How To Prepare A Canvas Painting With Gesso

Hi ho! Hi ho! It's off to gesso we go, wheew woo whee woo whee whoo whee whoo, Hi Ho, Hi HO!!!

You must prepare a canvas or any other painting surface first, before you begin to paint. If you don't an art historian will come to your studio and spank you with a boat oar.

Well, maybe not, but you really do need to prepare a canvas, board or paper first. "Why bother?" You ask presumptuously. Don't worry, I carelessly asked the same question many years ago. Here's why:

Gesso is what holds your painting up to the grinding weather of time. Gesso is the foundation for your art, it's what makes the difference between an heirloom piece and a disposable piece of art. Gesso is usually made of gypsum and/or Plaster of Paris and a specially formulated glue, usually a form of acrylic. Regular oil paints and acrylics will eat away at your painting surface over the years, especially oils. So it's important to create a solid ground to lay your paints upon. That way your oil painting will last hundreds, possibly even thousands of years. Instead of a few years or less, as the canvas begins to degrade and your art turns into dust.The good news is contemporary gesso mixtures are a technological marvel. Beginners gessos have less pigment and more fillers but still hold up to time. You might even find that gessoing your painting surface enlivens your surface and inspires you to paint differently.

I'm going to explain how I prepare my canvas, and flesh out a few variations below.

1. Build or buy stretcher bars. These are the wooden braces that hold the canvas. You can buy them prefab at an art supply store or you can build your own. I suggest eventually learning to build your own or hiring a carpenter to build them for you as the prefab bars are weak and can sometimes fail over time.

2. Stretch the canvas. Using thumbtacks or staples stretch the canvas around your stretcher bars. Not too tight, as the application of gesso will naturally pull the canvas.

3. Apply the first layer of gesso with just about any brush or roller. I usually use a regular hardware storehouse painting brush instead of my fine artists sables to save them from wear. You will want to thin out your first layer of gesso with water because the canvas will absorb the preparation like a sponge.

4. Apply several other layers. Some people like to wait at least a few hours between coats, other artists wouldn't dare put down another layer until the next day. Partly it depends on the humidity in the air and the temperature because this will determine how fast the gesso will dry and cure. After at least 3 coats, you can lightly and with a very fine grade of sandpaper, proceed to sand down a layer. This will give you an exceedingly smooth surface to paint on. My paintings generally have at least some impasto on them, so I usually don't care to sand them at all, but occasionally I might.

5. After you've applied at least one thin layer and two more thick layers take the canvas outside or to a brightly lit window and look at it from behind. Most likely you will see many pinpoint dots of light coming through. These are little monsters that you need to white wash. Some artists will go at these aiming with a brush from behind the canvas. I usually do not use the front and back approach. Most often I just add a couple more layers to the front. It's very important to saturate all of these pinholes as oil paint will find it's way to these and leak through to the back of the painting. The acids in the paint will eat away at the canvas, and the ravages of time will destroy your art expeditiously.

6. Once you're satisfied you've covered all the pinholes I suggest waiting a full twenty four hours before you start painting. This will give the gesso full time to cure and make your art that much more durable. But sometimes dammit, you just want to paint! So if you want just wait at least a few hours, then hop to it! The world needs more art now!


You must prepare a painting before you apply paint...

Here is artist Ben Zoltak preparing a custom stretched canvas painting with gesso.
Here is artist Ben Zoltak preparing a custom stretched canvas painting with gesso.

A few final words about preparing your painting surface

A couple other things you might want to remember. If you are a perfectionist, you will want to use the top of the line gesso not the beginners. Some artists like to also apply a layer of rabbit glue for more durability. You may also want to direct the roller or brushes in a horizontal grain for one layer, then a vertical grain for the next, sanding in between. This is a really anal-retentive measure in my book and not my style. But to each his own! Also, I try to always paint on canvas, it's the tightest painting tradition I hold onto!

