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A Short Beginner’s Guide on How to Gesso a Canvas for Acrylic Painting

Prepping your canvas before applying acrylic paint on it is a crucial part of the painting process. 

In this article we talk all things gesso - what it is, what it does, how to gesso a canvas for acrylic painting and even how to prime a canvas when you're out of gesso. 

Do you have paintings you’re not happy with or maybe have a few used canvases that you feel are going to waste?  We'll tell you how you can reuse your old canvases with gesso! 

Have you ever painted something that you didn’t like and you feel like you could have done better? Or do you have an old painting that you're just bored with and it’s wasting away in a sad, dusty corner of your room? If yes, then it’s time to dig out those old paintings, and old canvases and reuse them!

You’ll see how easy it is to turn them into blank new canvases that can be re-painted and re-used.

Recycling your old canvases or reusing second-hand, cheap canvases is a great alternative to spending money on buying new ones. However, before you get into painting, you must gesso over the canvas to create a new, blank canvas.

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What is Gesso?

To put it simply, gesso is an artist’s primer specifically made for canvases. It’s like when you paint a house - you prime the surface before you apply the paint. Similarly, you brush gesso on a canvas before you start painting to prepare the surface. Typically, gesso primer comes in white, but you can also get black and sometimes other colours too.

A gesso primer gets your canvas ready to receive paint. It stiffens the surface of the canvas and adds more texture to it, so the paint stays on the canvas instead of getting soaked into the fibre of the canvas.

Gesso comes in small pots, small squeeze bottles and even large tubs & jars. You can buy gesso anywhere that stocks art supplies.

Pro-tip: You can apply gesso to almost any surface, so you can then paint acrylic on it!

How to Gesso over Canvas for Acrylic Painting?

There’s no rocket science on how to gesso over canvas for acrylic painting. All you have to do is dip your brush into the gesso and start applying! Just paint it on. It really is that simple.

Make sure you go over the edges and don’t leave any stop marks (that’s what I call the mark a brush makes when it’s lifted off the canvas too roughly). In order to avoid stop marks, apply the gesso primer in small gentle strokes. Use a hairdryer to dry a coat of gesso before you go in with another one.

Apply as many coats as you need of gesso to cover the painting underneath completely. Usually two coats are enough to get the job done.

The good thing is that there’s no limit to how many times you do this, as long as the painting underneath doesn’t have too much texture or bumps that will show through. You can re-gesso and repaint over the same canvas multiple times, which is great if you're learning or want more practice. However, eventually the canvas does get heavier as you apply more coats.

Pro-Tip: Don’t be tempted to apply a thicker coat of gesso to avoid an extra coat. If you put it on too thick it could crack later.

What paint brushes should you use?

To gesso over a canvas, you need a large (depending upon the size of the canvas), flat brush. You can get your hands on some really cheap ones at emporium stores like Uncle Bill’s or Uncle Pete’s or even at tip shops. (check out the video below to see which ones I use).

How to prime a canvas without Gesso?

Don’t feel like spending money on gesso but don’t know how to prime a canvas without gesso? Don’t worry! Just use white acrylic paint or you can even use any leftover white house paint instead. House paints go on a little thicker than gesso so you’ll need fewer coats.

Pro-tip: Go to tip shops and find their home renovation sections. You can find some really cheap, left-over house paint for as low as $2 a litre. What a steal!

Now that you know how to recycle your canvases, it’s time to dig out all your old canvas you have stacked away, or go op-shopping … and then get painting!

If you need some ideas of what to paint, check out my On Demand Painting Tutorials

Watch my video below for a demo of how to gesso your canvas and see what gesso and brushes I use.


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