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What is Gesso?

Artist’s Corner

You’ve heard about gesso. You’ve seen ads for it. But it’s possible you’re new to the method of applying your own gesso, or even completely new to painting with acrylic. So, what is gesso, and how do you use it in your next canvas art project?

In this article, we’ll explore this unique substance and learn how to use gesso properly.

The Basic Gesso Definition

In simplest terms, gesso is a liquid primer. Gesso uses a blend of polymer, chalk, and white pigment.

You wouldn’t dream of painting your car without first applying a base. For the same reason, you shouldn’t try to brush paint on canvas without it.

Although a liquid in the bottle, it dries to create a slightly textured surface. Artists agree that the right level of preparation can make a difference; fun! Especially in the way the acrylic paint adheres to the canvas

To be sure, there are countless acrylic gesso uses. 

Is Gesso as a Canvas Primer Necessary?

This binder is a must-have addition to your art supply closet. The use of canvas primer changes the medium you’re working with. Left in its raw state, the unprimed canvas will soak up acrylic paint. This results in the creation of artwork that features blotches.

Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash

When you paint on canvas for your art project, acrylic gesso uses a perfect prime layer. It creates the ground, preparing nearly any surface for painting. Sculptors have used it to prepare their sculptures for bronzing application.

If you reference a painter’s handbook it may suggest including this white pigment in your arsenal. The fastest way to begin your art canvas project is to use readymade paint gesso acrylic. You can apply the primer on many different surfaces, including rubber!

If you want to create artwork with precision, it is a must-have art supply, as there are many uses for gesso.

How to Make Gesso When You’re One of the Old Masters

How to make gesso has changed over the centuries. When the Old Masters worked with oil paint, they applied primer to their canvas. Back then, it was a product derived from rendered animal skins in the form of a glue binder.

It was often used as the binder for egg tempera. Doing so resulted in a glue-like mix spread over the material. It would give “tooth” to the smooth surface and allow for the adhesion of the paint. This allowed for skillful layering.

The Old Masters of Art used Gesso many years ago using a product derived from rabbit skin as a glue binder.

As you might imagine, today’s gesso does not come from animal skins. Rather, it’s a combination of fillers and pigment.

Depending on the product chosen, you may have more of one or the other. You might choose thick or runnier versions of the product. It all depends on your paint style and personal preference.

What is Acrylic Gesso Used For?

You’re probably wondering: exactly what does gesso do? And to that end: what is gesso for?

There are no gesso substitutes for the acrylic artist that know. When working with a canvas of any type, you’re dealing with a piece of fabric. Consider how much of your acrylic paint the fabric soaks up. Without this primer, there’s nothing that prevents the paint from soaking into the weave.

What is gesso used for when you don’t want that to happen? For starters, it seals the fibers of the canvas. They won’t soak up the acrylic paint as an untreated canvas would. That’s because the gesso gets absorbed instead of the liquid paint.

Besides that, it creates a slight texture, depending on how it is applied. This process allows the paint to adhere to the canvas with precision.

The most critical aspect is the level of control that this binder gives you. Add one layer of it, and you might get some soaking. Add several layers, and you prevent it.

Best of all, vary your use of it based on the artwork you intend to create. This medium is an ally for the artist who likes total brush stroke control.

Is it possible to prime your stretched canvas without the use of gesso? Some hobbyists have played around with different solutions. They found that watered down matte acrylic has some properties of it.

Warning: it will not give the canvas the tooth or bite of a matte finish that makes the paint adhere so well. It’s fair to say that gesso is the best solution for priming a surface, as this is one of the intended primary uses for gesso.

So what is acrylic gesso used for? Turns out: lots of things.

Homemade Gesso Substitutes

Let’s be clear in stating that there’s no good substitute for commercial gesso. A case in point is Breathing Color ready-made Gesso. It has gone through two years of development to arrive at its consistency. Besides that, it’s affordable.

It is possible to make a product that mimics some of its properties. Begin by mixing a cup of white glue or acrylic polymer with a cup of warm water. After thinning the glue, you add two cups of plain white paint. This gives you a slurry of thin consistency.

Next, add a cup of talcum powder. This product mimics the texture that the original gesso would.

After mixing everything, strain it to prevent clumps from forming. Place it in a jar and keep a tight lid on it. It dries fast.

Play around with the ratios a little to get your preferred consistency.

How to Prime Canvas for the First Time

What is gesso acrylic paint but a coat of canvas primer you apply before you start painting? It makes sense that you need to let it dry. But how long is sufficient?

Wait one hour between applying additional coats.

Many acrylic artists have a formula that they swear by. It may require multiple layers of gesso to achieve it. You need to wait in between each coat for optimal further adhesion.

Wait until the additional coats are dry to the touch. Experienced artists will look for lift. If there is any, then the product isn’t ready. If there is none, then you’re ready to go.

When you work with oil paints, you can’t take any chances. Wait 24 hours from the time that you applied the last coat of gesso. Time your paint application, even if the canvas doesn’t feel tacky to the touch.

Remember that room temperature and moisture can change those times around. Besides that, different types of gesso may not dry the same. If you’re changing types or brands, work with a test canvas for the best results.

The drying time varies depending on the way that you apply it. Use fine-grit sandpaper in between applications. It will add a little extra time to clean the sanded sealant off of your canvas.

Note that Breathing Color’s Artist Gesso was specifically formulated to clump when sanded, instead of turning into a fine powder, making the cleanup process that much easier. The smoother you make the surface of the canvas, the longer the drying time will be.

Should You Apply Gesso to a Store-Bought Canvas?

Nine out of ten times, store-bought canvas products have a layer of primer applied. The seasoned artist knows not to only rely on this layer.

It all goes back to your objective. What may work for others may not work for you. Essentially, this is what gesso is for. If in doubt, apply another layer of the primer.

For more precise brush stroke control, add an extra layer. We recommend light sanding of the canvas between each coat of primer. Remember to brush off the excess dust. This will ensure the results match your expectations.

Is Gesso a Type of White Paint?

What is gesso paint but a tinted primer? To this end, manufacturers like to use white pigment for the tinting. Many other brands dry clear or create a semi-opaque sheen that slightly whitens the canvas.

It’s not a good substitute for white paint. In fact, some types of tint primers aren’t white at all. There are black and various colorful versions on the market. These types will vary between manufacturers including their purpose.

Close Up of Breathing Color’s Artist Gesso on Wide Brush For Canvas Application

→ Want to try out Breathing Color’s Professional Gesso for yourself? Click here to shop Gesso and start producing beautiful canvas art today!

Frequently Asked Questions

What is acrylic gesso?

Gesso is a liquid primer you apply before painting on canvas. It dries to create a textured layer giving tooth to your medium.

What is acrylic gesso used for and who should use it?

Gesso is essentially a sealing layer for your canvas. It can be used by both professional and hobbyist artists alike.

Can you use Modge Podge instead of Gesso?

Contrary to popular belief, you should not use Modge Podge instead of Gesso. Modge Podge is a sealer as well as a sticky adhesive.

Can I paint without gesso?

You can certainly paint without gesso but the results may be unwanted. Without gesso, acrylic paint will soak through and create blotches.


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