Before painting on a canvas, it is advisable to apply a primer and bonding glue if you want to use oil paints. Primers like gesso harden the surface of the canvas, adding texture and allowing the colors in the artwork to stand out more. Fortunately, priming a canvas is easier than you might think, even if you've never done it before. Once you have the correct gesso and bonding glue for your project, applying them to the canvas is a breeze.
Method 1 of 2: Choosing the Right Gesso and Bonding Glue
Step 1. Apply bonding glue to the canvas if you want to paint with oil
Bonding glue is a liquid adhesive that artists apply to canvas to prevent oil paints from seeping into the fibers. Apply the glue to the canvas with a small brush in short strokes. Then allow it to dry for about 12 hours.
- If you are using an oil paint, you will definitely need to apply a bonding glue to the canvas before applying the primer. If you paint with acrylic, applying the bonding glue is optional.
- You can buy bonding glue at any art supply store that sells gesso.
Step 2. Choose a primer designed for the type of paint you want to use
Simply put, you should use an acrylic gesso if you want to paint with acrylic paint, oil gesso if you want to paint with oil, and so on. Many acrylic gessos can be used with acrylic and oil paints, so it is probably safe to choose an acrylic primer for your project.
You can buy different types of gesso at any art supply store. Read the product label to find out what type of paint each gesso works with
Step 3. Use white gesso if you want the paint colors to appear lighter
The white gesso background allows you to subtly show the colors in your painting, allowing them to appear lighter and softer. You can lighten the colors more if you start painting while the gesso is wet.
White gesso is also the most common color variety of primer for painting on canvas, since white is a white background to paint on
Step 4. Choose a colored gesso if you want the colors to appear sharper
This is very useful if you want to paint a portrait or still life image. The colors you use will look brighter against a dark background.
- The color of the gesso you use will depend on the environment you are looking for. For example, if you are painting a landscape, you can use an earthy color like dark ocher or dark blue.
- Keep in mind that colored gesso is usually more expensive, and is often harder to find than traditional white gesso.
- You can also make your own colored gesso by mixing acrylic paint with a standard white primer. Vary the amount of paint you add to the gesso to change the final color.
Step 5. Go for student grade gesso if you are looking for an inexpensive white primer
This type of gesso is more watery than art-grade gesso, but allows the job to be completed if you just want to try a simple paint. Student grade primers are generally available in white only, so they might be your best option if you are looking for a white background for your painting.
Student grade gesso is cheaper than art grade gesso because it contains more filler and less pigment
Step 6. Choose artistic grade gesso if you are looking for a higher quality primer
This type of gesso provides a more “textured” finish, so it will appear more textured and a bit rough. The gesso color is generally artistic grade. So if you want to use a colored gesso, you will probably have to choose an artistic grade one, unless you want to mix it up on your own.
Method 2 of 2: Apply the primer
Step 1. Stir the primer and add a touch of water to dilute it
There is no specific amount that you have to add. Therefore, pour the primer into the bucket or cup that you will use to hold it. Then add a little water at a time while stirring the gesso and keep adding until it has the consistency of heavy cream.
- The gesso is probably very thick, so it is important to thin it so it is easier to apply and smooth.
- It is better to pour a little water than a lot, since if you add a lot of water to the gesso, you will have to start the process from scratch.
Step 2. Use a thick brush to apply the gesso with vertical strokes
Work from the top of the canvas to the bottom, drawing strokes parallel to the length of the canvas. Cover the entire canvas as you spread the primer as evenly and thinly as possible.
- Create as flat a surface as you can with the gesso.
- For best results, use a stiff brush with relatively firm fibers. If the canvas is very large, you can use a roller.
- Make sure to paint the edges of the canvas. They are often difficult to reach with vertical strokes alone.
Step 3. Allow the first coat to dry and sand lightly to smooth it out
Gesso doesn't take long to dry, but allow it to dry for at least an hour for best results. Use fine sandpaper to give it a pass and give it a smooth texture to follow.
- If you don't want the canvas to have a smooth texture, you can skip this step.
- Make sure to remove dust from the canvas after sanding the gesso.
- While the gesso dries, take the time to clean the brush. If you leave the gesso on the bristles for too long, it will be more difficult to remove it.
Step 4. Repeat these steps to apply a second coat with perpendicular strokes
When applying the second coat of gesso, be sure to rotate the canvas 90 degrees first. In this way, when you apply the primer with vertical strokes, these strokes will be perpendicular to the ones you made in the first coat.
- Using perpendicular strokes will make the texture finish much more uniform.
- You can apply as many coats of primer as you like, but people generally apply two for a smoother texture. A coat of gesso will give your canvas a relatively rough finish.
Step 5. Sand the gesso after it dries for a smoother surface
For best results, allow the second coat to dry for an hour before sanding. Use very gentle pressure and brief back and forth motions so you don't scrape the gesso too much. Make sure to remove dust from the canvas after sanding it.
Once you finish sanding the gesso, the canvas is ready for you to paint
- You can also apply the gesso unevenly with a sponge brush if you want the paint to have a rougher texture. Feel free to get creative with primer!
- Gesso can also be very difficult to remove from paint brushes. If possible, buy a commercial brush cleaner and use it to clean your brush while the gesso dries.