Art Blog

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.

Applying a Primer to a Canvas with a Sponge Brush

What material do you need for priming?

Canvas priming uses a material called gesso.

Gesso poured in a small green bowl

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.

Painting Supplies arranged around bowl of white gesso

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.

What Every Painter Should Know About Canvases

art on canvas guide

Set all your paintings up for success! Learn how to choose, stretch, prime and paint your canvas. Get my FREE guide »

How to prime a canvas

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

Supplies for Priming a Canvas

You’ll need:

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

Step 1:

pouring gesso into a small green bowl

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:

Dipping Sponge Brush in Bowl of Gesso

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

Spreading Gesso on Canvas Board

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:

Applying gesso perpendicular to first coat

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.

Canvas board with dried gesso primer

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!

Need inspiration? Check out these acrylic painting ideas.

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

Textured Gesso on Canvas

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.

What Every Painter Should Know About Canvases

art on canvas guide

Set all your paintings up for success! Learn how to choose, stretch, prime and paint your canvas. Get my FREE guide »

19 Comments

Rick Forest

I gesso virtually everything I paint. From canvas and masonite to wall murals and even a surfboard once.

Reply
Nicole BEROULE

Thanks for your advices and I used to sand the canvas after priming 😉

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Orawan Ek

Hi! Is it necessary to paint gesso on the watercolor paper?
Thanks!

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Diana

No.

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sundaram madduri

Is gesso coat necessary on watercolor paper to paint with acrylic? Thanks

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Shantanu

No. Gesso is to ensure that the color is held on the surface. In normal watercolor paper, that property is already there. You can technically use canvas even without any primer, but the process would me much tedious and expensive, because you have to use higher and thicker amount of paint to ensure that you have obtained the exact texture you wanted.

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valerie lee

Thank you – this was perfect – I am currently self teaching myself to paint and these basics are just what I need! I am off to prime my canvas!

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raju v

helping ideas for beginers

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Whbet

Hi, this is very helpful. Thanks for sharing. I can’t wait to apply it.

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cara

is it okay if i ended up painting without applying gesso, could people tell it i didnt apply so?

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Janni Akamai

Most canvases these days come primed and ready to go. No gesso needed. Watercolor paper will perform with acrylics better with gesso as it will be less absorbent but it isn’t necessary. Now, if you are working with oils, you absolutely must gesso paper.

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Ani Portrait

very informative! thank you!

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naseem khan

it he moment things look complexm just beginer,i have canvasses without primer.these are rough, i do oil paintings
i m afraid, acrylic primer or paint primer to be used?well i feel again primer process will take my time, i will have towait primer dry any wAY I WANT TO LEARN primer application techniques too,or otherwise preprimed canvasses is time saving, or otherwise a seprate studio space is required for primer process.at he moment things look complex to use unprimed canvasses
regards reading my issue

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Donna Makela

Thanks! Great advice; I’m also learning to paint on my own and I love gleaning new tidbits of information. Bravo!

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Carrie Flanders

I like very smooth canvases and use a lot of layers of gesso. I tint my gesso before application, and each layer is a different tint. That way I know where I am in the scheme of things.

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Dick lind

Good information. I prime my canvas with gesso mixed with color, normally grey.

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Rod

Just moving on to include acrylics in my work but never thought of priming, heard about it, so found this information most useful…thank you

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Rihaa Kaur

I have some store bought ready- made canvases that I worked on. And, after the painting is done, I can see through the canvas if there’s light passing through the background of the canvas. The strokes are visible too. Is it okay? Or applying gesso is a good idea, at the first place?
Probably I’m just overthinking about my paintings (haha)
Please help!
TIA

Reply
Kyle

For Bob Ross’s wet on wet technique, would I apply the gesso and let the gesso dry, then add a liquid clear and immediately start oil painting? I’m having a hard time finding the step by step prep process. Thank you in advance.

Reply

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