Gesso why and how to use it

Gesso is a perfect ground for your acrylic paintings. It isolates your canvas, panel or paper and therefore lessens the absorption of paint. It will not only save you a lot of paint, it also provides a way better painting experience. The paint will adhere more easily and will flow the way you would expect it.

Preparing canvas or canvasboard with gesso

When priming canvas or canvasboard, you can use undiluted gesso. However: some people like to apply very smooth layers, so they dilute the gesso a little bit. It’s a matter of taste.

1: In the initial stages gesso dries fast. It’s important to cover the canvas quickly. Use a spalter (or other big brush) and quickly cover as much of the canvas. Don’t mind the brushstrokes at this stage.

First try to cover the canvas as quickly as possible

2: When all of the canvas is covered, try to spread the gesso as evenly as you can.

3: To finish just make some horizontal strokes and vertical strokes. Apply as little pressure as possible. Let the spalter barely touch the gesso. At the end of the stroke lift it up and start a new stroke from the other side.

Last strokes: don’t use pressure

4: Leave your canvas to dry for at least 24 hours. Although gesso dries quickly in the initial stage, it takes more time to be completely dry through and through.

Preparing paper with gesso

When you want to use gesso on paper, it’s better to dilute it with some water. Also use paper that is suitable for acrylic paints. Although you can paint on all kinds of paper, a thick quality paper is way better of course.

1: Attach your paper to a wooden plank with painters tape.

Attach the paper with painters tape

2: Put some gesso on a pallette, old plate or something similar (at least a non-absorbant surface).

3: Add and mix some water to you gesso. Usually something like 1 part water against 3 parts water is good.

Mix the water and gesso

4: Use a spalter or wide brush to quickly cover the paper. Don’t mind the brushstrokes at this stage.

Cover the paper as quickly as possible

5: When everything is covered, try to even it out. After that, make brushstrokes from one side to the other while applying as little pressure as possible. Lift the spalter at the end of the stroke and start the next stroke from the same side as the previous ones.

6: Don’t worry if your paper starts buckling! Leave it to dry at least 24 hours and most of the times your paper will straighten out perfectly. If it doesn’t: just loosen the tape and re-attach.

7: Enjoy painting!

Enjoy painting!

Cleaning your brush

First wipe excessive gesso off with a (paper) towel as much as you can. You can moisten the brisles, then again use a towel. Repeat this process until nearly no gesso comes out of the bristles anymore, then rinse with water. This way you hardly pollute the water.

Gesso on less suitable paper

As said before: for the best painting experience use acrylic paper or other kinds of heavy weight paper.

But sometimes you may want to try out simple things and don’t want to waste expensive paper. In those cases you can just gesso less suitable paper as well. Chances are that you get more buckles, but sometimes that doesn’t matter.

Whenever I want to try out things I just put a coat of diluted gesso on some sketchbook pages.

Gesso in sketchbook with cheap paper

Adding color to your gesso

When you apply a coat of gesso, you can at the same time take the opportunity to give it a certain color, so that you can make a toned ground. Read more about the advantages of a toned or colored ground here.

Painting on top of a colored ground. In this case gesso mixed with burnt sienna.

Watch the video

I’ve also made a video about the benefits and use of gesso:

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