Learn how to prepare a canvas, wooden panel or paper for oil painting using gesso.
Surface preparation in oil painting involves painting layers of primer onto your chosen surface.
Using a primer has many benefits and by making sure this is part of your process, you can ensure that each painting you create is structurally sound.
Use this guidance to find out what to use as a primer, why you should use it before painting and how to apply it to your surface for best results.
Watch the video guide
Why prime your surface before oil painting?
Surface preparation is key when oil painting. If you don’t prepare your surface properly, all sorts of problems can arise.
Priming a surface provides tooth (what the paint needs to adhere), coverage, colour (oil paint becomes increasingly transparent with age, so the colour of your primer is important) and it also makes the surface more rigid.
Gesso effectively acts as a foundation for your paint. I would also advise using a surface sealer if you are painting on raw wood, cotton or linen. The sealer will create a barrier between the surface and the layers of paint that will be applied. If you paint straight onto a canvas or wooden panel without preparing it first, the oil from the paint will be absorbed into the material, causing pigment to remain dry on the surface and the material to rot underneath.
If your surface has already been primed in a factory, as most canvases you buy these days are, it’s not essential to prime it yourself, but you can change the texture, rigidity and absorbency of your surface by putting some extra primer on.
There are several different methods you can use to prepare a surface for oil painting. In this post I’ll run through how to prime a surface using acrylic gesso. There is an alternative way of doing it using ‘size’ (rabbit skin glue) then an oil-based primer, but using an acrylic based primer is much more straightforward as it’s the easiest to apply, cheapest to buy and quickest to dry.
The process you’ll use is the same for all surfaces—canvas, wood and paper.
Choose your gesso
This part is really important, some acrylic grounds have a tendency to absorb oil from the upper layers of your painting, making them look dull and creating a phenomenon called ‘sinking in’.
Choosing the right gesso ground and carefully preparing your surface for the paint is just as important as choosing which paint to use.
This primer by Michael Harding is non-absorbent, meaning that the primer won’t suck the oil from your paint. This ground will make your painting appear vibrant and luminous.
Alternatively, this gesso by Liquitex has a slightly more standard formulation. It’s more absorbent and is used by professional artists worldwide.
What else do you need?
- A surface to paint on
- Fine sandpaper
- Wide, flat brush (soft bristles)
- Jar for mixing
- If you are painting on raw linen, cotton or wood, I recommend sealing the surface prior to priming. Use Golden’s Gac 100 sealer.
How to prime a surface with gesso
- If you’re painting on raw wood or canvas, paint two coats of Gac 100. Make sure to cover the whole surface. Gac 100 doesn’t take long to dry—around 30 minutes.
- Wait for the first layer of sealer to dry before applying the second layer.
- Sand your surface to give an even ground for the first layer of gesso to adhere to.
- It’s optional to dilute your gesso. Added water acts to increase the flow and coverage of your primer. For the first layer of gesso, I would avoid diluting it, however. It is best to read the instructions on the bottle of the primer you’ve chosen to buy as it will tell you the exact measurements, but the general rule of thumb is one part water to four parts gesso.
- Coat the surface with gesso. Brush in one direction (i.e horizontally or from top to bottom) and making sure you’ve not missed any parts. Slightly overlap your brush strokes to make sure it’s all covered.
- Wait for the surface to dry, this could take up to two hours depending on how thickly you applied the gesso and which gesso you are using, but should be much quicker. The average time is around thirty minutes.
- When the layer is dry, gently sand the surface with circular movements to create an even surface.
- Wipe the dust off with a damp lint-free cloth and wait for it to dry.
- Repeat this process twice more. When you apply gesso, alternate between painting horizontally and top to bottom for each layer.
- Your surface should be fully covered and have a smoother appearance. If you want your surface to be smoother, just repeat the painting and sanding process twice more. This way you can get an eggshell finish.
- If you’re working on paper or panel, it’s best to put a few coats of gesso on the back too. Sand in-between layers as you did before.
If you’re just beginning on your oil painting journey and you’re not quite sure what supplies to get, start with this beginner’s guide. It’ll teach you about all the tools and materials you need to start oil painting and give you valuable advice on how to use the supplies to get the best results.
If you want to stock up on oil painting supplies, check out the shop.
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