Should I Gesso My Canvas or Surface Before Painting?

A guest article by Ellenie Nichols.

As a contemporary artist, you can do whatever you want. There are no rules, especially in acrylic pouring. Jackson Pollack included automotive paint in his arsenal!  However, I’ve collected some Q&A on types of materials and common questions on to gesso or not to gesso.

Do I need to gesso my canvases and other surfaces before painting with acrylic paints or fluid acrylics

There is a REASON that canvas is gessoed. The first two reasons are it smooths out the peaks and valleys in the canvas and improves the bond between the paint and the canvas. Paint on raw canvas is more likely to crack and flake.

The beauty of gessois that you can apply it to nearly any surface, and then you can paint on that surface with acrylic paint. For example, you can apply a layer or two of gesso to vinyl records, rubber duckies, or cigar boxes, and voila – you can now paint on that object with acrylics! What fun. The possibilities are endless!

Acrylics on Wood:

Q: I want to paint acrylics on wood. Do I need to paint the wood first with some kind of primer or can I start painting on it right away?

A: You could paint unprimed but priming the wood means the wood doesn’t suck up all the paint. If you would like the wood to show behind the painting, give one coat of wood sealer. It will stop all of the paint from soaking into the wood. If you want to paint the entire wood area then as stated gesso is the answer.

Q:  Is there anything I need to know about what type of wood to use?

A: Birch wood panels which are well received as they are not as heavy as other hardwoods. You can also try plywood – which can warp – but will last quite a while if treated properly.

Acrylics on Canvas:

Q: Is it important to prime a canvas before painting acrylics?

A: You can buy a canvas that has been pre-gessoed. Actually, I think most of them are primed nowadays. In any case, I always buy a primed canvas (they’re white and sometimes black).   Some of the higher quality ones may even be described as ‘triple primed’.  Different artists like different “feels” when they paint. The less absorbent the surface you paint on is, the more the paint will glide, and the more you can blend the paint on the surface before it dries. If the surface is untreated, the paint absorbs quickly and is hard to blend.

You won’t create any problems by adding more gesso to your canvas if that’s your preference. And if your canvases already come primed and ready to use, you can simply go ahead and pour right on them if that is your preference too. You can also use gesso to cover an old painting ready to pour again if you didn’t like your first attempt.

Q: When I paint with acrylic, the texture of the canvas always shows through. Is this normal?

A: It is normal, the texture will show through when the paint layer isn’t too thick.

If you don’t like that texture then I’d suggest you might try portrait canvas or extra fine canvas which has a much finer subtler texture. Or you could add a texture medium to the gesso to make it extra thick and apply a thick coating to the canvas, smoothing out after it is applied.

{Note from Deby – I’ve also had less canvas texture show through on my pours when I use a gloss medium as my pouring medium instead of Floetrol. The paint dries thicker and glossier, and less canvas texture shows through. Experiment with different pouring mediums and see which result you like best. The Sargent Art gloss medium and varnish works well for me.}

Acrylics on Hardboard:

Hardboard panels, also commonly referred to as masonite, are made from a mixture of wood fibers that have been broken down and molded into a board using heat, pressure and the natural adhesion of lignin. They’re a good choice for beginners and make excellent painting surfaces for acrylics because they’re cheap but durable. Some professional artists even prefer masonite over canvas.

Q: Do I need to prepare the hardboard?

A: You don’t need primer, but most artists apply an acrylic gesso before painting. You can also purchase pre-primed masonite in a range of colors.

Acrylics on Metal, Tile and Plastic Surfaces

Q: Do I need to prime metal, tile and plastic surfaces?

A: Shiny surfaces aren’t always suitable for acrylics. All the acrylic paint needs is a surface to grip or else it can be easily peeled off. So if you want to paint on shiny metal, tile or plastic, you may just need to rough it up a bit with sandpaper to give it “tooth”.

{Deby’s tip – painting on tiles is popular and can be done to create beautiful mini art works, but remember to give your tile several coats of a good sealer to prevent peeling or the paint being easily scratched off the glossy surface.}




38 thoughts on “Should I Gesso My Canvas or Surface Before Painting?”

  1. Loved this bit of info, I’m certainly failure with Gesso priming and general prep on my chosen surfaces but this q&a would have been very helpful when I was first learning about the many different products and their uses. I know this info will be helpful to other budding artists!
    Thanks again for the article!

  2. Do you let the gesso dry before you pour (especially if adding a medium)? I’m going to try gesso because even on my canvas that is supposedly ready to go the paint just comes right off when I swipe.

    1. Yes its good practice to let the gesso dry first. It sounds when you swipe like you might be using too much pressure. Ideally you want to think of it that you are using your swipe tool to just lightly pick up the swipe color and glide it over the top of the other paints without them even moving too much.

    1. Hmm, I can’t honestly say because I’ve never tried. Time for a side by side test perhaps. Try one with and one without and see which gives you a better result. I find when I gesso on tiles, and then pour, that sometimes the first layer gets damp from the new paint and puckers so now I just paint right on the tile without gesso.

  3. How can I stop my white sinking to the bottom of a dirty poor and disappearing while all the other colours rise above? I want to see more white in my pours. Many thanks carol X

    1. Oh I have this same problem too Carol. I would love more white. I’ve been told you can use what’s called a mixing white which isn’t as dense but I’ve not been able to get any here on the island to be able to try it. You can also add some white paint around your flip cup before lifting it too.

  4. This was a great article. There’s so much to learn about acrylic pouring and these articles are just so helpful for beginners. Thanks.

