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How to Gesso a Canvas

You can’t expect to paint a masterpiece on untreated cloth. Here’s how to gesso, or prime, a homemade canvas in a hurry.


  • Step 1: Combine gesso and water In a plastic mixing bowl, combine gesso and water, according to the instructions on the gesso container.
  • Step 2: Mix Mix vigorously.
  • TIP: Mix the substance thoroughly and smoothly, into a consistency similar to melted chocolate. It should run off the spoon like paint and have no lumps.
  • Step 3: Spread drop cloth Place some drop cloth down in your work area.
  • Step 4: Lay canvas on cloth Lay the canvas down on top of the drop cloth.
  • Step 5: Sand down surface Gently sand the canvas surface down to get rid of stray strands of cotton and create a consistent, even surface.
  • Step 6: Wet and blot brush Wet your house paintbrush with water and squeeze it dry so it doesn’t soak up excess gesso.
  • Step 7: Plop gesso on canvas Plop a dollop of gesso on to the canvas and begin working it back and forth in parallel strokes with a house paintbrush. The gesso should be as evenly and thinly distributed as possible.
  • TIP: Some painters prefer to use a squeegee for this instead of the brush.
  • Step 8: Coat edges Don't forget to coat the edges.
  • TIP: The edges will drip a little, so use a smaller brush to work the excess gesso back into the sides.
  • Step 9: Wash brush When the first coat is complete, wash your paintbrush thoroughly.
  • Step 10: Let coat dry Leave the canvas flat and allow it to dry for at least an hour.
  • Step 11: Blow off primer dust Once the first coat is dry, gently sand it to even out the surface, and then dust off any grit.
  • Step 12: Repeat with perpendicular strokes Repeat steps 6 through 8, but this time make your strokes perpendicular to the original application of primer.
  • Step 13: Dry You can continue adding coats until the surface is as smooth as you need it to be, but two will usually suffice. Allow the canvas to dry overnight—now the real work can begin.
  • FACT: Canvas was first used as backing for paintings during the 15th century Italian Renaissance.

You Will Need

  • Some gesso
  • Water
  • A plastic mixing bowl
  • Drop cloth
  • Fine-grit sandpaper
  • A large 4-inch house paintbrush
  • Squeegee
  • A smaller 1/2-inch detail house paintbrush

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