Is Gesso Necessary For Acrylics?


If you are working in acrylics will you need to use gesso? A good question so I will be answering it here. The “short” answer is, most likely no, but sometimes yes.

When I first started to take “real” painting classes (auditing -NOT for a grade, but for personal enrichment) we were working in oils and I was told I needed a product called “Magic White” (and it was also Bob Ross’s proprietary formula, lol. ) It came in a small can about the size of that chunk chicken you may have seen at the supermarket.

This was a product you used to apply to the canvas to make the preliminary work of blending easier and more efficient. “Magic White” is oil based, however, and cannot be used with my work now.

But now that you are making the switch to acrylics, or if you never used oils in the first place you may be wondering if gesso or primer is necessary. Let’s look at that now.

It Depends on the Canvas…

The canvases you see over at the art suppliers, you know the ones wrapped in cellophane….are already pre-primed. If you’re unsure, check the label. It should indicate it on the corner.

The litmus test for a primed canvas is…is it pure white? If so, consider it primed, and ready to go. If you have ever had an opportunity to look at a “raw” sheet of canvas on a roll…it’s got a beige look to it as that is its natural state pre-priming. It may also show natural fibers, as you can see here:

The typical application of gesso on a canvas in “the raw”

If you stretch your own canvases, yes, absolutely, you need to apply gesso. A number of years ago I was shopping at a very professional, yet avante garde kind of store in Buckhead (that’s in the big ATL) called Pearls…I don’t know if they are still around. I loved that place, It didn’t have that “mass market” feel to it.

Anyway, you could buy canvas by the sheet or yard. I was really at a stage of my curiosity getting the better of me so I decided to learn how to stretch my own canvas using just the materials and what I read in books. This was in 2001 and platforms like Youtube were still aways away, remember?

Well, I did manage to stretch my own canvas. And I did apply gesso, I can’t remember what brand or type I used at the time, but that was de rigeur and I used 2 coats. So 2 canvases total diy.

What Exactly is Gesso?

Gesso is a substance that has been around since antiquity, most artists at that time used to paint in oils and gesso helped prevent the seeping out of linseed oils from the paints into the canvas.  You may also be asking, what is IN gesso? (and yes, calling it “primer” would be accurate, the terms are somewhat interchangeable,)

Gesso/primer is composed of a makeup of calcium carbonate, a binding agent, and pigment in the form of titanium dioxide (which gives it its white color.) You may also be thinking, well can’t I just use white acrylic paint in place of gesso? My answer would be no.

Paint in and of itself lacks the binding properties of pure gesso.Click To Tweet

So use the real thing. It will smooth out any imperfections that a “normal” canvas may have, and allow your colors to be more vibrant. You can buy commercially-prepared gesso, or you could also try out my recipe here.

There are different types of gessos out there, a lot of us know the white kind, but there is also clear gesso, and black gesso. The kind that is clear, could assist in the blending and texture, and the black kind could work well if you’re attempting to do a painting with lots of negative space and high contrast.

Gesso is sometimes confused with painting mediums, understandably so. Gesso makes your surface and texture ready for painting, painting mediums are substances mixed into the paint itself that act as extenders – they improve the volume or consistency, or help reduce expediency of drying.

Well, that’s my spiel, anyway, on gesso, primer, and getting started , I hope you are ready to continue on your journey of painting!





Updated: 09/20/2023 — 10:37 PM

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *