Do you know what you and medieval Italian have in common? It’s gesso. It’s safe to say that you might not be too familiar with it, which is why you’re here. I’m pretty sure that you’ve also got some questions about using gesso for acrylic paint.
If you’re a beginner, you might be a little hesitant using gesso for acrylic paint. But this popular material is no great mystery. All you need to do is arm yourself with a couple of tips and tricks.
Luckily for you, we’re going to explore all of your questions. Buckle up!
Part One: Preparation
Step One: Understand Traditional Gesso
Gesso’s purpose lies mainly in its performing as a paint’s adhesive. It serves as a base to prep for any number of mediums, including wood panels and canvas.
Historically, gesso was applied profusely in oil paintings. It was used to prime a surface, which helped it adhere to oil paint. When applied, it would protect the fibers of the canvas, providing a reliable surface. That way, the canvas wouldn’t crack if rolled.
For example, take a look at medieval and Renaissance tempera paintings. Artists initially coated the paintings’ surfaces with a film of rough gesso, which was made of coarse plaster.
Then, the surfaces were covered with a series of finishing gesso layers. Made of fine plaster, the finishing gesso left the paintings’ surface opaque and reflective.
Step Two: Understand Modern Acrylic Gesso
What about acrylic gesso? While historically used by oil painters, acrylic gesso is the gesso widely used today. Modern acrylic gesso is a mix of a binder, pigment, chalk, and some other chemicals. All of these components together guarantee paintings for a long lifetime.
Notice how the glue is absent from acrylic gesso. This is because acrylic paints are non-corrosive and durable, which means you don’t have to worry about canvas damage to the paint. This renders the addition of glue to gesso useless. (Remember, traditional ‘glue’ gesso oil soaks up in canvas fibers, and helps protect them over time from the corrosive nature of the oils.)
There’s an array of gesso containers in art stores nowadays. These modern containers contain what’s considered a particular variety of acrylic gesso. After all, acrylic gesso quickly became the most widely used painting ground for acrylics as well as oil paints.
It’s easy to understand why: it’s inexpensive, straightforward to apply, dries up very quickly, and is effortless to clean.
Gesso bottles can be a bit tricky. To make sure that what you’re holding in your hands is acrylic gesso, scan the ingredients of the container. Decent art supplies manufacturers often make their contents clear.
Step Three: Buy a Gesso Primer
Here’s a common question from acrylic painters: is it mandatory to use a gesso primer?
Technically, it’s not. But it certainly won’t harm your work. Gesso primers allow for nicer, more absorbent surfaces. Its features can yield excellent results if you’re working with board or raw canvas.
However, applying a gesso primer on a pre-primed canvas is unnecessary. Remember: your pre-primed canvas already has a layer of gesso on it from the art store.
When you purchase a pre-primed canvas or panel, you’ll find that it’s already been primed using acrylic gesso.
This isn’t a surprise. Like we said earlier, acrylic gesso has been the most commonly used painting base that artists use. Manufacturers often use up to three coats of gesso to get even coverage.
What that means is that you don’t have to do anything with store-bought, pre-printed canvases. They’ve already been armed with gesso.
Part Two: Working with a Canvas
Step One: Prepare Your Canvas
When working with gesso, you can always experiment with its different possible consistencies. There are various measures of thicknesses that you can whip gesso into. However, you’ll find that applying it in a dense cream consistency is best.
Some acrylic gesso types in the container are already available in thicker consistencies. Therefore, you’ll need to dilute them with water.
If you have the appropriate consistency, all you need is a stiff-bristled brush. Then, apply the gesso to your bare spread canvas.
It would help if you’d avoid using those extremely cheap brushes. Otherwise, you could seriously harm your painting surface.
Step Two: Prime Your Canvas
Wondering how to gesso a canvas? Here you go:
- Mix the gesso until it forms a proper consistency.
- Make sure to use water, and only when needed.
- While working quickly, smear a thin layer of gesso over your canvas.
