The word gesso needs no introduction, even for the beginner artist. The canvas and wood primer is many painters’ staples yet remains mysterious to a lot of artists.
What is gesso? Gesso is a primer coating for canvas and wood made from a mixture of pigment, binder, chalk, gypsum, marble, or other similar calcium carbonate ingredients. Its primary purpose is to prep the substrate for paint adherence.
Gesso is also useful for stiffening the canvas, making a painting on it more comfortable than on the wobbly raw canvas. Traditional gesso was mainly used for permanency and is still being used by oil painters today.
There are a bunch of great primers in the market. Perhaps you already have some and are wondering if you could use either of them in place of gesso. After all, it is a primer, right?
What are the best gesso substitutes? The best substitutes for gesso are commercial acrylic primers, clear gesso, a gel medium, rabbit skin glue, and oil painting grounds. You can also prepare a gesso at home for either acrylic or oil.
If you have similar materials around and want to know if you can skip a run to the store for gesso, this is the post for you.
It unravels all the mystery behind this special primer and points you to the best gesso substitutes. You will also find answers to some crucial questions about what you can and cannot use in place of gesso.
Before going straight to the best gesso substitutes, however, it is vital to understand the relationship between gesso and primer. So let’s get started.
Is Gesso the Same as Primer?
Not quite. Gesso is just one type of primer, but not all primers are gesso. The erroneous use of the two words interchangeably to mean the same thing gets many beginner artists confused. Let us explain a bit further.
There are many types of primers formulated with varying ingredients to suit particular surfaces and types of paint. Gesso is a primer specifically made for canvas or wood with acrylic or oil paints and has three different ingredients.
Constituent ingredients are what differentiates gesso from other primers. Acrylic gesso – which is the most widely used gesso today with the rise in popularity of less toxic acrylic paints – contains chalk/gypsum and pigment in a binder. The pigment is commonly titanium white but could be black, clear, or whichever color.
Rabbit skin glue is the fourth ingredient missing in acrylic gesso but is an essential part of the traditional gesso for oil painting. The purpose of the animal glue is to protect the canvas from the deteriorative chemical in oil paints. It also serves as a binding agent.
Now that it is clear all primers are not gesso, let us delve into those that can substitute it.
The Best Gesso Alternatives (Storebought)
These are probably your best go-tos for gesso substitutes, unless you want to make your own like your artist forebears! We’ll get into making your own acrylic or oil gesso later on.
1. Commercial Acrylic Primers
Acrylic primers are precisely developed to be used on various surfaces such as canvas, wood, and metal. They can be applied easily onto the canvas when using a paintbrush.
The constancy of acrylic primers is similar to that of gesso. The first coating is diluted to assist in absorbing into the canvas fibers. It is thin; hence it dries much faster than gel mediums.
Most acrylic primers are easy to clean up and are more flexible for a long time. They do not crack easily hence offer more permanence to the artwork.
They increase the canvas surface adhesive properties, making the paint stick quickly and uniformly on the surface. They are also economical as they reduce paint consumption, on coating is enough.
2. Clear Gesso
Clear gesso is primarily a matte medium plus the inclusion of a finer transparent aggregate. Clear gesso makes the canvas surface extra rough, making it much easier to paint or draw on the canvas surface. This is because it provides a more stable texture that paint can stick to easily.
The main disadvantage of clear gesso is that it tends to make paintbrushes wear out more quickly than when regular acrylic gesso. To save on costs, most artists use synthetic nylon brushes when working with this type of gesso. This type of brush still works well with clear gesso.
3. Gel Medium
Gel medium is a type of binder with no pigment. It is water-based and blends everything together with acrylic paints. It is permanent and flexible. Gel mediums increase the paint’s clarity and dry entirely without decreasing its adhesive qualities, hence making it perfect for collage work when used as a glue.
It is mainly used by artists to add texture to a painting and also as the last coating to protect the paintings from scratches. It can also mix with a pigment to form a perfect glaze. Commonly used gel mediums include matte gel and ultra-matte gel.
4. Rabbit Skin Glue
Although this was mainly used in the past, some professional painters still choose it over gesso. It has a habit of causing cracks in the layers of paintings because of its expansion and contraction depending on humidity change. But that traditional craquelure is still desired among many old-school oil painters and connoisseurs.
