What to Know About Gesso

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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 of these. It is used as a primer by painters to coat their canvas preparing it to receive either acrylic or oil based paints. Gesso makes the surface of 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 a variety of colors or you can tint it in a color of your choosing by simply mixing a little bit of acrylic paint to it. Traditionally gesso primer has always been white and still remains 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 or in large tubs or jars. Squeeze bottles can squeeze out primer directly onto the canvas. It can then be smoothed out using a brush. Primer that comes in a jar, allows you to stick a priming brush paintbrush right into the jar and be applied to canvas. It is also available as a spray that can be sprayed directly onto the canvas. There is no need for a brush. Lastly gesso primer also comes in powder form that will mix into gessoes to make them heavier, thicker, and more opaque and textured.

How Does It Work?

gesso canvasIt 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 then it can painted on 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 amount of brush strokes.

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