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How to Gesso Canvas for better paintings

How to add gesso to a pre-primed canvas and why. (regular un-primed canvas are treated similarly but with more coats and some light sanding) Many of the inexpensive canvas you find at hobby/craft stores are pre-primed but did you know that adding just a bit more can make all the difference in your painting experience?

This also applies to the artist grade gallery wrapped canvas. No one is exempt.

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Note: If you have come here from the Rooster painting lesson then you will need to gesso an 11″ x 14″ inch canvas.

Why add more gesso?

Even though many of these canvases are pre-primed and claim to be ready to go they can still be thirsty. This means they will absorb your paint fast, making it a bit difficult to glide your brush along.

Also, when the paint absorbs into the canvas you must use more paint and if you don’t it can dull the colors. Gesso is inexpensive and easy to apply so why wouldn’t you? I love bright colors and easy strokes so adding another couple of layers of gesso helps so much.

This applies to both acrylic paints and oils.

Supplies for Applying Gesso

Start with a good product. I have used a few different brands of gesso and this is my current favorite. Art Alternatives Gesso, I find it on Amazon.

canvas panel economy pack

I have also used Golden, which worked as well but is a bit more pricey. I do not like Liquitex, it leaves the canvas rough and does not create a good artist experience for smooth strokes. Though you can sand it down to smooth it out I don’t want to do this extra step.

The brushes I like to use are the Loew Cornell white nylon set that comes in 3 sizes (this set has become so overpriced so look for comparable brushes). Here are some from Plaid Online. You can most likely find something similar in craft stores or paint departments.

I use these brushes a lot in many ways. I use them to paint backgrounds, furniture and to gesso.

The Michaels economy pack canvas works fine with the extra gesso. You can find them on sale and they can work out to $2 to $3 a canvas. Not a bad price when you are just learning. If you are looking to upgrade to some more premier canvases at a great price these ones from Dick Blicks art supply have been wonderful.

How to add gesso

Once you remove the protective wrap on your canvas lay it flat on a protected surface. I use this brown builders paper or many like a plastic table cloth.

This brown paper is useful for practicing painting too. This is a thicker paper than brown crafting paper so it is a bit better at protecting surfaces.

canvas being primed with gesso, first coat

Pour out some gesso onto the canvas or onto a piece of palette paper and brush it on the canvas. Begin by stroking it on in one direction aka horizontally. Don’t get it too thick. Thinner layers are better and won’t crack. You can see me do this in the video.

Make sure to clean up any drips along the edges but don’t worry about really covering the edges. Just catch any drips. The edges are not important to get gessoed.

Some of the canvases I will paint the sides with the design also instead of framing them so I don’t want any paint drips there.

Let the first coat dry well. Once it has dried paint on another coat going in the vertical direction. Again, keep it smooth. You don’t want heavy ridges or brush strokes showing when it dries.

Let the second coat dry. If you feel the need you can lightly sand it with a piece of brown paper folded around a sanding sponge but I don’t find it necessary with Art Alternatives and Golden brand gessoes.

Let it dry thoroughly.

Now you should be ready to paint.

Many times I will gesso more than one canvas at a time. I lay them out, put on some music and just paint on the gesso. Sometimes you can use a fan to speed up drying.

It should take less than 5 minutes to put a layer of gesso on 3 canvases. Let it dry for 30 minutes. Then apply the second coat. (temperature and humidity can alter how long it takes gesso to dry)

You can paint with acrylics on the canvas once it is dry to the touch but for oils you should wait 24 hours.

In some of my painting tutorials, I share how to use a background color instead of priming with gesso and I always will tell you when that is the case in the lesson. But still, it is better, in the long run, to add the additional layers of gesso to even to professional level canvas.

Happy Painting!

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daffodils painted in oils, blue background flowers, pamela groppe art

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  1. Ha have just completed a Maureen McNaughton packet with a friend who teaches and this was the first thing I did……………3 coats of Gesso!!

  2. Pam, thank you for all the helpful hints you recommend for us “want to be artist”. I continue to learn and re-learn tips and tricks that help me to better my skills. Painting for me, is “My Happy peaceful place.” I have been studying for over seven years with a local and international recognized artist twice a week, who is a fabulous teacher and friend. At first painting was a struggle and thank goodness through perseverance and determination, I am seeing a difference in my approach. Being type A and thinking everything had to be perfect that painting within the lines was required and A Must. Art has given and taught me a freedom not only in painting but also in my daily living. Thank you for your gift of sharing with all artist and for sharing your “Tips, tricks, and technique” in painting!! May you continue to follow your dream and purpose God has planned for your life. Linda

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