What is Gesso - Let's Learn the Basics

What is Gesso - Let's Learn the Basics

Are you new to the world of acrylic paint on fabric? If yes, this article will help you understand the hottest buzzword in the acrylic world - gesso. 

This article is your go-to stop for understanding and grasping the concept of gesso. It provides a basic introduction to what gesso is, gives a few substitute options instead of gesso, and recommends the best gesso for your next painting project.  All you need to do is just sit back, relax, and keep up with us till the end. So, freshen up your brushes, put on your painting gloves, and get ready to explore!       

What’s Gesso?

Basics of Gesso

What's the Basics of Gesso?

If you are a beginner and a newbie in the world of acrylic painting, you might have come across a famous world, gesso. And you might have thought, what’s gesso and how is it related to painting? Simply put, gesso is a paint mixture of chalk, gypsum, pigment, or other combinations like acrylic polymer medium.

Back in the day, gesso was invented to help oil painters prepare or prime a painting surface for oil paints. Gesso was meant to provide a nice surface to work on and give the ultimate flexibility. But in the modern age of painting, gesso is mixed with acrylic polymer medium or binder to work as a surface preparer for acrylic painting.

Going Limitless with Gesso

Although gesso is a noun, professional painters use it as a verb like, “gesso your canvas before painting.” The beauty of gesso available in the modern market is that it can be applied to pretty much any surface to use acrylic paints. For instance, you can coat a cigarette packing with gesso and swiftly paint with acrylic paints on it.

With gesso, the possibilities are endless. Gesso provides the ultimate experience regardless of the surface you are applying it to. What gesso does to a surface is that it slightly textures it and makes it stiff to accept acrylic paints. Without gesso, acrylic paint will just soak into the surface and could ruin the painting.

What is the Difference Between Gesso and Primer?

Primer is anything that’s used as a primary coat upon a surface that you are going to paint. Primers are created to cover surfaces so that you can paint without any complaints related to finishing, graininess, and texture.

On the other side, gesso is a substance or a solution that’s designed to cover-up uneven or porous surfaces like wood. Gesso provides an initial painting service that promises quick-absorbing ability.

Lastly, primer is the name reserved for an oil-based ground for oil painting, where gesso refers to as a base coating for both acrylic and oil painting.        

Gesso and Fabric

Many painters like to paint their imaginations on fabric as the outcome is stunning. And acrylic paint on fabric also looks great. But without preparing the fabric with gesso, it’s pointless to use acrylic paint on fabric.

Just like other surfaces, gesso greatly prepares fabric as the imagination board for painters. By applying gesso to fabric, the fabric is ready to digest all sorts of acrylic paint imaginations.

Does Modern Acrylic Gesso Include Glue?

No! Modern acrylic gesso solutions don’t include glue, as acrylic paints are non-corrosive and are stable over time. The glue was used in gesso solutions that were meant to accept oil paints because they are corrosive in nature.

Why Gesso?

Both oil and acrylic painters use gesso to prepare their surfaces due to its absorbance. Gesso works with all painting media, including water-based media. Moreover, gesso also greatly compliments three-dimensional surfaces like boxes.

All in all, gesso is one of the essential art supplies to prepare your canvas for acrylic painting. Without gesso, your canvas will not hold up the promises of acrylic paint. But if you don’t have access to gesso, the following section will help you to pick some alternatives. So let’s move forward and discuss the substitutes for gesso.    

What Can I Substitute for Gesso?

Many beginner and expert painters go for Gesso without even considering the alternative. Although Gesso is one of the best primers out there, the alternatives also serve an excellent purpose for different types of paintings.

Gesso is commonly found in a white color, so what if you don’t want to prepare your canvas with a white background? In such cases, gesso alternatives have got your back. And here are some popular substitutes for gesso:

Acrylic Solutions

Acrylic Matte Medium

First in line is the acrylic matte medium. It’s used to prepare surfaces for acrylic painting. Just like gesso, the acrylic matte medium can easily be applied to any canvas with a basic brush.

You can either paint the acrylic matte medium primer direct from the bottle packaging or use a little water with it to thin the coat. But note that matte medium is cloudy when wet and transparent when dry.

Compared to its sibling, acrylic gloss medium, acrylic matte medium isn’t slick and helps to add a bit of roughness to surfaces for easy drawing and painting. But note that matte medium doesn’t work well with pencil marks.

Matte medium is one of the best gesso alternatives that provides roughness, consistency, and flexibility.   

Matte Gel

Are you looking for a thick alternative? Then, acrylic matte gels are your best bet. They are just like acrylic matte mediums and gessos but a lot thicker. Acrylic matte gels are perfect for preparing your canvas with something thick, consistent, and reliable.

Acrylic matte gel dries with a cloudy appearance - that’s one of its biggest selling points. If you are looking to paint a picture with a cloudy vibe and an outlook of something waxy and oily, then you’ll not regret preparing your canvas with the matte gel.

Just a quick heads up, if you want to make your canvas look like beeswax, add a little warm acrylic matte medium with the matte gel. And if you want to clarify your finish, make use of the gloss gels. Matte gel eliminates all the aspects of discoloration. But acrylic matte gel takes longer than usual to dry.     