Rabbit skin glue is not suitable for painting with acrylic paints; in fact, it can only be used for oil paintings. It is also less easy to use because it requires hot water for the granules to dissolve. Lastly, it has an odor due to the decomposition of the mixture that many dislike.
5. Oil Painting Grounds
The ground is significant when using oil paints, and it basically separates the oil paints from the canvas surface. The ground also provides a surface that is stable, and hence carries the paint thoroughly. The oil grounds are less absorbent and brighter than most of the acrylic gessoes.
Some artists prefer using it because it is much easier to remove a layer of wet paint when using oil painting grounds; this is because it has a smooth surface. The drawback of using oil painting grounds is that they take longer to dry than typical gesso. It should not be painted over with acrylic paints.
Can You Make Your Own Gesso?
Absolutely! You can make your gesso. And although there are lots of recipes for homemade gesso, they all have three essential ingredients: a binding agent, pigment, and chalk.
The binder can be any glue, the pigment is traditionally titanium white or black depending on the color of gesso you want, and the chalk is typically calcium carbonate. An alternative chalk can be plaster of Paris or even baby powder, which is talcum-based. Water is used in gesso preparation to obtain the desired consistency as well.
Gesso ingredients are often locally available, so finding these ingredients should not be hard.
How to Prepare an Acrylic Gesso
In preparation for acrylic gesso or traditional oil gesso, you will need the following.
Ingredients for an Acrylic Gesso:
- ½ cup of calcium carbonate (chalk); if not available, you can either use plaster of Paris or talcum-based baby powder.
- Acrylic polymer medium (as the binder)
- Titanium white acrylic paint for white gesso or black acrylic paint for black gesso as the pigment (if you have actual pigment that has not been made into paint, this is great too)
- Two cups for measurements
- Bowl for mixing
- Painting brush; a wide size is better as it is faster
- Canvas or piece of wood
- Container with a lid for storing
- Water for desired consistency; warm water is best
Glue is not necessarily needed as water-based paints are not corrosive in nature and stable, so you do not have to worry about paint damaging the canvas.
Here is how to prepare your acrylic gesso:
- Measure ¼ cup of calcium carbonate and put in the mixing bowl.
- Add water in small amounts as you stir using a tablespoon until the calcium carbonate dissolves to form a thin paste.
- Measure ¼ cup of titanium white/black acrylic paint and add it to the thin paste as you stir.
- Add an equal amount of acrylic polymer and stir until the solution becomes even.
- Ensure no lumps are forming. Its consistency should be that of house paint when ready to be used.
- Paint the resulting mixture onto a canvas or piece of wood with the painting brush and leave it to dry for almost 24 hours before putting paint on it.
- Store the remaining gesso in an air-tight plastic container at room temperature for future use to avoid leakage and gesso from drying.
The above ratios do not necessarily need to be exact. You can adjust measurements to suit your desires.
If you need it to be very white, you can use titanium white acrylic two or three times. If you do not want it to be very white, you can leave the paint out.
How to Prepare a Traditional Oil Gesso
Now let’s go over how to make your own gesso for oil painting. (Feel free to imagine yourself as an apprentice in the traditional Italian studio of an Old Master!)
Note: Preparing traditional oil gesso takes more time than an acrylic gesso does!
These are the ingredients you’ll need for a traditional oil gesso:
- Animal glue binder-usually rabbit skin glue
- Calcium carbonate (chalk)
- Titanium white paint
- Tightly-sealing container with a lid for storage
- Two bowl
- Two heat-proof bowl
- Two cups for measurement
- Instant-read thermometer
- Painting brush
- Oil paint
- Heat source
Once you have everything ready, you can get started with the gesso-making process. But remember, this process is a bit more involved than making an acrylic gesso.
Here is how to prepare your oil gesso:
- Measure ½ cup of dried rabbit skin glue and put it in a heat-proof bowl.
- Add about four cups of water and leave it for at least three hours for the glue to swell. You can also prepare this overnight.
