Art History Lab

The Power of Gesso: Creating a Stable Canvas for Your Art

When it comes to painting, one crucial step in the process is preparing the surface to ensure that the paint adheres well and lasts for a long time. This preparation process involves applying a substance called gesso, which acts as a primer.

Essentially, gesso is applied to a surface, such as a canvas or wood panel, to create a porous layer that can absorb and hold paint, preventing it from seeping into the surface. In this article, well explore the different types of gesso available and their compositions.

Well also discuss the importance of using gesso as a preparatory step for painting and the differences between traditional and modern varieties. What is Gesso?

Definition of Gesso

Gesso is a white, chalky substance applied to a surface to create a surface that can hold paint. It is derived from a mixture of calcium carbonate and glue, and it dates back to the 14th century.

In the past, gesso was made using rabbit skin glue, and while some artists still use this traditional method today, modern gesso primer is more common.

Composition of Acrylic Gesso

Acrylic gesso is a popular choice for modern artists because it is quick-drying and easy to apply. The primary components of acrylic gesso are acrylic polymer emulsion, calcium carbonate, and titanium dioxide, which creates a white pigment.

The acrylic polymer emulsion, which is a type of plastic, allows the gesso to adhere to a variety of surfaces and creates a durable primer that can withstand repeated coatings of paint.

Importance of Using Gesso

Protecting the Surface for Painting

One of the main benefits of using gesso before painting is that it protects the surface being painted. Paint can seep into a surface and cause damage over time, but by applying a layer of gesso, you create a protective barrier that prevents this from happening.

Additionally, gesso creates a smoother surface, which makes it easier for paint to adhere evenly.

Comparison of Acrylic Gesso and Traditional Gesso

When it comes to choosing between traditional and acrylic gesso, there are a few things to consider. Traditional gesso is made using rabbit skin glue, and while it can create a beautiful smooth surface, it has some significant drawbacks.

The glue is susceptible to temperature and humidity changes, which can cause the surface to crack and flake over time. Additionally, it can be challenging to work with traditional gesso because it requires several coats and can take a long time to dry.

Acrylic gesso, on the other hand, is more durable and has a faster drying time. It is also non-toxic, which is important if youre working in a small space or have children present.

Acrylic gesso also tends to be less expensive than traditional gesso. However, some artists prefer the texture that traditional gesso provides, so it ultimately comes down to personal preference.


In conclusion, gesso is a fundamental step in the painting process. By creating a surface that can hold paint, it allows artists to create beauty and express their creativity.

Whether you choose traditional or modern gesso, the important thing is to take the time to prepare the surface correctly before painting. By doing so, you can ensure that your painting will last for years to come.

Pre-primed Canvases and Using Gesso

Pre-primed Canvases

Many canvases come pre-primed, but it can be challenging to determine if a canvas is primed or not. A simple way to tell is to run your hand over the surface of the canvas and feel for any rough patches or texture.

If the canvas is smooth, its likely that its been primed. Pre-primed canvases are convenient for artists because it saves time and effort in the preparation process.

Adding Gesso to Pre-primed Canvases

While pre-primed canvases are convenient, some artists prefer to add an additional layer of gesso. Adding gesso to a pre-primed canvas can help increase the absorbency of the surface, creating a more stable ground for the paint.

Additionally, adding extra layers of gesso can create texture and give the painting a more tactile feel. It can also help even out any visible imperfections in the original priming layer.

Uses of Gesso

Stable Ground for Painting

The primary function of gesso is to create a stable ground for painting, which is crucial for the longevity of the painting. Without gesso, the surface may be too porous or not absorbent enough, which can cause the paint to crack or flake over time.

By using gesso, the surface becomes less susceptible to humidity and temperature changes, reducing the risk of damage over time.

Covering Up Mistakes and Experimentation

Gesso is not just used for creating a stable ground for painting it can also be used to cover up mistakes. If you make a mistake while painting, gesso can help cover it up and provide a fresh start.

Additionally, if youre someone who likes to experiment with different mediums or techniques, gesso can help you control the paint and brushstrokes more easily. Gesso can also be used to strengthen paper for art journaling.

When working in a journal with thinner paper, applying a layer of gesso can create a sturdy surface that can tolerate heavier mediums like acrylic paint. Another use for gesso is creating a colored ground for painting.

By tinting white gesso with a small amount of acrylic paint, you can create a colored primer that acts as a base for your painting. This can help unify the color scheme of a painting and give it a unique look.

Lastly, gesso can be applied with a palette knife to create texture on the surface of the painting. By manipulating the gesso with different tools, you can create interesting effects like waves, mountains, or other natural scenes.

In conclusion, gesso is an essential substance for artists of all levels. Whether youre using pre-primed canvases or applying gesso to unprimed surfaces, it provides a stable ground for painting and helps ensure the longevity of your artwork.

Additionally, beyond its primary function, gesso offers many other possibilities for experimentation and creative expression.

Types of Gesso

Types of Gesso

In addition to traditional white gesso, there are several other types of gesso available to artists. Black gesso is a popular option for artists who want to create a dramatic background for their artwork.

It also provides a great base for metallic and opaque colors. Colored gesso can be used to create unique backgrounds and add color to the painting.

Clear gesso is a versatile option that allows the natural surface of the canvas to show through while still providing a layer of protection and absorbency.

Types of Gesso Primer

There are two main types of gesso primer: student-grade and artist-grade. Student-grade gesso is typically less expensive and has a lower opacity and absorbency than artist-grade gesso.

