Gesso is one of those words that seems to stop beginner artists in their tracks. It leaves many wondering how to use it with acrylics, or if you even need to use it in an acrylic painting at all.
Gesso and Oil Painting
Historically, gesso was made for oil painting and was traditionally used to prepare or prime a surface so oil paint would adhere to it. It is made from a combination of paint pigment, chalk and binder.
Gesso would protect the canvas fibers, provide a nice surface to work on and give a little flexibility so the canvas wouldn’t crack if it was rolled.
Traditional oil gesso (pronounced ‘jesso‘) could be described as more of a ‘glue gesso’ because it contains:
- Animal glue binder–usually rabbit-skin glue
- White pigment
The oil gesso creates a surface that is absorbent (this comes from the chalk) and has a ‘tooth’ (texture) which allows the paint to grab onto the canvas. So if gesso was originally used with oil painting, what’s acrylic gesso?
Although traditionally used by oil painters, the gesso often used today is acrylic gesso, which consists of slightly different ingredients. In fact, modern acrylic gesso is a combination of:
- Acrylic polymer medium (binder)
- Calcium carbonate (chalk)
- A pigment (usually Titanium white)
- Chemicals that ensure flexibility and long archival life
Note how acrylic gesso doesn’t contain glue. Acrylic paints are noncorrosive and are stable overtime, so you don’t need to worry about paint damaging the canvas—and therefore, you don’t need the glue in the mix. Remember, traditional oil ‘glue’ gesso soaks into the canvas fibers and helps to protect them from the corrosive nature of oils, over time.
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A common question regarding acrylic painting is if you need to use a gesso primer. Technically, you don’t. It provides you with a nice, slightly more absorbent surface to work on, especially if your working on board or raw canvas, but for a pre-primed canvas it’s unnecessary.
Don’t forget your pre-primed canvas from the art store already has a layer of gesso on it. Gesso is the same as a primer, as in ‘pre-primed canvas.’
But here’s a pro tip for painting with acrylics and gesso: You can also add other paint colors to your gesso to give you a toned surface to work with.
So grab your paints, and you’re ready to go! You can also have a look at how I apply acrylic gesso to a canvas.