Someday when I have a little more moolah, I would like to procure some actual hemp canvas, it's much more durable than cotton linen and contains natural preservatives in it. That's where the name canvas comes from, canvas = cannabis get it? Levi Strauss knew this when he sewed the first pair of blue jeans out of hemp canvas boat sails. But unfortunately, some irrational laws prevent using this natural wonder product at the time of writing this article due to artificially exorbitant prices. Two other surfaces to consider gessoing are board or paper. Some writers like to gesso a few of their journal pages, to give them something solid to create art on, what a great gesture! I've tried using Masonite high density particle board to paint on after a preparation of gesso. The action is interesting, but the end result is heavy, hard to hang on a wall without ripping the Plaster of Paris right off of your wall!

I hope this collection of directions has given you a hand in painting. The world needs your art, your family needs it, your friends need it, even strangers need art. The world is depending on you to make great art, get out there and create now! Art is for everyone!

Always use your best ventilation when possible for good health!

Buy Ben Zoltak's first eBook !

Your Life As A Painting
Your Life As A Painting

Explore a new creative path to life as explored in Ben Zoltak's newly published eBook! Your Life As A Painting is an inspirational collection of observations on how to live a more unique and creative life!

 

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Comments 45 comments

Green Lotus profile image

Green Lotus 7 years ago from Atlanta, GA

Great information and a fun Hub Ben! Ah I used to paint lots, years ago and I remember using Gesso to prime the canvas. One day I'll take it up again,.. maybe. I must say I never heard of rabbit glue or that the words canvas and canabis were related! Great information. Thanks!


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Ben Zoltak 7 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA Author

Thanks for the kudos GL! Painting is still here for you if you want it! I'm getting ready to brave the 38F Wisconsin weather right now and go to my outside painting space to work on a commission.


ripplemaker profile image

ripplemaker 7 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

Hi Ben, I would like to forward this to my friend who enjoys painting as her hobby. I am sure she will get great ideas from you. Many thanks for sharing!

This hub is a Hubnugget Wannabe! Sending you my warmest congratulations in behalf of the Hubnuggets Team! To vote and check the yummy nuggets, this way please: http://hubpages.com/hubnuggets10/hub/Oulala-Zhe-Bi...


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Ben Zoltak 7 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA Author

Thanks Ripplemaker! I hope your friend enjoys the article! I appreciate the sentiment! Is it warm in the Phillipines tonight? It's 20F (-7C) here in Madison, Wisconsin USA, wish I was in your tropical warmth!!!


ralwus 7 years ago

Gee, I find this most useful as a folk artist. thanks and Merry Christmas


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Ben Zoltak 7 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA Author

Thanks ralwus, I was wondering if/when you would comment on one of my articles, you are an outspoken commenter here on HubPages. Yes (thumbs up) I got a ralwus comment! Hot dog!

I hope these words were useful for you.

Merry Christmas and thank you again.


kulewriter profile image

kulewriter 7 years ago from Florida

I really enjoyed your Hub a lot. It took me back to my art classes at the Mission: Renaissance Art Academy founded by Lary Gluck in Glendale, CA - gee, sounds like a commercial but unintended.

Lately I have been mulling doing more paintings and so this informative article was just what I wanted to read. Thanks again!


Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 7 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA Author

Thanks kulewriter I'm humbly flattered. Get out there and get those brushes loaded! I will take a peek at Lary Gluck's academy when I get a chance. I studied under some crackerjack painters in a great town in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. My main mentor was a painter/illustrator named Rob Stolzer (has a great website) I also gained tuteledge from artists Diane Bywaters, Bob Erickson, Gary Hagen and Guillermo Penafiel.

Thanks for the kudos!


Moonmaiden profile image

Moonmaiden 7 years ago from Lucerne Valley, CA

I've been using gesso since the 70's and I don't know how I'd ever get along without it. It's not only handy on canvases and masonite, it's great on wood, gourds, and odds and ends you want to decorate with paint. I usually tint my gesso with acrylics, but you can also buy black gesso already mixed. Thanks for explaining it all.


Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 6 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA Author

I know what you mean about not surviving without it! Many moons ago (pun intact) I used to tint my gesso, but have long since abandoned that practice for just applying many layers of oil instead. But I don't want to sound like a snob about it, just sayin'! Thanks for the comment Moonmaiden!


Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 6 years ago

Wow. I didn't realize there was so much work before you start work. Very nice hub. Thanks for sharing you "know how".


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Ben Zoltak 6 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA Author

Thanks Micky Dee, and that's just the half of it!


prettydarkhorse profile image

prettydarkhorse 6 years ago from US

great piece of information, hmm, hardwork, really is,,,Maita (congrats Hubnuggets Wannabe)


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Ben Zoltak 6 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA Author

Thanks prettydarkhorse! I appreciate the warm reception of all you Hubnuggets followers, you're a kind group of people!


hawkeyedubai 6 years ago

Hi Ben,great info.I have always used off the shelf canvases already streched. If these are already treated is there a need for further treatment?

Keep up the good work.

By the way I have just joined hubpages and haven't the first clue as to how visable my first Hub is,any ideas?


Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 6 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA Author

Hey Hawkeyedubai, with a name like that it makes me guess either you're stationed in the Middle East or you like to travel! So far I can't click your hubpages name to link to your article, so as far as that goes, I'd say not too visible yet.

As for the off the shelf canvases I'd still double check and using a beam of light in a dark room, say with a halogen, a flashlight or using a beam of sun let in from closed blinds, check for pinholes still. The saturate those prefabs with gesso pretty well, but I'd still play it safe and check. If there is any light coming through apply one more coat of gesso.

Hope that helps man! I've always wished one of those art lovers in Dubai would take an interest in my work so I could gain some whopping big commission!

Na Astrovia!


rosariomontenegro profile image

rosariomontenegro 6 years ago from NEW YORK

Thank you for the hub, for the enthousiasm. I would like to tell you how I used to prepare wood for painting instead of canvas. Those were nice years at the Atelier Saint Luc. We used donkey's tail glue, imagine! And Blanc d'Espagne. I think all of that is the same, just pure chalk, that you had to dissolve. Anyway it took many layers and sanding before the MaƮtre would be satisfied with our boards. I have to stop the memories or I'm going to cry. I just don't have time for painting any more. But I miss the mess and the beauty ... Thank you again.


Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 6 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA Author

Your welcome rosariomonetenegro and thanks for the reminsicence! I have met a few people over the years who painted through one or another of the Atelier academy's everyone of them learned something about discipline.

Thank you for the kind words! Amazing technique with Donkey's tail glue!


ralwus 6 years ago

Well gee, here is another comment for you as well. LOL I need to get back to painting, but I am so dam busy anymore. I love it.


Zsuzsy Bee profile image

Zsuzsy Bee 6 years ago from Ontario/Canada

Congrats Ben for having written this great hubnugget.

Maintenant, now first of all let me 'and out a great congratulation. You are a great example to what zhis whole 'ubnuggetry is all about... writing great 'ubs.

Zhe masses have come and voted and zhe winners for zhis week are:

29% How To Prepare A Painting With Gesso by Ben Zoltak

14% When Land Crabs Attack or how not to climb a tree by floatingmind

12% Always Christmas- A Michigan Christmas Wonderland by Amanda108

10% Biscotti- The best of cookies by ThriftyisNifty

10% Timed Portraits by hookah

congrats again kindest regards Zsuzsy


Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 6 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA Author

Merci merci Zsusy Bee I am humbly honorared and offer may heartfelt, how you say, thankz? Now I have to go and thank the friendz and fam-i-lee that helped make zis possible!

Thank you again, it is a most grazious and prezious award to behold!

I really an so very honored!