- Keep working until the canvas is completely covered.
- Wipe the brush off.
- Brush back and forth over the surface.
- Pop any bubbles.
- Uniformly lay down the paint.
- The brush should be perpendicular to the canvas, barely reaching it.
- For optimal evenness, use a cross-hatching pattern.
- Once dry, sand-paper your surface slightly.
- Repeat steps 1-4 until the surface you prefer is obtained.
Step Three: Look After Your Canvas
It’s tempting to apply a lot of gesso all at once. However, if you paint it on thin layers with sanding in between, you’ll reach a much better finish. Consider thinning the gesso with water, and layering on the canvas evenly and thinly.
You should repeat the priming/sanding process enough. This way, you’ll end up with an incredibly smooth surface. But if you want a completely smooth surface, you should only be operating on a plate.
Don’t sand the gesso to the touch once it’s dry. For optimal results, the gesso is best left to dry overnight. You’d notice that acrylic paints like acrylic gesso can feel dry to the touch. However, if you try to wash them, they will become gummy. Remember: stay patient.
Part Three: Working with a Panel
Step One: Prepare Your Panel
Acrylic gesso will enable you to paint in no time. One or two coats are all you’ll need to paint the board. However, you should remember that achieving a smooth surface is nearly impossible if you’re using a brush to apply gesso.
What you want to use is a paint roller. It’ll help you achieve the smoothest results. And if you spray your gesso, you’ll end up with even better results.
When shopping, you should think again before you catch one of those large paint rollers. They are more suitable for walls. People who tried them know that they’ll yield an orange peel texture on the stand. Instead, opt for a 6-inch foam roller that doesn’t have a nap at all for the smoothest result.
You may want to sand the panel gently to make sure that the gesso has ample teeth to hold on. This is especially the case in some Masonite boards and tempered hardboards with hard, super-smooth surfaces.
Step Two: Prime Your Panel
Get your panel ready. Is your gesso out yet?
- Sand the surface of the panel gently.
- Clean up the dust with damp, lint-free cloth off the surface.
- Mix the gesso until it reaches the right consistency.
- Roll the gesso on evenly, flat on a table.
- Once dry, sand-paper slightly.
- Repeat steps 1-4 for a shiny white surface once more.
Step Three: Look After Your Panel
It would be best if you’d wait until the first layer of gesso is removed. Then, you should try to smooth out any gritty patches with low-grade sandpaper.
To get a satisfactory result, apply a second coat of foam roller to gesso. After it dries, wash it over again. Apply a minimum of 2 coats of gesso and sand in between.
If you’re working with a basswood panel, don’t hesitate to follow the same set of instructions. The only extra thing you’d have to do is prime the back of the panel.
Using Gesso for Acrylic Paint, Is It Really Needed?
So, is gesso necessary? That depends on what type of paint you’re working with. For example, you’re not required to use gesso while working with acrylic paints.
Nonetheless, a raw canvas is very absorbent. It isn’t for most painters’ brushing styles. Raw canvas soaks up all of the paint’s liquid. It’s best suited for reaching a “staining” effect, rather than blending.
So acrylic painters don’t need to use gesso, but they’ll probably want to.
Why? When oil comes into contact with raw canvas, the canvas becomes brittle with time and eventually disintegrates. This is commonly called a “rotting canvas.” This is why oil painters should always include a barrier of sorts between the paint and the raw canvas.
When there’s no barrier, oil paints can rot a canvas. Many oil painters move past this problem by employing acrylic gesso to use. By priming their canvases with it, they create a barrier between the canvas material and the oil paints.
If you’re just getting started, don’t bother with complicated and costly oil painting primers. Instead, try to stick to something more accessible. It’s better to spend your efforts mastering the basics at first.
Using Gesso for Acrylic Paint may not be the same as the actual gesso used by medieval oil painters. Nevertheless, it provides an excellent base for any painting medium. There are even different colors: white gesso, black gesso, clear gesso, etc.