In The Studio

Gesso Your Canvas the Easy Way!

hen I first started painting, I had a hard time finding much info on gesso-ing your canvas, so I thought I’d share my tips and tricks to make your life a little easier! I’m all about shortcuts so I can spend more time painting – this method is quick and easy (albeit a bit messy)...

Let’s start with the questions I had…

Do I need to gesso and why?

Darn good questions. When you’re starting out as an artist, you’re likely going to buy pre-stretched canvas (vs. making your own). All store bought canvases already have some amount of gesso already applied, which begs the question, why would I need to put on more?  You can paint directly on a store bought canvas – but there’s a few advantages to adding your own gesso.  First, paint will go on more smoothly and adhere better.  I feel l like the factory-applied gesso has a waxy texture that doesn’t grab the paint as well and doesn’t have as nice a feel when applying paint.  When I tried painting on store bought canvasstraight out of the package at my first workshop, I noticed that mine made a different sound when I applied paint with my knife than the instructors – I asked and he told me about the gesso.  Second, it stiffens your canvas.  This is especially important if you paint with a palette knife and put pressure on the canvas ---it will have some give and feel mushy and your paint won’t be applied evenly.  You’ll also notice that different brands of canvas have different tightness – you’ll have to experiment to find which one you like best.  So far,I’ve found that Blick Studio are my favorite. I’ve tried some others that are more expensive, thinking they would be better, but they weren’t – Winsor and Newton was by far the loosest in fact.  

How many coats?

Like everything else in painting, you’ll find many opinions on this.  Most say 2-3.  I go with 2, because 2 seems to work for meand why go to the effort of another coat if 2 is enough?

How smooth do I need to make it?

It depends.  If you’re a palette knife painter, don’t be a perfectionist – you’re going to layer on so much paint, you won’t see the texture of the canvas anyway.  If you use a brush, and apply your paint thickly, again, don’t be a perfectionist. If you use a brush but thin paint or are a portrait artist who needs a really smooth surface, then you need to work a little harder at getting the gesso smooth and my method may or may not work for you.  I use very little pressure when I run the edge of the brush across the canvas to smooth it out after I roll on the gesso.  I try to resist the urge to go back over the same spot again unless there happens to be a chunk of gesso I need to pick off with my finger nail, because going over it multiple times seems to make the texture worse.

What materials do you use?

1.     4-inch paint roller (hardware store)

2.     4-inch foam cover (hardware store)

3.     3-inch paintbrush (hardware store)

4.     Utrecht Artist’ Acrylic Gesso

Can I re-use the roller?

Absolutely – if you rinse it really well right after you apply a coat, you’ll be able to re-use the same roller many times.    


BONUS TIP: If your canvas still has too much give to it when you start to paint, use a water bottle to spritz the back of the canvas – as the water dries, it will tighten up a bit more.

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