RosWebbART profile image

RosWebbART 6 years ago from Ireland

Great info! I have bookmarked this hub for further reading.. RosWebbART


prasetio30 profile image

prasetio30 6 years ago from malang-indonesia

Nice information. I like all about art, especially painting. thanks for share this information. you have put wonderful picture Ben.


Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 6 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA Author

Thanks you two. Prasetio, I wish for you a long life full of observations on great art, I can tell you have a good spirit.


cosette 6 years ago

haha, great intro! :D


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Ben Zoltak 6 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA Author

Thanks Cosette, whee who whee who whee who, hi ho, hi ho!


RosWebbART profile image

RosWebbART 6 years ago from Ireland

wow; I never knew that; thanks for this hub.


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Ben Zoltak 6 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA Author

Thank you kindly RWA!!!


Alladream74 profile image

Alladream74 6 years ago from Oakland, California

Great hub


Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 6 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA Author

Thanks man!


David Stanley 6 years ago

I always prep my canvases with a good quality gesso. However, as I prefer to begin my paintings using a "wet on wet" technique, I will begin whilst the gesso is still wet, often misting it to keep it wet. I find this great for the development of skies and clouds. After everything is dried I then move on to details of my subject. Gesso - Dont leave home without it!!!


Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 6 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA Author

Thanks for the added information Mr. Stanley! That must mean that you use acrylic correct? It's an interesting point you make, and I think illustrates one of the differences between acrylic and oil styles, namely that acrylic can be (but doesn't have to be of course) more planned out because of the quicker drying time versus oil. I work wet on wet with oil occasionally but never on purpose! I appreciate your technique though and I am dear to my own processes as well, viva gesso!!!

I believe I just looked up your website, great art! Very luscious and rich, loved it. You can link your site through entering your name if you'd like with another comment! Best,

Ben


eventsyoudesign profile image

eventsyoudesign 6 years ago from Nashville, Tennessee

Wow! I have a friend that paints. He mentioned something about Gesso a time or two. I really paid no attention to what he had to say about it. After reading your article I can see its importance in the whole painting process. Good article, easy to follow and understand. Great job. I will read more. Thanks! Teresa


Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 6 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA Author

Thank you eventsyoudesign!

Gesso is like an old friend to me in probably the same way a table saw is to a carpenter or a crescent wrench is to a mechanic.

I aim for "easy to follow and understand" sometimes, thanks for recognizing it!

Best!

Ben


Tuesdays child profile image

Tuesdays child 5 years ago from In the garden

Thanks for the great info! I love your icon image - and your painting style. Very awesome!!! Lori


Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 5 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA Author

Thanks Lori, flattery will get you places! I endeavor to create the best art my spirit will give.

Best!

Ben


melodyandes profile image

melodyandes 5 years ago

Impressive and excellent hub!I enjoyed reading this and based on the pictures, it seems you really love what you are doing. Have fun in whatever you do(always).


Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 5 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA Author

So kind of you Melody thanks. I try hard to make whatever I do to be at least a little fun, so you have found my secret and bless you for it.

Nostrovia!

Ben


Margie Hill profile image

Margie Hill 5 years ago from Bluffton, South Carolina

Some real good information for some real good artist!


Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 5 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA Author

Thanks Margie, happy painting my friend!

Ben


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Ben Zoltak 4 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA Author

My pleasure swiftcolour, canvas is still one of my favorite materials to work upon.

Ben


Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 4 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA Author

Cookingrecipes, rabbit glue can be bought at any art supply store or online art supply store. Hope that helps, just using gesso will get you a long way to a good foundation!!!

Ben


wilderness profile image

wilderness 3 years ago from Boise, Idaho

It's the cheapo gesso for me, at least for now. One day perhaps a better quality but not for a long time.

Thanks, Ben - a useful hub for the artists of HubPages (or anywhere else, for that matter).


Seafarer Mama profile image

Seafarer Mama 12 months ago from New England

Very useful hub, Ben! Thanks!


Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 9 months ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA Author

Thank you seafarer mama very kind I hope you since just gessoed many a canvas!

Ben

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