What the Heck Is Gesso?

Acrylic gesso. Photo by Will Kemp.
Acrylic gesso; photo by Will Kemp

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
  • Chalk
  • 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?

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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Gesso Primer

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.


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Will Kemp

About Will Kemp

I’m Will Kemp, an award-winning professional artist and teacher.

My aim is to teach aspiring artists the most effective ways to succeed in painting & drawing.

Using classical painting techniques with modern teaching methods you can discover how to paint & draw in the quickest time possible.

I’ve studied Classical atelier techniques at the Florence Academy of Art, Italy alongside conceptual art at the Tate Gallery, London.

I’ve worked alongside the National Gallery, London, taught in schools, set up and ran my own gallery for 5 years and have taught hundreds of people to paint and draw.

I’ll teach you to become selective with composition, demystify color mixing and achieve perfect perspective.

I’m looking forward to you joining me on your creative journey of discovery,


P.S. I write and create weekly videos at Will Kemp Art School about painting, drawing techniques & creativity.

10 thoughts on “What the Heck Is Gesso?

  1. One of my art teachers used a recipe for gesso that included marble dust. I don’t know if marble dust is a traditional type ingredient or if it was an innovation of my teacher. He used it for canvas and panels. Don’t know why.

  2. Thankyou for providing information on Gesso, its ingredients and how it works, but it’s pretty low embedding housepaint Ads when we think we are being taken to artists websites for further instruction.

  3. Actually, gesso makes the painting surface “less” absorbent. Working on raw board or canvas will absorb your paint like a sponge if it’s not first coated with a primer or gesso.

  4. Becoming a miniature oil painter, I could not bring myself to paint on what has become the traditional surface oil miniaturist paint on; “ivorine”. No way around it; it’s plastic and the artist in me rebelled at it. I kept hearing my techniques professor, “always paint on the most permanent surface!”. So I am using gesso on linen in multiple layers sanding between each on until I have the ultra smooth surface I need. I remember that from techniques class too.

  5. Thanks for the tip on adding colour to the gesso for a toned surface.

    I just wanted to add a tip for those of you using Masonite boards for painting. When you apply your gesso make sure you prime both sides of the board and the edges. This will prevent the board from warping and the edge painting will not allow moisture to penetrate the wood. Do several coats of gesso and sand in between each coat on the side your going to use if you want a smooth surface.

    If your priming a stretched canvas you can also sand ( with fine sandpaper obviously ). If your stretched canvas is pre primed you can sand then add more gesso. I like to paint with a lot of fine detail so do not want the tooth of the canvas getting in my way.

    Anne Armitage B.F.A.
    Picture Pefect Pets

  6. Great explanation.
    I like to give a second coat of gesso because it gives me less “fabric weave” and better surface texture in the end product. .
    I’m surprised that you say there is no glue in in acrylic gesso as I consider the polymer medium as just a special kind of glue (or binder) that holds the gesso and the pigment to the canvas or board that it is applied to.
    Here’s a question – is acrylic gesso adequate for an under-painting layer for oil painting. I think it should be. Is there any need now for the traditional oil painting gesso (with rabbit skin glue) since the organic glue is susceptible to mould and mildew? I haven’t used the oil gesso recipe for years and subsequently have had no issues with my paintings in storage.
    I like to add yellow ocher or burn sienna to the ready made acrylic gesso so that if I miss a spot while painting, it’s not a blaring white that shows through but a softer, warm mid-tone. It also saves a bit of time.
    There are manufactured gessos in black and other earth tones. I sometimes paint the light toned gessos in the areas that will ultimately be light, but black gesso on the same ground, to give richness to the shadowed areas.

  7. I appreciate this description of “gesso” but I must add that this isn’t entirely accurate. Gesso is an Italian word for “plaster” and the ground created for painting on was made from slaked plaster and an animal hide glue. It was NOT created for oil painting, but rather for tempera painting. One would never use traditional gesso on canvas because it is far too brittle and would very easily crack. It is meant for a more rigid support such as a wood panel. There is another formula for using a gesso-like substance on canvas and that is the half chalk ground which is a strange type of emulsion of a weaker glue based gesso with a drying oil. This method is till being used by some canvas manufacturers in Europe and was favored by many of the Renaissance Italian painters. Northern European Baroque painters preferred using a weaker hide glue or gelatin sizing on canvas and then a ground of white lead. Gesso is very absorbent and is uncomfortable for oil painting because it absorbs the oil from the paint. Before working on a gesso ground panel most artists need to rub it in with oil medium or varnish to make a more accepting surface. Acrylic Gesso is a very suitable surface for acrylic paint and although it is suggested by manufacturers that it is suitable for oil painting, most purists will disagree since acrylic resin is hydro porous and will not make for a satisfactory bind with oil paint. Acrylic gesso very often has the addition of marble dust as an additive to make it slightly denser. It is in fact just an acrylic paint primer that has no gypsum or plaster in it at all. Ther were two types of gesso used by the old masters, gesso grosso and gesso sottille. Gesso grosso was what was used to create textural and modeled surfaces in the old icons that were painted in tempera and gesso sottille was used for the smoother surfaces on which the general tempera painting was done.

  8. Only Jeff Webb’s comment is accurate here regarding traditional gesso. Putting it on canvas is asking for trouble as it really is brittle. The one thing I would adjust in his statement about traditional gesso being used for oil paint is not to apply medium or varnish to make it less absorbent for oil – once you’ve sanded it apply a couple of coats of Rabbit Skin Glue to seal the surface. Angaba mentioned her teacher using marble dust – yes, that’s fine, in fact it’s very normal to use. Don’t use French Chalk, however as it’s too light. Certainly in England, you’d normally use Whiting.

    There is a chalk ground you can use for canvas, but, while related, it isn’t gesso. I can’t remember the recipe, but it does have linseed oil in it to give it some flexibility. Ralph Meyer’s book will have a reliable version.

  9. Yes, I also wondered about the “gesso on canvas” description. The stuff is brittle and hard. I use it on wood panels, where I can sand it smooth for very fine detailed work. But it soaks up the first layer of paint like there was no tomorrow, so once it’s dry I mist it and do a first layer of thin paint, white or tinted, before I go on to do the actual painting.