What Is Gesso And How To Use It On Canvas

What is gesso

When painting a wall a primer is applied, when painting a car a primer is applied, and when painting in art a primer is also applied to the painting surface first. Priming the canvas protects the canvas from decay in the long term and reduces its absorbency. If the surface is not primed before applying the paint, the paint layer lies directly on the canvas and attacks the fibre.

However, the canvas primer can also be used in creative ways to lend the painting surface texture. An uneven ground is a good basis for creating abstract art or relief-like pieces.

In this article you will learn what is gesso and how to use gesso. We are also taking a look how you can prime a canvas with gesso step by step to achieve the best results according to the desired use case.

What is gesso?

A canvas is usually primed with Gesso, a mixture of chalk, white pigment and a binder. The specific formulation varies depending on the gesso you use. The most common gesso is the one used in acrylic and oil painting.

You can use particularly thick gesso to create sculptural surface structures similar to a modeling paste.

What you need to apply it

You only need to apply a primer like gesso if your painting surface has not been primed by the manufacturer or if the primer seems too thin to you. All painting papers or stretched canvases can be primed.

Taking a careful approach to priming the surface seems to be absolutely necessary if you are planning an ambitious work that you or a buyer wants to enjoy for a long time without any deterioration of quality.

Besides the painting surface you will need:

  • Gesso
  • Painting sponge or large brush
  • If necessary small bowls for the Gesso

Instructions on how to use gesso on canvas

Texture with gesso
Via Faith Fulbright / Shutterstock.com
  1. First you should sort yourself out. Exactly like before any painting session, you should arrange the materials you need close at hand so that you don’t have to waste time sorting equipment during the priming process. You can dip the brush directly into the gesso container or you can put enough gesso in a bowl to be able to dip a large brush or sponge more easily.
  2. Apply the first layer either vertically or horizontally on the canvas. Be careful not to change direction or paint criss-cross in order to achieve an even result. When the entire surface is covered with gesso, let it dry before proceeding with the second layer.
  3. The second layer is applied in a perpendicular direction to the first layer. If you applied the first layer horizontally, the second layer is applied vertically (or vice versa). After applying it, let the gesso dry.
  4. If necessary, you can repeat this process. Generally two or three layers of gesso are sufficient to fully prime the canvas.
  5. Depending on the desired effect, you can work your last layer in a relief style or apply it smoothly and then sand it to a smooth texture. A structural surface provides an excellent starting point for an abstract work, whereas a perfectly smoothed priming coat can be used in photorealistic painting, for example. Alternatively, you can mix the last layer of Gessos with a little water and a gloss medium to create a slightly shiny surface for Fluid Art.

Gesso in different colors

Gesso is traditionally a white liquid, but Gesso primers are now also available in other colors to help you prepare your canvas. In particular transparent and black gesso is often used to create different works or to paint a negative image.

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