What Is Gesso and How to Use It?

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Before you can do an acrylic or oil painting, the surface of the canvas needs to be primed with gesso. You can either apply gesso yourself or purchase canvases that have been pre-primed.

What Is Gesso?

Gesso is a type of primer used in painting to prepare surfaces such as canvas, wood, or paper before applying paint.

In painting, gesso has various benefits, including smoothing out uneven surfaces so that paint may be applied evenly, enhancing paint adherence, preventing paint from seeping into the surface, and extending the life of the artwork. 

What Is Gesso Used For?

Gesso is used to keep paint from soaking into the canvas or whatever material you are using. You can find it in any store that sells art supplies, or you can make your own.

Artists mainly use gesso to prime a canvas. This process helps protect and enhance canvas as well as other painting surfaces.

You can also use it to prime paper for oil painting.

Because it takes several hours for each layer of gesso to dry (about 12 to 24 hours per layer), I always either prime canvases myself before paint and sip parties, or buy the canvases that have already been primed (this saves a lot of time and money).

Keep reading to learn more about what gesso is, how to use it, and how to make it yourself to save money.

How is Gesso Made?

Gesso is simply a combination of glue and plaster or chalk. Gesso is the Italian word for “chalk”.

Most of the gesso you will find in stores today is made from calcium carbonate mixed with acrylic polymer. It can be used on regular canvas, panels, or even heavy paper, such as heavy watercolor paper.

The chalk in gesso is what makes the gesso absorbent. When used to prime a canvas it will ensure that the paint doesn’t bleed or seep into the fibers of the canvas.

When Should You Use Gesso?

There are a few different types of primers you can use, but I tend to prefer gesso. This is because the ingredients used to make it are more absorbent than ingredients used in other types of primer.

When you use gesso to prime your paintings, you are going to end up with a much better absorption of color. This is important to any artist who wants to create something truly magnificent.

When I use unprimed canvases I like to use at least two layers of gesso before I begin any painting. I’ve even been known to prime canvases that have already been primed before purchasing them, especially if there are any bumps or dents in the canvas. The gesso will smooth out these bumps and dents.

Types of Gesso

There are three grades of gesso that you can use: studio, artist, and professional. There isn’t a whole lot of difference between the three besides the fact that each type has a different concentrated gesso.

The gesso that has the highest concentration is professional grade. This type of gesso should be thinned with water before using it.

Artist-grade gesso is a bit less concentrated than professional-grade gesso.

The student grade is even less concentrated. Student grade gesso is what I normally use because I don’t have to do any mixing and I can use it straight from the bottle.

Applying Gesso to a Canvas

There are a couple of ways to apply gesso to a canvas. You can spray it onto the canvas, or apply it with a paintbrush.

The gesso will absorb layers of paint and keep it from bleeding into the canvas. If paint bleeds, it can do damage to a painting over time.

When you use gesso it allows the surface of the canvas to be ready to accept the paint, whether you are using oils, acrylics, or tempera paints. 

If you are using artist or professional-grade gesso, be sure to add a bit of water. This will help to make it easier for the gesso to spread across the surface of the canvas.

When applying gesso with a paintbrush you should use a large brush and do at least two layers. Brush in one direction for the first layer, and then brush in the opposite direction for the second layer.

Once the gesso has dried, it is a good idea to use fine grit sandpaper to smooth the surface, unless, of course, you want to have that added texture in your painting.

Techniques for Using Gesso

If you are using professional-grade gesso paint, it is a stiff formula that will need to be thinned down if you want it to go on smoothly with little to no texture. Gesso can be used as a modeling paste if you use enough of it and don’t thin it down.

On the other hand, if you want to add texture to your paintings, you can use the stiff, undiluted gesso to build layers. This is ideal for painting landscapes that look better with a bit of texture.

I suggest using a palette knife when applying gesso for texture.

How to Make Your Own Gesso

You can save a lot of money by making your own painting gesso. Sure, you can buy it, but making your own gesso is easy. Making it yourself is also a great way to learn more about how it is made and be able to have the consistency you want.


  • PVA size (I recommend Gamblin’s PVA Size)
  • Chalkdust (fine texture, not coarse)
  • 400-grain sandpaper


  • Add a layer of PVA size to the canvas and allow it to dry. To tell it is dry, touch it lightly. If it feels cold, it is still wet.
  • Mix one part of the PVA size with one part of the chalk dust.
  • Add equal parts of the PVA size and chalk to the canvas and allow it to dry.
  • You can stop here if you want an opaque base. If you want it thicker, use two parts chalk with one part PVA size and add another layer. Allow this layer to dry.
  • Keep on adding layers of the mixture from step four until you have achieved the thickness and whiteness you are looking for.
  • Once you have finished with the layers, allow the gesso to completely dry. Then you can sand it with sandpaper until it is nice and smooth.


Whether you wish to use store-bought gesso or make your own, you need to use it on any canvas you will be painting on. This is going to help protect your painting for many years to come.

Even though I make sure canvases are primed before each paint and sip party, I always talk to the guests about gesso, how to use it, and why they need to use it. Sometimes I also give instructions on how to make it if I am asked.

Check my guides on oil painting techniques and acrylic painting techniques for more useful tips.