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Using Gesso

Using Gesso

How to use the GESSO? A little reminder to help you avoid damage from an under prepared canvas

Why use Gesso for painting?

Gesso (pronounced ‘jesso‘) is an italian word. It comes from Latin roots, which comes from the Greek ‘gypsos’ and means plaster.

Chalk-based gesso was used in the Middle Ages to prime wood panels before painting. Its remarkable advantages later led artists to use it on canvas. Today, the “modern gesso” is a synthetic primer that is frequently used by painters, visual artists, scrapbookers, art journaling lovers or for decoration.



How to Distinguish Unprimed from Primed Canvas?

UNPRIMED CANVAS, usually has its natural hue (ecru, greyish white). If you look closer, you can see the weaving of the canvas just like with upholstery fabric. To optimize the life of a painting priming is necessary.

1/ unprepared canvas – 2/ Primed Canvas (ready to paint)
Linen canvas ready to paint: white part is primed, the back is raw

Linen canvas ready to paint: white part is primed, the back is raw

Unlike raw canvas, primed canvas is white (due to the gesso applied) and the natural colour is visible on the back. The sealed pores of the weft then give it the look of textured paper sheet. Its price is generally higher than that of unprimed canvas is due to the priming already applied.

Why Prepare a Canvas with Binder?

Unprimed canvas that is bare, natural (cotton, linen, jute) is very sensitive. You must prepare the painting background before applying the first layers of gesso and subsequent layers of paint.

First, there is the sizing step. You can use Animal glue (rabbit-skin glue) or a  vinyl binder (Caparol) (Caparol).

Caparol-Binder recognizable by its small logo “rainbow elephant”

Preparing the canvas PROTECTS the fabric from atmospheric aggressions, such as moulds and parasites. It stiffens the surface of the fabric, seals the holes of the weave, smooths and fixes the fibres. 1 to 2 layers of binder is usually sufficient.


1/ Rabbit-Skin Glue – 2/ Binder Caparol

Why use Gesso on Canvas?

Once the binder is completely dry, we use a specific coating, a universal base, primer: GESSO.

Yummy! It looks like mascarpone!

Gesso makes the surface of the canvas flatter, even and rough. It is better for pigments and reduces the absorption of paint into the fibres of the fabric.

NOTE: Gesso (distributed in stores and offered in different brands) generally has the same recipe = acrylic resin + calcium carbonate (chalk) + latex medium + opaque white pigment + other additives.

Creative process

As soon as the gesso is dry, grab your best brushes and palette. The canvas is finally ready! Ready to give life to all forms of expression (oil, acrylic, tempera and gouache)!


Qualities of Gesso

  • Can be used pure, diluted or mixed
  • Good covering power, based on white pigments, without solvents, and soluble with water
  • Fresh gesso is creamy and soft
  • Easy to spread, the gesso gives elasticity, opacity and roughness (once dry) to the canvas
  • Adheres to all non-greasy rigid surfaces: canvas, cardboard, paper, wood, fibreboard, hardboard, plywood, stone, plaster, etc.
  • Compatible with multiple techniques: acrylic, oil, tempera, gouache
  • Fast drying (varies according to the thickness of the applied gesso layer)
  • Matt finish improves paint grip
  • Absorbent or semi-absorbent (when dry) dependent on the brand
  • Suitable for acrylic colours (paint or ink)
  • Resistant to light, aging and does not yellow
  • Clean up with water. Keep away from frost and heat

Types of Gesso

1/ GESSO TO APPLY – You can use a  wide silicone shaper, wide brush, paint roller, paint knife or spatula. 3 layers is enough.


  • BLACK or COLOURED GESSO (in jar or tube or spray)

GOOD TO KNOW: Gesso can be used as white paint, to soften and whiten colours but also to thicken.

2/ READY TO PAINT GESSO – All is done!

GOOD TO KNOW: in our favourite stores, white canvases on wooden stretched frames are usually already primed with gesso (also called universal primer). Saves time, don’t you think?

Most of these products are currently available at GreatArt Online or in their art supply shop in London Shoreditch..


Information for this article was provided by professional fine artist, Amylee Paris. You can visit her colourful portfolio or follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

GREAT TO KNOW – Find all Amylee’s posts published in GreatArt online Magazine by clicking here!


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Louise from GreatArt

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