How To Gesso Canvas – Step By Step Gesso Painting Tutorial

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A bowl of gesso sitting next to unprimed canvas

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Learning how to gesso for painting

When teaching painting classes I always get interest from students in wanting to learn how to gesso their own canvas. Therefore, I thought I would go ahead and outline the process of how to gesso for painting. In hopes that it will help others who wish to learn the same.

Want a step by step video tutorial?

Scroll to the end of this article to watch the step by step video tutorial version of this article, where I show you how to gesso canvas for painting.

How to gesso canvas – Step by step instructions

Step One: Prepare a piece of canvas

The first step I undertake, is to cut out a piece of canvas that is of a desired size and will fit on my wood board. I then proceed to iron out the fabric. Although the act of gesso priming canvas, can in itself, get rid of the creases. I prefer to first press out the fabric with an iron, so that I can start out with a more smooth canvas surface.

An iron on a piece of canvas in preparation for gesso paint
Ironing canvas in preparation for gesso paint

Step Two: Flatten out canvas on a wood panel

Secondly, I smooth out the canvas onto my board so that it is flat against the wood- being careful that there are not any straggling pieces of canvas string underneath (this will make your canvas slightly raised -so make sure it is flat!).

A box of push pins sitting on a piece of un-primed canvas
Preparing to pin down your canvas

Step Three: Stretch out and secure canvas to wood panel

Take your push pins and place one in one corner of the canvas about 1/4 in from the edge. Place the second push pin in the opposite corner from the first—while at the same time pulling (but not too hard) the canvas so that there is slight tension so as to avoid it having creases.

A hand holds a corner of a piece of canvas while pinning it to a wood panel
Thumbtacks pinning canvas to a wooden panel

Place the next push pin in the next corner whilst pulling the canvas a little and the one after that in the opposite corner. Continue to follow this pattern of placing the push pins in the opposite place of your previous placement – this will help secure your canvas down and prepare you to gesso your canvas.

A piece of canvas pinned to a board ready for gesso paint to be applied
Canvas pinned and ready for gesso primer

Step Four: Preparing gesso paint

Depending on what type of gesso you have, you will want to dilute it with water. The better the gesso, the thicker it will be and the more you will need to dilute it. You want it to have some thickness to it, but be fluid at the same time. It should have the consistency of a viscous soup. I most prefer to use a painting trowel to mix the water and gesso together in an aluminum pie tin.

Step Five: Begin gesso painting your canvas!

Now the time to add the gesso paint to your canvas begins! Place a dollop of gesso primer onto the center of your canvas and press it outward with your painting trowel. You want to press the gesso paint into the canvas as if you are trying to scrape it off the canvas—this way the gesso will get into the ribbing of the canvas and give you a good first layer.

Applying first gesso primer for canvas
Applying first gesso primer for canvas

Continue to place more gesso primer as needed onto the canvas. Then continue to gesso out from the center of the canvas, towards the edges until the surface is covered. Let the canvas sit for 30 min. to dry before starting your next layer.

Artists hand holding a tool gesso priming a piece of canvas
Gesso priming canvas

Step Six: Repeat step five of adding gesso primer

Repeat the step above two more times (giving yourself 3 layers). Be sure to let your canvas dry for 30 minutes in between each layer. Depending on what type of canvas you have, you may need more or less layers of gesso. Knowing how much you need is something that you will be able to tell by touching the surface—if it is so rough that it will take paint with difficulty then you will want another layer. Conversely, if it is too smooth, you will know for next time to use less gesso.

Step Seven: Let your gessoed canvas dry

When your freshly gessoed canvas surface is dry to the touch, you are ready to take out the push pins from your canvas and start painting!

Gesso primed canvas pinned to a wood panel
Gesso primed canvas

Where to go from here with your primed canvas

I hope this tutorial was helpful to you! Having a properly primed painting surface is so important for ease of painting, as well as for archival purposes. Now that you have your gesso painting in place and your primed canvas ready to go you are ready to start your oil painting!

How to Gesso Canvas – Video Tutorial

Elisabeth Larson Koehler creator of art studio life

Hi! I am Elisabeth

Art Studio Life exists for you to be able to stay inspired, learn, and improve your skills.

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