Gesso is a type of primer that’s used to make canvas ready for painting. Gesso is applied to the canvas’s surface to make it look slightly textured and prevent the paint from being absorbed into the canvas’s weave. Gesso also adds a bit of stiffness to the canvas, which can make it easier to paint.
So, how do you make gesso? You can easily make gesso at home with common ingredients you probably already have in your kitchen. These include cornstarch, water, baking soda, water, glue, and acrylic paint. We’ve provided a step-by-step guide in this article.
While you can buy ready-made gesso in the art supply store, it’s not hard to make. If you are interested in making your own gesso, you’ve come to the right place! Let’s explore the world of gesso and how you can make a homemade substitute from things you can find in your kitchen.
What Is Gesso?
Gesso is a well-beloved primer for any artist who loves working with acrylic paint. Store-bought gesso is usually made from acrylic latex, calcium carbonate (chalk), and paint to add a bit of color to it.
It is a highly versatile primer since it can be applied to almost any surface to get it ready for acrylic paint. Most often, however, you can use gesso to go over a canvas to prepare it for painting.
This is because when you work with an unprimed canvas, the canvas tends to absorb a lot of paint, and you may end up wasting paint without being able to build a lot of texture. Canvas, even after being stretched, can still be quite flimsy, so gesso can add a layer of support to reinforce the structure of the canvas, which makes it stiffer for painting.
Gesso is a water-based solution, which is why it is most regularly used with water-based paints like acrylic paint. You can also use gesso for other types of water-based paints, such as chalk paint.
Gesso typically comes in white, but you can also buy ready-made black and colored gesso. You can also tint it with your own acrylic paint to make it a different color without affecting how the gesso performs. This way, you can have the first coat of background paint while priming the canvas at the same time.
If you want the color to be a bit more opaque, you can also add white acrylic paint to the gesso. Since paint is a part of the formula, it will mix just fine and add more pigment to the gesso.
Gesso comes in two different grades: the artist grade and the student grade. The former has more pigments than the latter, which makes it more opaque and thicker. Meanwhile, student grade gesso usually has more filler, so it takes more gesso to get the job done.
Of course, it also means student grade gesso is more affordable. While student-grade gesso usually only comes in white, it’s not really an issue since you can always tint it with your own acrylic paint.
The texture and consistency of gesso will vary depending on the brand. Some brands are more liquidy, and some others have more viscosity, which means you’ll get more textures from them. It’s really down to your personal preference how you want your canvas to look before painting.
If you want to adjust the consistency of gesso, you can actually thin it – similar to how you thin acrylic paint. You can use paint thinners or simply water to thin gesso; since it is a water-based formula, it works either way.
Most artists find that the consistency of heavy cream is the right viscosity for gesso. It makes it easy to apply and spread around the canvas without being too transparent.
Gesso can be bought in both squeeze bottles and large jars. With a squeeze bottle, you will need to have a palette to apply the gesso, while with a jar, you can dip the brush directly in there to pick up the liquid.
More recently, you can also buy spray gesso, which comes in a bottle that can be sprayed directly on the canvas. However, since it has a very thin consistency, you won’t be able to achieve similar textures compared to using a brush.
Do You Need To Gesso A Pre-Primed Canvas?
Since gesso is a primer, most art students assume that they can skip this step when they are using a pre-primed canvas. Most pre-stretched canvases are now pre-primed, so it’s perfectly acceptable to start painting them with acrylics immediately.
However, depending on the quality of your canvas, your colors may look really patchy, or you may find that the paint is being absorbed too quickly by the canvas. In these cases, it’s a good idea to go over the canvas with a coat of gesso just to give the paint a better chance.
It’s up to you whether you want to paint directly onto the canvas or if you prefer to prime it with gesso first. However, gesso definitely has a unique look and feel that is preferred by many professional artists.
One advantage of gesso is that you can add more unique textures to your canvas or even make it as smooth as you would like. This is usually not achievable with a pre-primed canvas.
You can add more visual interest to your piece by adding four or five layers of gesso to your canvas before painting. That way, you can build up the texture without adding colors.
Since gesso dries hard (similar to acrylic paint), if you don’t like the texture on the surface, you can actually smooth out the texture using fine-grit sandpaper. Then, you can paint on the primed surface using your acrylic paint.
Since gesso is a practical primer that is useful not just for professional artists but for anyone who regularly works with acrylic paint, you may find yourself running out of gesso very often. If you’re using a lot of gesso, your wallet may be relieved to learn that you can totally make gesso at home using ingredients you already have.
Depending on where you look, there are quite a few homemade recipes available on the internet, but the basic ingredients are quite simple.
- Three parts of cornstarch – This gives gesso a thick viscosity, so you can adjust this depending on how thick you want your gesso to be.
- Three parts baking soda – This gives the gesso its light texture; again, you can adjust this to how textured you want the gesso to be.
- One part white glue to allow it to adhere to the canvas
- One part acrylic paint in the color of your choice. You can use white for the most basic option or tint it whatever color that you like – it won’t really affect how the gesso performs.
- Three parts water
- First, mix the dry ingredients (cornstarch and baking soda) together. In a separate bowl, mix the wet ingredients (glue and paint) together until well combined. Then, combine everything together, and add a little bit of water at a time to the mixture until there are no lumps.
- The beauty of this recipe is that you can adjust all the portions to achieve the texture and consistency that you would like. For example, you can add more water or use less cornstarch to make the consistency runnier, or use less water to give the mixture more viscosity.
- Since two of our ingredients – cornstarch and baking soda – are perishable, you will need to use this homemade gesso right away as it has a shorter shelf life. You can store it in an airtight container and use it up within a week, but it will probably go bad after that.
- If you don’t like this, you can substitute the cornstarch and baking soda with talcum powder, which many say help achieve the same result. Talcum powder has a longer shelf life, but if you are leaving this homemade gesso alone for a long time, the ingredients may separate.
Homemade Vs. Store-Bought Gesso
Compared to store-bought gesso, homemade gesso is significantly more affordable and readily available in many kitchens. It’s also highly customizable, so you can always change out the ingredients until you find the recipe that works for your art style.
Once dry, you may find that homemade gesso is also comparable in terms of quality.
Both homemade gesso and store-bought gesso have a translucent quality that covers the canvas quite nicely without affecting the artwork. If you want the result to be a bit more opaque, you can always add another layer of gesso to the canvas.
Applying homemade gesso is also the same as applying store-bought gesso. You can use a flat brush to pick up the solution to go over your canvas (or the painted area) in clean, even coats across the surface.
Once the first layer is dry, which typically takes up to a day, you can see if it is thick enough to paint with, or you can add an additional layer to build up the gesso.
If you want a smooth texture, you can also use a paint roller to apply the gesso, which can cover a large area without creating textured brushstrokes on your canvas.
Up Next: How Long Does Gesso Take To Dry?