Get Ready for Prime Time! Here's How to Prep Your Canvas for Painting

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If you've ever painted a room or had a manicure, you already know what it means to prime a surface. Adding primer to a wall, applying a base coat to your fingernails before the polish goes on, prepping a canvas before you paint: It's all pretty much the same concept.

Learning the right way to prime a canvas is a simple but crucial skill if you're working with acrylic or oil paints . Ready to walk through the process and get answers to your FAQs? Right this way.

Do I need tons of materials to prime a canvas?

Nope. All you need for priming (besides the basic supplies you already have, like brushes) is a material called gesso.

It's easy to confuse gesso (pronounced "jess-oh") with white paint, since the two look almost exactly alike. And gesso is actually made with paint pigment, typically mixed with chalk powder and some sort of binder.

The most traditional gesso color is white, but these days you can also find black, clear, tinted or textured gessos. While experimenting with various tints and types of gesso can be fun, be sure to pick the right kind for the paint medium (like acrylic or oil) you're planning to use.

For instance, an acrylic gesso is best suited for acrylic paint. If you go to your local art-supply store, someone there should be able to hook you up.

Why do I even need to prime my canvas?

Gesso protects the fibers of your canvas and makes your painting surface archival, so your artwork will last forever and ever.

Gesso softens your work surface a little, which means you can use less paint to make your masterpiece. The primer saves your brushes too, since the surface of an unprimed canvas can be tough on bristles.

Can't I just use white paint?

Sorry, no. White paint can't do what gesso does.

So, how do I prime my canvas?

Follow this tutorial for canvas paper, board or stretched canvas.

What you need

  • A canvas
  • Gesso
  • A sponge brush (or paintbrush)
  • A palette or small cup for the gesso

1. Assemble your supplies

Put some gesso on a palette or in a small cup. Arrange your palette or cup and your sponge brush near your canvas.

2. Paint the gesso

Dip your sponge brush into the gesso, grabbing a generous amount.

Paint the gesso across the canvas in one direction, covering every surface and, if you plan to use them, the sides. Try to create a flat surface with the gesso, so that you'll have a smooth starting point for your painting (unless you don't want a smooth surface; see below).

3. Paint perpendicularly

Let the gesso dry, then repeat the process with a second coat. But this time, paint the gesso in a perpendicular direction. Let the second coat dry too.

4. Add a third coat if necessary

After all that, the result will probably feel a little anti-climactic. Yep, once dried, gesso basically looks the same as canvas. But once your final coat is totally dry, you can start painting!

Frequently asked primer questions

What's the best way to apply gesso?

As you can see in the photos, a sponge brush is your go-to. But you can also use a brush. If so, try to reserve one brush for gesso only.

Help! What if my gesso isn't flat or smooth enough?

Once the gesso is dry, run a fine-grain sandpaper over the surface. Be gentle — you don't want to scrape off the gesso and have to start over!

Can I get creative with the gesso?

Sure you can. Unevenly applied gesso can be a cool way to add texture to an abstract painting. Extra-thick gesso is especially good for this purpose. You're an artist, after all, so get creative from the get-go!

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Get Ready for Prime Time! Here's How to Prep Your Canvas for Painting