What to Know About Gesso

Gesso is one of those must-have art supplies that every artist needs to have on hand, and this is what you should know about it.

Gesso is pronounced: ges·so  /ˈjesō/. Singular: gesso; plural: gessoes. The word “gesso” is a noun; however, many artists also use it as a verb. For example: “I need to gesso my canvas before I start painting.”

What is it?

Gesso is a white paint mixture consisting of a binder mixed with chalk, gypsum, pigment, or any combination. It is used as a primer by painters to coat their canvas, preparing it to receive acrylic or oil-based paints. Gesso makes the surface of the canvas slightly textured so the paint will better adhere to it. Without this layer of primer, the paint would soak into the weave of the canvas.

Gesso also comes in various colors, or you can tint it in a color of your choosing by simply mixing a little bit of acrylic paint with it. Traditionally gesso primer has always been white and is the most popular. However, these days you can find it readymade in black, clear, and colored varieties.

Gesso comes in two grades; student and artist grade. The difference between student and artist grade acrylic gesso is in the amount of white pigment in it. More pigment means it will be more opaque and cover better in one or fewer coats. The amount of filler in the primer is another difference. Filler is essential for tooth and absorbency.

Gesso primer comes in squeeze bottles, large tubs, or jars. Squeeze bottles can squeeze out primer directly onto the canvas and then be smoothed out using a brush. Primer that comes in a tub or jar allows you to stick a priming brush right into the container and be applied to canvas.

How Does It Work?

about gessoIt works like this. Gesso is first painted onto the canvas to seal and prime it before paint is applied. Once dry, it serves as a protective layer to protect the canvas from certain elements in paint that could otherwise damage it. Gesso dries to a matt, gritty surface that provides adhesion for paint. It can be sanded to obtain a smoother finish. Gesso can be applied to just about any surface and may be painted with acrylic or oil paint.

When priming a canvas with Gesso, it should be applied in layers, allowed to dry, and then lightly sanded between coats. Each layer will take about an hour to dry. When applying the various layers, be sure to brush strokes horizontally for the first coat and then vertically for the next, or vise versa. The primer may be thinned with water to reduce the number of brush strokes.

Additional Reading

The Many Types of Oil Painting Surfaces

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UPDATED: 15 March 2021

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