What is Gesso?



“Gesso? What the heck is that?”


Yep, exactly what I said when I first heard about it.


Well, let me tell you – over the years gesso has come to be my best friend. He is always there with me during my painting adventures, has always supported my desire to trash the idea of the typical “canvas” and paint on whatever my mind could conjure up, and has ruined a-many-a-feather with me (as well as a couple pairs of jeans). As the title of this post says, “Gesso makes the impossible, possible!” I mean, would you ever think to make a canvas out of rabbit fur or a cable-knit sweater? Well, gesso just may allow you to do that!


Ok, so looking at the contents of a bottle of acrylic gesso, I’ll admit – it looks like typical white tempera/acrylic paint. But I can assure you that it is not. This stuff really works wonders. (Yes, I do think highly of it).



A bit of background on the stuff:


Gesso (jeh-so) is actually the Greek word for “ground chalk.” (gypsum)


Acrylic gesso is a mixture of different materials (latex/calcium carbonate/pigment/etc) usually sold in a premixed form and is used to prime/prep surfaces for acrylic and oil painting. (However, please keep in mind that it is NOT a sealant. I’ll discuss that in a future post). You’ll mostly find it in an opaque white or off white color, but is easily found in black as well. It can also be found in clear form, and in different consistencies. There is also an oil based ground (used for oil painting). Although keep in mind that while acrylic gesso can be used for oil painting, oil ground cannot be used for acrylic paint. Anyhow, it can be used on surfaces as hard as wood, or even surfaces as delicate as a feather.  Personally I have used gesso on everything from wood, to leather/buckskin, to canvas, to rabbit fur, to feathers, gourds, and much more – And every time it has worked like a charm.


Typically you would apply a few thin layers of gesso to your painting surface to prevent absorption of excessive paint into your surface. Gesso also gives you a nice smooth surface to paint on, or can provide some interesting textures depending upon your manner of application. It also creates a base for very vibrant colors (assuming you use white gesso). It is also very flexible and resistant to cracking if applied on a tangible surface.


To give a simple example of what it does, let us take a piece of particle board for instance – here I have painted 2 red circles. Both are 1 layer each of cadmium red, however the only difference is that the circle on the left has been prepped with three thin layers of white acrylic gesso. The circle on the right is cadmium red painted directly onto the particle board.

Note how the circle on the right is much duller in appearance as well as slightly transparent. This is because the particle board, being a porous surface, has absorbed some if the red. So, yes, you can still paint directly onto the surface, but please be aware that achieving opaque results may require multiple layers of paint, and even then the color vibrancy may still be lacking.


Personally I never use black gesso, but that is because I enjoy the vibrancy the acrylic white gesso ground creates. You can always experiment with black or clear depending on your desired results.


There are many brands of gesso (Golden, Basics, etc.), however, the brand I have personally been using forever is Liquitex Acrylic Gesso. It comes in a bottle like this and you can get it at just about any art supply or craft store – I believe it is $9 – $12 for an 8 ounce bottle. (And if you have a large-scaled project, it comes in much larger sizes as well):

To sum it up, gesso is cool stuff. If you don’t like how your painting is going, instead of scrapping your canvas cover it with a few layers of gesso and start over again. If you have been lacking vibrancy in your paintings, try grounding with a few layers of gesso before you paint. If you are bored of painting on the same old canvas and want to try painting on something new, then try prepping it with gesso and let your imagination go!


Happy painting!


P.S. As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comment section below. Thanks!

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19 Responses to What is Gesso?

  1. Carolyn says:

    hi…I am trying to use gesso for the first time as a base on my gourd before I do art using prismacolor pencils. The gesso is not smooth on the gourd and I wonder how I can make it smooth so the colored pencils work well on it. thanks

  2. Hi Carolyn. Thank you for your question. I have used gesso on gourds before and there are a few ways to create a smooth finish. One problem might be your brush you are using – if the bristles are too stiff then that could cause streaks. Choosing a soft-bristled, flat brush, will help with a smooth finish. Craft sponge brushes work well for this as well. Also, the gesso may be too thick – try slightly thinning it with some water, and then using a softer bristled brush (or sponge brush), apply a thin layer, allow to dry, and then repeat layers as necessary until desired coverage is achieved. I usually do 3 layers of slightly thinned gesso to get the coverage and smoothness I am looking for. Let me know if that works for you! =-)

  3. Suzanne says:

    Have you tried a very fine toothed sand paper?

  4. This is a great method that I didn’t think of! But it would definitely work. So Carolyn, if you are reading, Suzanne’s suggestion would definitely be one to try! Thanks for your idea Suzanne!

  5. mary manas says:

    can you mix gesso with acrylic paint and paint on furniture upholstery? I purchased master’s touch acrylic gesso. any info would b super helpful.


  6. Hi Mary. Yes, you can apply acrylic paint to furniture and upholstery, however you may not need to mix it with gesso (unless the gesso is clear, then by all means!). And you will not need gesso if the wood already has a finish on it. If it doesn’t, and if your gesso is white then I would apply gesso over the area you will be painting, and after it dries, apply the acrylic paint. As for upholstery, if you are creating a design over the upholstery, then yes, apply gesso first, then paint your design. If you are simply trying to color match the upholstery, then I would not gesso over the area first. – just keep in mind that if you are trying to color-match, acrylic paint on upholstery will dry darker in most cases.

  7. chris says:

    Hi, just found your site, your work is wonderful. Gesso, I hear the odd person say to use gesso as white in a painting. Seems wrong to me , isn’t there different properties in gesso then in paint

  8. Frank Pennington says:

    Brandi tried my first feather, unsuccessfully. When I started I didn’t use gesso and the feather started separating. Should I use gesso first to hold together or is there another technique? Thank you in advance for your assistance! Your work is amazing by the way!

  9. If I want to paint a pumpkin and have prepped it with gesso, how long do I have to wait for the gesso to dry before painting?

  10. It should dry within 10 -20 minutes, depending upon the temperature and moisture level in the room, and also how thick you have layered the gesso. But if you get impatient like I do waiting for gesso to dry – just do what I do – take a blow dryer to it! It’ll dry in a couple of minutes. :-)

  11. Debbie says:

    Will gesso take alcohol inks okay?

  12. You know, I’m not 100% sure. I would recommend applying a little spot (about a 2″x2″ spot) of gesso on a similar surface/canvas and I would test out the alcohol inks. I suspect it would work fine, but I would do a test patch just in case.

  13. Thanks for answering so quickly, I will try the alcohol inks on small section of my scraps and let you know the results.

  14. Awesome! I look forward to hearing the results! I’m lots of other people out there are wondering the same thing! :-)

  15. Joe says:

    hello, i was wondering if instead of gesso, wouldn’t plain while acrylic paint as a base primer work the same?

  16. cynthia says:

    if the bottle says just ‘gesso’, is that white gesso? my other bottle specifies clear gesso and black gesso.

  17. Generally all gesso is white unless otherwise stated.

  18. No, in most instances it won’t be the same, especially if the canvas is pourous. For instance, when I paint on leather or wood – if I apply a layer of white paint, the wood or leather just absorbs the acrylic paint making it very transparent once it dries. I suppose you could do many layers, but then you are wasting paint. But when I use gesso, it only takes a layer or two and the surface is ready to paint with acrylic. Hope I helped!

  19. Hey, don’t worry, my first feather was unsuccessful too! ;-) I would try the gesso first. It seems to help. Thanks! :-)

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