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How to Use Gesso: A Complete Guide for Artists


Are you an artist looking to enhance your artwork’s longevity and vibrancy? If so, then you’ve come to the right place! In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the world of gesso and explore how it can elevate your artistic endeavors. Whether you’re a seasoned painter or just starting, understanding how to use gesso as a primer is essential for achieving professional results.

Various types of gesso - traditional, acrylic, and colored.
Various types of gesso – traditional, acrylic, and colored.

Understanding Gesso

What is Gesso?

Gesso, derived from the Italian word meaning “chalk,” is a versatile primer used in various art forms. It consists of a blend of calcium carbonate, gypsum, and a binding agent, such as acrylic polymer. This combination creates a smooth and absorbent surface that prepares your chosen medium, be it canvas, wood, or paper, for painting.

Types of Gesso

  1. Traditional Gesso: This type of gesso is made by mixing rabbit skin glue with chalk or gypsum. It provides a traditional, matte finish, and is commonly used by artists who prefer a more classical approach.

  2. Acrylic Gesso: Acrylic gesso has gained popularity due to its convenience and versatility. It is the most widely used type of gesso today, as it dries quickly, has excellent adhesion, and is compatible with a variety of mediums.

  3. Colored Gesso: Colored gesso offers the added benefit of being pre-tinted, allowing you to create unique backgrounds or alter the color of your artwork from the start. It saves time and provides a solid base for your artistic expression.

Importance of Using Gesso

Using gesso as a primer offers several advantages that artists should not overlook:

  1. Improved Adhesion: Gesso creates a textured surface that enhances adhesion between the paint and the substrate, reducing the risk of flaking or peeling over time.

  2. Protection for the Substrate: Gesso acts as a barrier, preventing the paint from directly contacting the substrate. This protection is especially crucial for porous surfaces, such as canvas or wood, as it prevents the paint from seeping in and causing damage.

  3. Enhanced Color Vibrancy: Gesso provides a bright white or toned base, allowing colors to appear more vibrant and true to their original form. This is particularly beneficial when working with transparent or translucent paints.

  4. Surface Versatility: Gesso can be applied to a wide range of surfaces, including canvas, wood panels, paper, and even unconventional materials like metal or fabric. It opens up endless possibilities for artistic experimentation.

Now that we understand the fundamentals of gesso, let’s dive into the step-by-step guide on how to use it effectively.

Preparing the canvas before applying gesso.
Preparing the canvas before applying gesso.

Step-by-Step Guide on Using Gesso

Preparing the Art Surface

Before applying gesso, it’s essential to prepare the art surface properly. Follow these steps for optimal results:

  1. Clean the Surface: Ensure that your chosen surface is clean, free from dust, dirt, and any previous art materials. Use a soft cloth or brush to gently remove any debris.

  2. Sand the Surface (if necessary): If the surface is rough or uneven, lightly sand it to create a smooth foundation for the gesso. Be cautious not to oversand, as it may damage the substrate.

Applying Gesso to Different Surfaces

  1. Canvas: Apply gesso to canvas using a wide, flat brush or roller. Start from one edge and work your way across in even, horizontal strokes. Allow each layer to dry before applying additional coats for a smoother finish.

  2. Wood: Similar to canvas, apply gesso in thin, even layers on wood surfaces. Ensure that the gesso covers the entire area, including the edges. Multiple coats may be required to achieve the desired level of smoothness.

  3. Paper: When using gesso on paper, it’s important to choose a heavyweight, acid-free paper that can withstand the moisture. Apply the gesso with a brush, ensuring even coverage across the surface. Allow it to dry completely before painting.

Techniques for Applying Gesso Smoothly

  1. Brush Technique: Use a high-quality brush suitable for the surface you’re working on. Apply the gesso with long, even strokes in one direction, overlapping each stroke slightly for uniform coverage.

  2. Roller Technique: If you prefer using a roller, select one with a short nap for a smoother finish. Roll the gesso onto the surface, applying gentle pressure to ensure even distribution. Roll in one direction, and if necessary, apply a second coat once the first one is dry.

Drying and Curing Time for Gesso

After applying gesso, it’s crucial to allow sufficient drying and curing time. While drying time may vary based on factors like humidity and thickness of application, it typically takes around 24 hours for each layer to dry. To ensure optimal results, follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding drying and curing times.

Sanding and Preparing the Gessoed Surface

Before starting your artwork, consider sanding the gessoed surface lightly. This step helps smoothen any imperfections or brush strokes, providing an even base for your paint. Use fine-grit sandpaper, gently sanding in circular motions. Remember to remove any dust thoroughly before proceeding with your artwork.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is the Purpose of Gesso in Art?

Gesso serves as a crucial primer, preparing art surfaces for painting. It enhances adhesion, provides protection, and improves color vibrancy, resulting in long-lasting, vibrant artwork.

Can Gesso Be Used on Non-Traditional Art Surfaces?

Yes, gesso can be used on various surfaces beyond canvas and wood. It can be applied to metal, fabric, and even unconventional materials, expanding the possibilities for artistic expression.

How Many Layers of Gesso Should Be Applied?

The number of gesso layers depends on personal preference and the desired outcome. Typically, two to three thin layers are recommended for a smooth, professional finish.

Can Gesso Be Tinted or Mixed with Other Mediums?

Yes, gesso can be tinted with acrylic paints or mixed with other mediums to create unique effects. Experimenting with different color combinations can add depth and interest to your artwork.

Is Gesso Necessary for All Art Projects?

While not mandatory for every art project, using gesso as a primer is highly recommended. It provides numerous benefits, ensuring the longevity and quality of your artwork.


Congratulations! You’ve now learned how to use gesso effectively to elevate your artwork. By understanding the importance of gesso as a primer, following the step-by-step application guide, and exploring frequently asked questions, you’re well-equipped to enhance the vibrancy and longevity of your creations.

Remember, gesso is not just a primer; it’s a gateway to endless artistic possibilities. So, grab your brushes, experiment, and let your creativity flow on beautifully primed surfaces. Unleash the potential of your artwork with the magic of gesso!

To explore more art-related topics and helpful guides, visit How To.


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