  5. Deby, thank you for this generously helpful website and all the wonderful videos. I am new to this style of painting and I am obsessed with it! The problems I’m encountering is cracking during drying. I use Floetrol and GAC 800 in my paint and I’ve tried covering the paintings while drying but then it takes forever to dry. I also find that after my paintings sit for a bit, the beautifully painted sides and corners let the canvas, in spots, show through. How do I address these problems?

    1. Hi Gail. Do you have any photos? If you post them in our FB group and explain the problem we will take a look and try to help you diagnose what might have caused it. Cracking and the canvas showing through in places are usually two different problems, but without seeing a pic, it’s hard to say.

  6. I haven’t even poured yet…but getting my supplies in order and I really REALLY appreciate your incredibly useful information. THANK YOU!!! I live on an island, too…and access to good supplies is limited and much more expensive than on mainland (Hawaii). Can’t wait to pour! Aloha.

    1. Most canvases are already going to come primed so you don’t need to gesso, but doing so will give you a smoother surface and may allow the paints to move more freely. It’s just a matter of personal choice on that one.

  7. thank you for taking the time and sharing your knowledge with others. I am just beginning and this is a great help for me

  8. So, I bought some wood artist panels, and I put one coat of gesso on before pouring. My painting is gorgeous but the board is warping badly. My canvas panels warped too, though not as bad. Do I need to be doing more gesso, like several coats to create a complete barrier between the paint and the board? I think I’m going to create a mixed-media “frame” on this piece so I can accommodate the curve, but on future pieces keeping them dead flat would be preferable especially for putting a layer of resin over top. Any guidance would be greatly appreciated!

    1. Those panels are sadly notorious for warping and your painting can be ruined if it happens while wet and the paint all moves to the middle, or off the edges. I’ve tried all of the various recommendations but they’ve not worked consistently – pouring just makes them too wet and they can’t cope. Better to use a stretched cacnvas, tile, or some other surface that can’t warp when pouring so much paint. Good luck.

    2. I’ve had the same problem with warping while using canvas boards. While I prefer using canvas for just that reason, canvas boards are a good place to try new techniques or color combinations. What I tried, that works for me, is to lay the slightly damp and warped board on a flat surface. Once it dries completely it will flatten out. Amazing! In fact it might be wise to just lay the board flat for the whole drying process. I’d just put it on parchment paper or freezer paper so the wet paint that flows over the sides doesn’t stick to the flat surface.

  9. Do you recommend the jar gesso or the spray? I’ve never seen it in a spray before and it seems to me the can might get clogged. What to you think?

    1. I think the brush on is better. I had been tempted by the spray myself but then read more and it seems the reviews weren’t very good for it. If its thin enough to spray, its not thick enough to be a good gesso without several coats.

  10. after the pour has dried, the white is cracking. turning out to be like crackle!
    is my white too thick, not enough medium or not enough water?

    1. It could be any of those reasons and more. If only the white is the problem, when perhaps change to another brand. Some brands of white paint seem to be more prone to cracking than others. Try a new brand first and if you still get cracking then it must be a different reason.

    2. If you stick with the same brand of paint you’ll find that the drying process is more consistent through all colors preventing the dreaded cracking. Also having the paint too thick or thick also causes the cracking. I use Floetrol and the fluid acrylics and have found that I no longer deal with cracking.

  11. I’ve already painted a birchwood panel without priming first. Should I be worried? Should I just start over even though the painting is complete?

    1. If it looks good and you like it, then keep it. It will probably be just fine. For absorbent surfaces like wood, the gesso can help to avoid the paint sinking in and you loosing come color. But if it dries well, then a few coats of a good sealer and it will be just fine I’m sure.

  12. I am new to Acrylic painting. Should I coat a blank Gesso prepared canvas with Gloss Medium before I paint. Or is the Gloss Medium used, after the painting is complete, to protect it?

    1. No need to use a gloss medium as prep or finishing. You can pour straight onto your canvas and then pick a good quality varnish to go over the top once its dry.

  13. Well, I don’t live on an island, but an awesome peninsula just off Puget Sound. I have been collecting driftwood, cleaned in 1:10 bleach/water solution, scrubbed to remove debrie then let it dry for 3 months. I want to pour on driftwood, but only on part..then varnish the rest of wood. I know I’ll loose some of the paint to cracks in the wood, but I know I need to seal it first. It must be clear so the wood also shows. Any suggestions?

  14. Joyce MacKinnon

    I’m new to this group – what an array of useful information! I also live on an island, jutting into the North Atlantic, so, yeah, pretty awesome visuals everywhere. If you live here you have the heart of an artist. But also very difficult to get products that seem to be plentiful and inexpensive elsewhere. Have done my first pours and am delighted with how the paint changed so often and then again until it dried. Awesome. No questions today, just a big thank you.

  15. Thank you , its really helpful information,
    But i have a question , what i have to do if i want to do pouring paint on plastic surfaces (soft plastic)

  16. Thanks so much Deby, I’m also a stroke survivor and I use a lot of gesso in my rock painting to give me a smoother surface to paint on. I just tried my first acrylic pour using a recipe I found on pinterest using white glue in place of floetrol resulting in a massive fail but I’m not someone who gives up too easily and I will try again. The first pour, I used the bottom of a coke bottle but I really want to try using a strainer next, but do you think the recipe I used is bound to fail every single time or that I should give it another chance?
    Be blessed
    Cindy in SC

  17. I have taken quite a few art classes and some artists feel you also should have the total back painted. I am doing that now. This also helps with warping.

  18. Regarding the warping of boards etc. paint both side of the board first. ply wood or any type of board willm warp if you paint only one side.

  19. I am doing acrylic pour and I was wondering if I can use mod podge instead of gesso to prime, my canvas and wood?

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