Its ideal for beginners who are still learning the basics of painting. Artist-grade gesso, on the other hand, has a higher pigment load and more absorbency, making it more suitable for professional artists who need a higher quality product.

Keep in mind that there can be variations in gesso products, just like any other art supply. Consistency and thickness can vary between brands and even batches of the same brand.

Its important to experiment with different types and brands of gesso until you find the one that works best for you.

Applying Gesso and

Choosing a Surface

How to Apply Gesso

Gesso can be applied using a brush or spray bottle. A brush will give you more control over the application, while a spray bottle allows for easier coverage of larger surfaces.

To achieve a smoother coat, some artists prefer to thin the gesso with a small amount of water or medium. Its important to remember that applying too thick of a coat of gesso can result in cracking or peeling.

Steps to gesso a canvas:

1. Lay out your canvas on a flat surface.

2. Shake your gesso container well, then open it and stir it with a palette knife.

3. Dip your brush into the gesso and apply it to the canvas.

4. Work in long, even strokes, going in one direction only.

Avoid going back over areas you have already covered. 5.

Let the first coat dry completely, then apply a second coat if necessary.

Choosing a Surface

When it comes to choosing between linen and cotton canvas, the main difference is in the weave and durability. Linen has a tighter weave, making it more durable and less susceptible to stretching or warping over time.

It also has a more natural look and feel, which can be beneficial if youre looking for a more rustic or traditional look. Cotton, on the other hand, is less expensive and has a more uniform weave, making it easier to work with.

Ultimately, the choice of surface comes down to personal preference and the specific needs of the project. Its also important to experiment with different surfaces to find what works best for you.

For example, some artists prefer working on wood panels, while others prefer canvas. Experimenting with different surfaces and mediums can lead to new discoveries and open up new possibilities for your artwork.

In conclusion, understanding the different types of gesso and how to apply it is essential for creating a stable and long-lasting ground for your artwork. Additionally, the choice of surface can also have an impact on the final look and feel of your artwork.

By experimenting with different products and surfaces, you can discover new techniques and styles that allow you to express your creativity to the fullest extent.

DIY Gesso Recipes and the

Importance of Commercial Gesso

DIY Gesso Recipes

While commercial gesso is widely available and convenient, some artists choose to make their own gesso at home. DIY gesso recipes allow for more control over the ingredients and the ability to customize the gesso to suit specific needs.

Here are a few common DIY gesso recipes:

1. PVA Size Gesso: PVA size, also known as polyvinyl acetate, can be mixed with water and calcium carbonate to create a homemade gesso.

PVA size acts as a binder, helping the gesso adhere to the surface more effectively. 2.

Cornstarch and Baking Soda Gesso: Cornstarch and baking soda can be mixed with white glue and water to create a simple gesso recipe. This homemade gesso is often more affordable than commercial options and can provide a smooth and absorbent surface.

3. Plaster of Paris Gesso: Plaster of Paris can be mixed with water and white glue to create a homemade gesso with a thicker consistency.

This gesso recipe is popular among artists who prefer a thicker and more textured surface for their artwork. 4.

Talcum Powder Gesso: Talcum powder can be mixed with white glue, water, and white paint to create a gesso that has a smoother and finer texture. This recipe is commonly used by artists who prefer a more refined and delicate surface for their paintings.

Importance of Commercial Gesso

While DIY gesso recipes offer flexibility and the ability to customize the ingredients, commercial gesso has several advantages worth considering. Commercial gesso is readily available at art supply stores or online, making it convenient for artists to purchase.

This availability ensures consistent quality and saves time and effort in sourcing and preparing the ingredients. Commercial gesso also undergoes rigorous testing and quality control to ensure that it meets certain standards.

The manufacturers have invested time and resources in developing a product that provides optimal results for artists. The consistency and quality of commercial gesso are often superior to homemade gesso, providing a reliable and predictable surface for artwork.

Furthermore, commercial gesso is specifically formulated to create a stable ground for painting. The ingredients used are carefully selected to ensure good adhesion, flexibility, and durability.

This attention to detail helps artists achieve long-lasting and professional-looking results in their work. Another advantage of commercial gesso is its wide range of options.

It comes in different brands, variations, and colors, giving artists the freedom to choose a gesso that best suits their preferences and artistic style. Whether you prefer a smooth or textured surface, a specific color, or a special effect, commercial gesso has options to meet your needs.

In conclusion, while DIY gesso recipes offer a budget-friendly and customizable option for artists, commercial gesso remains a reliable and convenient choice. Its availability, consistent quality, and specialized formulation make it an excellent option for artists who prioritize consistency and want to achieve professional-looking results.

Ultimately, the choice between DIY gesso and commercial gesso depends on an artist’s preferences, needs, and budget. In conclusion, understanding gesso and its role in the painting process is crucial for artists of all levels.

Gesso serves as a primer, creating a stable and absorbent ground for paint, and protecting the surface from damage. Traditional and acrylic gesso offer different benefits, with acrylic being more durable and non-toxic.

Pre-primed canvases save time, but additional layers of gesso can be added for increased absorbency and texture. Gesso has various uses, from improving adhesion and controlling brush strokes to covering mistakes and strengthening paper.

Different types of gesso, such as black, colored, and clear, offer versatility and creativity. Applying gesso can be done with brushes or through spraying, and it is important to experiment with different surfaces like linen or cotton canvas.

While DIY gesso recipes provide flexibility, commercial gesso offers convenience, quality, and a wide range of options. Ultimately, gesso plays a vital role in preparing surfaces and setting the foundation for successful and long-lasting artwork.

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