Gesso in Art – Utility, Purpose, Technique and Types

What is gesso?

Gesso is a vital art supply to get your canvas primed for painting. You can purchase gesso from any art supply store. Gesso is similar to white acrylic paint, only a bit thinner. It withers hard, making the surface stiffer. Gesso prepares (or “primes”) the body for painting, making the surface somewhat textured and ready to hold acrylic paint. Without gesso, the color would merge into the texture of the canvas.

How do I put gesso to a canvas?

Putting gesso on a canvas is simple. Get a broad, flat brush, load it up with gesso and lightly brush it on to the canvas. The plan is to cover the complete canvas in an even and smooth layer of gesso, so be sure to smooth out any bumps or lumps. It’s up to you to decide the number of coats you want for priming your canvas. Try doing several different paintings, each with a varying number of layers and see how you find each one. You’ll observe that the more coats you have, the less the paint merges into the canvas.

Do I want to prime my canvas with gesso for regularly acrylic painting?

You don’t have to necessarily prime your canvas with gesso if you’re doing an acrylic painting, though it does help to do it. If you don’t spend time priming your canvas, the paint will soak into the canvas material a lot more quickly. You’ll observe that many canvases come pre-primed – these canvases have already had a coat of gesso applied to them, so you don’t have to bother about putting gesso to them. However, if you’re used to painting with a few coats of gesso, you might want to add an extra layer or two. An unprimed canvas will give you profound staining effects.

Is there anything I can mix to gesso?

If you don’t desire a white layer for your primer, you don’t have to. While regular acrylic gesso comes in titanium white, you’ll find acrylic gessos in many different colors that are available to buy. Alternatively, you can create a colored gesso yourself; all you have to do is get a different acrylic paint color and blend it with the regular gesso before putting it to the canvas. By doing this, you can nicely prime your canvas with any color you want. If you want a more textured exterior as your primer, mix a texturing gel with the gesso before applying it to the canvas.

Varieties of gesso

As with all art equipment, you’ll find a broad variety of gesso variations. Some gesso products will give a softer effect when employed on the canvas, while others will provide more of a textured feel. 

Consistency can also vary among brands: some gessos can be quite thick and more like a solid, whereas others can be fragile and more like a liquid. You should also bear in mind the distinctions between student grade gesso and artist-grade gesso: student grade gesso usually comes in just white color and is a lot more economical, though it has less consistency and less pigment. On the other hand, artist-grade gesso is a lot more expensive, though it does come in different colors and is a lot harder than student grade gesso.

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