
Some people just wash the surface of the canvas with a damp cloth. Others give the canvas a few coats of gesso to insure good adhesion of the paint.
I prefer this Liquitex Gesso because it is economical and covers well.
I prefer to gesso all of my canvas to ensure there will be no problems with the paint sticking properly. For more information on canvases you can check out my post on how to choose the best canvases.
Most types of gesso should be mixed with a little water to enable a couple of thin coats and a smooth finish. One thick coat can be applied if you want a bit more texture on your canvas.
To thin your gesso, scoop some into a clean container and add water a little at a time.
Stir well and continue to add a little water until you have the desired consistency, usually that of thick cream.
If the gesso is already thin enough straight from the bottle or tub, just give it a good stir to get it fairly smooth.
Preparing the Surface for Applying Gesso
Prepare your canvas, canvas board or other surface by laying it flat and placing something underneath to raise it slightly off the work top.
I have used dominoes placed underneath the corners of this canvas board to prevent the gesso from getting all over my table. It’s also a good idea to cover your table with something like craft paper or a small drop cloth to catch drips.
If you are priming a canvas, you can also use thumb tacks stuck into the stretcher bars to raise the canvas off the surface.
Using a large paint brush (I prefer an old scruffy paint brush), begin applying the gesso in one direction, smoothing brush marks as you go. If you want more texture on your canvas, you can apply the gesso with a palette knife and create peaks and valleys with the gesso.
Check for missed spots and don’t forget the edges. Let the canvas dry for at least 2 to 3 hours. You can speed up the drying time with a hair dryer.
It may look and feel dry, but once you start sanding the gesso will lift off the surface if it isn’t thoroughly dry. That’s why I like to wait at least 3 hours between coats to be sure.
Once you are sure it is dry, give it a light sanding with some fine sand paper. Wipe the canvas clean and give it another coat of gesso. Skip the sanding if you are going for a more textured finish.
This time, brush in the opposite direction to ensure uniform coverage.
Once again, let dry for six to eight hours and give the canvas a final sanding.
If you are satisfied with the finish you can go ahead and begin your painting. This process can be repeated until you are satisfied with texture of your canvas.
Applying Gesso to Wood Panels
Gesso can be used on wood panels as well. Apply it the same way you would for canvas. The gesso acts as a barrier to keep the paint from sinking into the wood and cover the wood grain.
If you would like the wood grain to show through in your painting, just use a transparent gesso. It goes on milky but dries clear and helps to seal the wood letting the grain show through.
Additional Tips on How to Gesso a Canvas
- If you have mixed enough gesso to do two or more coats, it should be stored in an air tight container.
- Place some plastic wrap over the top of your container and then place the lid on tightly. You may need to add a little water to get it to the right consistency again.
- Remember to wash your brush with soap and water immediately after using it. Once gesso dries into the brush it cannot be removed.
- I usually do a few canvas at once so I will have them ready to go once inspiration strikes.
Click to print this infographic for your studio. 😊
Gesso is also great for covering up paintings you don’t like or did just for practice. Check out my post on and How To Get Past the Ugly Stage of a Painting for some ideas.
I hope I have given you some useful information and helpful hints. It seems like a lot of work, but it is worth the effort to prevent the frustration of your paint not sticking or flowing the way you want because of problems with the canvas.
If you have questions you can leave them in the comments below. You can also join our free Facebook group, Trembeling Art Creative Corner, where you can ask questions, post your work and get to know some fantastic artists from all genres and skill levels. 😊
Thanks for reading.