- Pour the resulting glue into another bowl and place it on a double boiler. (You can “make” your own double boiler. The double boiler is a pot placed on a stove with water boiled over medium heat, and another bowl is on it but does not touch the level of simmered water in the pot.)
- Heat the glue as you stir until it reaches a temperature of 60 Fahrenheit. Measure the temperature using an instant-read thermometer. In the process, the glue will change to slightly sticky, then to thick.
- The resulting solution will become thick. If the glue boils, the gesso will not stick to your material well, be careful in this stage. It is important to turn off the boiler before the required temperature is surpassed.
- Let the solution cool before proceeding.
- After the glue has cooled down, measure ½ cup of it and transfer it to the mixing bowl.
- Add ½ cup of calcium carbonate to it and stir using a tablespoon until you obtain a smooth solution.
- To remove impurities stretch a nylon stocking over the storing container and slowly pour the gesso. You can use your hands to squeeze gesso through the stocking.
- Once in the storage container, spread the gesso on a rigid material using a drawing brush and give it about twenty-four hours to dry before applying oil painting on it.
- Store the remaining gesso for future use in an air-tight plastic container at room temperature to prevent leakage and eliminate drying of gesso.
Note: In preparing gesso using talcum-based powder, you will need a mask and gloves. Talcum is approved for use, but there are questions concerning its safety, so safety is crucial. The mask will protect you from inhaling airborne talcum and the gloves protect your hands when holding the talcum.
Make sure your gesso is neither thick nor watery. It should resemble a pancake batter in consistency.
Can I Use Mod Podge Instead of Gesso?
No, you cannot use mod podge in place of gesso – at least not for sealing and priming surfaces meant to be painted. Although mod podge and gesso are both adhesives and somewhat related, they are far different from each other in makeup and function.
Gesso works well as an adhesive, but it mainly functions as a base primer for paper, canvas, wood, and other porous substrates.
Mod podge is a PVA (polyvinyl acetate) glue thinned with water. It is an excellent adhesive and medium for decoupage. Mod podge can also be applied over various forms of arts and crafts as a top sealer.
However, it lacks the hardening power of gesso and the chalk/marble dust that creates an ideal painting base and the tooth needed for paint to cling on.
Can I Use White Acrylic Paint Instead of Gesso?
You could use white acrylic paint instead of gesso as your base coat, particularly one mixed with a matte medium. But should you?
Unlike acrylic, gesso is formulated to work as a primer and isolates the substrate. Therefore, you cannot expect similar results from white acrylic paint.
Gesso seals the substrate making it stiffer, less porous, and controls the paint absorbency. White acrylic paint does not possess these qualities, and therefore surface-induced discoloration becomes inevitable unless using a pre-stretched, pre-primed canvas.
Also, gesso gives the surface grit, so the paint has a better staying power. Furthermore, it would not be cost-effective to prime with white acrylic paint as gesso is often way cheaper.
Is Gesso Necessary?
Most artists swear by gesso and find it indispensable for a pristine surface, but is gesso really necessary? Can you paint without gesso?
Gesso is not always necessary for today’s pre-treated canvases, and you can paint without it as long as you are working with acrylics.
The necessity of gesso primarily depends on the type of paint you intend to use, whether you want to alter your canvas absorbency level, or how long you intend to preserve your work.
Gesso is one of those things that are not necessary for acrylic painting, but it is still good to use. You can go ahead and paint your acrylics directly onto your raw canvas without it.
With oil painting, it is a whole different story. Oil paints are notorious for deteriorating canvas and causing the dreaded canvas rot. That is one major reason traditional gesso was created in the first place and applied to canvas before painting – to create a protective barrier.
Therefore, though not always a requirement, you should go ahead and apply gesso to your canvas. It will create a better surface for painting, partly by giving it some tooth for paint to hold better and by keeping your paint from absorbing into the weave so much.
You may also need gesso for archival purposes if using oil paints.
Still, gesso is often unnecessary if your canvas is pre-primed, which is the case with most modern store-bought canvases is often. They come to paint ready with 1-3 coats of gesso. This is especially true of acrylic-ready canvases.
And if you prefer to do your own prepping of the surface, you can achieve similar results with the best gesso substitutes and not necessarily gesso itself.
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