Preparing A Canvas for Acrylic Painting – The How and Why

Canvas Prep

Okay maybe you have done some painting, maybe you have bought canvas and paint. You may have noticed that canvas’ are sometimes labelled pre-primed. Maybe you were in the paint isle and saw something called Gesso. You might be asking yourself, “Is it necessary for me to prime or treat the canvas before I start painting?” Maybe you have no ide what I am talking about. Well, read on because I am going to talk about preparing a canvas for acrylic painting.

To Prime or Not to Prime? Pre-Primed?

Priming is just like it sounds. If you have painted walls or cars or steel orEasel and canvas Question anything for that matter, you have likely heard the word primer or priming. Primer is used to prep a surface for painting. In some instances, it is meant to help the paint bond to the surface. Canvas should be primed to stop the paint from soaking into the weave of the fabric. It creates a solid surface for the paint to adhere to and will make the painting stand out.

What Is a pre-primed canvas? You may have noticed that many of the pre-stretched canvas you see in stores is labelled as Pre-primed. This just means that the canvas has been treated or primed already. The manufacturer’s usually use a gesso. To what extent the canvas has been primed varies by company.

In most cases it is not necessary to prime a pre-primed canvas and you can start painting on it right away. However, you may find that you want to add more primer or gesso to the canvas to get different results. So, to dig deeper into this I will explain things when it come to the world of GESSO.

Gesso? What is Gesso?

Gesso is a term used to describe the priming of a canvas. “The artist was careful to gesso his canvas prior to beginning his masterpiece.” It is also used as a name for the compound used to perform the action. Acrylic Gesso is an acrylic polymer, calcium carbonate, and pigment. This is different from traditional Gesso used for oil painting.

Liquitex GessoGesso is basically meant to seal the canvas and give a solid surface for the acrylic paint to adhere to. Pre-primed canvas likely has a layer or two of gesso. Depending on the desired effect one is looking for, the amount of gesso and type or consistency will vary. Usually two coats will do but three or four is not unheard of.

There are two types of gesso Student and Artist. Student gesso is thinner because it contains less pigment and more filler. Artist’s gesso has more pigment and will often be thicker. Both types can be thinned out with water, and student gesso can be thickened up by adding paint. Using a thicker gesso with give texture and can even be used to “sculpt” the surface of the canvas. Thinner gesso will spread easier and leave a smooth surface.

NOTE: You can use sand paper in between coats of gesso to smooth the painting surface. Just be sure that gesso is completely dry before sanding.

Typically, gesso is white, but you can find clear and black. There is no problem If you chose to add color to the gesso. Actually, I have read articles from some professionals that say they always start a painting with some color for a “ground”

How Do You Apply Gesso?

Use a wide brush like a decorator’s brush and apply the gesso in even parallel strokes in one direction. Work your way across (or down) the canvas. Let the gesso dry completely. If you choose to sand the gesso in between coats do it now. Then turn the canvas 90 degrees and repeat going perpendicular (across) the first coat. This will ensure full and proper coverage. Repeat these steps as many times as you like.

The type of gesso you use and the number of coats, along with how thick or thin you apply it is up to you. Try a few different methods on several canvases then apply some paint to each. Try to mark each one to keep track of which is which. This will help you to understand how your paintings will differ using different approaches.

Gesso Much to Take In!!

Pre-primed canvas does not need to be primed. New untreated canvas does not NEED to be primed. The difference is how the paint reacts when applied, and that is the choice the artist needs to make. Just remember that untreated canvas will soak up the paint more. That could be the effect you want, but if you want the paint to lay on top of the canvas give the canvas a good gesso.

This might seem complicated, but it is not. If you are intimidated by this, then just buy the pre-primed canvas and go to town. If you want to try something new and branch out, do it. As I state in most of my posts, it is your painting and your world, try new things and experiment.

I hope this gave you a further understanding of what gesso is and priming of a canvas in general.  I have left a link here which directs you to Amazon to look at the different options out there.  If you have questions or comments on this post feel free to leave them below. I try to respond to everyone.

Thanks for reading


5 Comments on “Preparing A Canvas for Acrylic Painting – The How and Why”

  1. You have some really useful tips there – not a lot of people even think about priming a canvas, which makes perfect sense, if you ask me – after all, who would paint a wall without a primer? But, I personally usually purchased a pre-primed canvas, to save myself a step. Blessings!

  2. Hi there
    Many thanks for this great post and applying the Gesso, was something that I was never sure about.
    I used to make my own canvas as I found that I could make them for a fraction of what I would pay for them at an arts supply store.
    I used to buy the canvas by the roll and made my own frame and then made the canvas to whatever size or dimensions I needed.
    The roll was unprimed, so therefore I would apply the gesso subsequently, however I would only apply two coats, approx 24 hrs apart.
    I found that this system worked best, but I notice that you state that we can apply as many coats as we wish.
    I guess that, the more coats of Gesso we apply, the better quality canvas we would have to work with.
    Thanks again for the great review, happy painting,
    Cheers Phil Browne

    1. Thanks Phil,

      While your comment is mostly correct in that more gesso will make for a better painting surface, it is not entirely accurate.  Generally two coats is fine,  but as stated in the post, if you choose none or 8 coats it won’t be worse or better,  It really comes down to what is the desired effect you are looking for.  Thanks for you r comments!


  3. I used to manage an art store and this was an issue with many new artists. They would come into the store with the complaint that their colors on the canvas were uneven. Some places on the canvas were darker and other places had lighter spots. One of the things I always asked was, “How old was the canvas?” and “Had it ever been primed?” Because if it hadn’t been primed and if it was an older canvas, who knows what might have touched it during that time and left a film on the canvas.

    We sold both primed and unprimed canvas. The more experience artist would often go with Gesso and prime it themselves because they would play with the primer to get different effects. The beginners often went with the canvas that had been pre-primed for obvious reasons. Good post – thanks.


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