Clear Gesso

Something it’s difficult to draw on a super smooth and glossy surface. And that’s where the clear gesso can help you. Unlike previous alternatives, clear gesso provides a rougher surface to make painting easy for the newbies.

Clear gesso is just a matte medium with an additional layer of very fine transparent aggregate. The whole point of the clear gesso is to coat the canvas with something rough and tough. A surface prepared with clear gesso will easily be able to grab sharp and rough imprints like of a pencil.

But note that clear gesso is rougher than the regular acrylic gesso. It will create extra wear on your brushes as its texture is similar to sandpaper. If you are looking forward to using clear Gesso, you just need to invest in premium brushes, so they don’t wear out easily - synthetic nylon brushes are a great choice!

Non-Acrylic Solutions  

Rabbit Skin Glue

Rabbit skin glue primer is a blast from the past. Back in the days, oil painters used rabbit skin glue as a canvas-preparation solution. But note that rabbit skin glue primer only works for oil paints, and it’s not suitable for acrylic paints.

Although old painters used rabbit skin glue to prepare their canvases, it’s not recommended in today’s age. Even for oil painting, rabbit skin glue has the tendency to cause cracks in the paintings. Moreover, it expands and changes according to the humidity levels in the environment. And hey, you can’t afford expansion and contraction cracks on your paintings, right?

Another thing about the rabbit skin glue is that it doesn’t have a long shelf life. As soon as you prepare a batch of it, you have to use it before it expires. And don’t even talk about the smell of rabbit skin glue.

So yeah, if you are just experimenting with the rabbit skin glue, then there’s no harm done. But if you want it to use as your primary primer, then you should look for other alternatives.         

Oil Painting Ground

Oil painters mostly use oil painting grounds. As suggested by the name, Oil painting grounds are based on oil. But note that they can’t be directly applied to your canvas. You first need to apply of acrylic medium to protect the canvas from oil paints. And then follow the instructions that come with the oil painting grounds.

Oil painting grounds are brighter and less absorbent than the typical acrylic gesso. With oil painting ground, you can easily wipe off the wet paint due to its smooth surface. But note that you can’t use acrylic paints on the surfaces with oil painting grounds.

Compared to other primers like acrylic medium, and clear gesso, oil painting grounds take a little longer to dry. But once they are all intact to a particular surface, you can easily paint with your favorite oil paints.

Is Gesso Really Necessary?

Yes! For many reasons, using gesso is really necessary. And here are some of the popular reasons:

Makes Every Surface Paintable

No matter which Gesso you are using, acrylic gesso or oil-based gesso as a base paint, it makes every surface paintable. Although it’s not a hard and fast rule to use gesso as a primer on every surface, it makes the surface smooth and easy to paint.

Acrylic painters often use gesso to make their acrylic paints and paintings stand out. As gesso can be used on every surface, it enables the painters to paint on pretty much any surface without any problem.

Gesso allows you to paint on any surface

Provides an Absorbent Surface

Another thing that makes gesso one of the painting essentials is its nature of making the surface absorbent. If you are working on a board or a raw canvas, applying the gesso layer will help your paint to absorb quickly. For instance, if you want to use acrylic paint on fabric, applying the Gesso coating first will make the fabric more absorbent and easier to work with.

Greatly Compliments Paints

What’s best about gesso is that it greatly compliments both acrylic and oil paints. After applying the gesso coat, you’ll be able to use your acrylic or oil paints more effectively. Moreover, the gesso coating will bring the most out of your acrylic or oil paints.

Gesso is really necessary to make your painting more than just a painting. But how to pick a gesso for your canvas? Well, don’t worry, our next section will cover the best gesso that’s widely available on Amazon and other major shopping platforms. So without further ado, let’s get right into it.     

Best Gesso for Acrylic and Oil Paints

White Gesso Acrylic Medium by U.S. Art Supply is hands down one of the best gessos available right now. This premium acrylic gesso can be used to prepare both acrylic and oil paint surfaces. Gesso Acrylic Medium is lightweight, non-toxic, and dries easily without leaving any yellow or watermarks.

Although this gesso by U.S. Art Supply is water-based, it stays permanent and flexible after drying. And what’s cool about this gesso is that you can mix it with other pigments or acrylic paints to create endless customized colored backgrounds. This gesso is super smooth, flexible, and highly pigmented to serve superior coverage in only one coat.

Acrylic Medium Gesso by U.S. Art Supply is one of the essential tools for any painter. From modeling pastes to impastos, anything can be added with this gesso to set texture according to your choice. Often lower quality gessos dry out due to inadequate packaging, but this Gesso is packed in a top-quality simple screw-top jar with tight seals.

Gesso Acrylic Medium by U.S. Art Supply lets you create a mixture of textures, so your imagination doesn’t get limited by the equipment. So what are you waiting for? Buy this gesso to use oil or acrylic paint on fabric, board, and absolutely anywhere without any problem.  

* Please note this post contains affiliate links.  I receive a small amount of compensation when you purchase from my links, which I'll totally blow on my next trip to Chick-Fila!  I'll take a number one on wheat with extra pickles please. 


And that’s a wrap! Will you use gesso as your next surface base coater? Tell us by commenting down below.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published