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Painting Prep: How to Prime a Canvas

When you paint a room, you apply a coat of primer. When manicurists paint fingernails, they apply a base coat before adding color. A similar process should be done to your canvas before creating art. Learning how to prime a canvas is a simple yet invaluable skill to master if you want to explore the world of acrylic or oil painting. Here, we’ll introduce you to why a canvas must be primed and how to do it correctly.

What Material do You Need for Priming?

Canvas priming uses a material called gesso.

At first glance, gesso (pronounced “jess-oh”) looks a whole lot like white paint. And generally, it does start with paint pigment, which is then augmented, usually with chalk powder and some sort of binder.

The “ingredients” may vary depending on the type you use — there are different varieties that are best suited for different types of paint, including acrylic and oil paint.

Regardless of the variations, the purpose of gesso is the same: to “prime” a canvas. It is painted on a canvas and then allowed to dry before proceeding with the more painterly work.

Why “Prime” Your Canvas?

Think of gesso like primer when painting rooms in a house. Gesso protects the fibers of a canvas, making your painting surface archival.

It also makes the work surface a little bit softer for paint, which can help you use less paint to create your work of art. Canvas can also deteriorate the bristles of your paintbrushes, so a layer of gesso will also protect your brushes.

Can’t I Just Use White Paint?

Sorry, but no. While it might look similar, white paint has a different texture and makeup than gesso. White paint will not render your work surface archival. The texture of gesso creates a more hospitable a surface for more layers of paint.

How to Prime a Canvas

Follow this tutorial for canvas paper, board or stretched canvas.

You’ll Need:

  • A canvas
  • Gesso
  • A paintbrush or sponges
  • A palette or small cup for the gesso

Step 1

Assemble your supplies. Put some gesso on a palette or in a small cup; don’t dip your brush right in the jar or tube of gesso. Assemble your brush or sponge and palette nearby your canvas.

Step 2

Dip your sponge brush into the gesso, grabbing a generous amount of the gesso.

Paint across the canvas in one direction, covering every surface of the canvas. Try to leave the gesso as flat as possible so that you will have a smooth starting point. Gesso the entire surface of the canvas, including the sides if you plan to paint them.

Step 3

Let the gesso dry, and then repeat the process with a second coat. But this time, have the gesso oriented in the other direction, so the strokes of each coat are perpendicular. Once again, let the gesso dry.

Step 4

If desired or necessary, add a third coat. Once again, let the gesso dry.

This probably feels a little anti-climactic — yep, once dried, it basically looks the same as canvas. But you can rest assured that you’ve made it ready for paint. Once your final coat has completely dried, get painting!

Frequently Asked Primer Questions

What’s the Best Way to Apply the Gesso?

As you can see in the photos, I used a sponge brush to apply the gesso. Personally, I like how flat and evenly the sponge brush applies the gesso. However, you can also use a brush for this purpose. Try to reserve one brush for gesso only for best results.

Help! What do I do If My Gesso isn’t as Flat or Smooth as I’d Like?

Once the gesso is dry, evaluate your surface. If it is not as even as you would like, you can run a fine-grain sandpaper over the surface of the canvas to flatten it. Be gentle, though — you don’t want to scrape off the gesso that just primed your canvas!

What Type of Gesso should I Use?

There are a dizzying array of gesso types available. The most traditional type is white, but these days you can also find black, clear, tinted or textured gessos, too.

While experimenting with different tints and types can be fun, be sure to use the proper type of gesso for the type of painting you’ll be doing. For instance, an acrylic gesso is best suited for acrylic paint. If you go to your local art supply store, an employee should be able to help you find the best gesso suited to your needs.

Creative Gesso Application

You don’t have to apply your gesso in a smooth, even layer — you’re an artist, after all, so get creative! Unevenly applied gesso can be a cool way to kick off an abstract painting, adding texture to the canvas from the get-go. There are even extra-thick gesso varieties available so that you can prime your canvas with an exaggerated texture.

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