Oil Gesso vs. Acrylic Gesso: The Differences Explained

Paintings can be spectacular pieces of art. It’s no surprise that so much work has to go into such a powerful medium, and with the variety of materials to choose from, one can easily get confused. The type of gesso to use is a particularly perplexing point for most novices. 

Oil gesso and acrylic gesso are types of primers. You can use an oil ground and oil paint on traditional oil gesso, but not acrylic paint. On the other hand, the modern acrylic gesso allows for the painting of an acrylic ground and an acrylic underpainting before adding on a layer of oil paint.

In this article, I will delve deeper into what oil gesso and acrylic gesso are to help you gain a better understanding and arrive at the right decision on which of the two you should use. Keep on reading to find out which one to use!

Are Oil Gesso and Acrylic Gesso the Same?

Oil gesso and acrylic gesso are not the same. While they are both indispensable for priming surfaces before painting, there are key differences between the two, most notably in their preparation and the materials they can be used with.

The choice between oil gesso and acrylic gesso is largely down to an artist’s personal preference. Here are some pros and cons to consider when deciding which of the two would be best for you:

Oil Gesso

Pros

  • It dates back to the renaissance, so it’s a tried-and-true method of protecting your art.
  • Gives you a white background to work on.
  • Adds a smoothness to the canvas that will help you achieve a glossy finish.

Cons

  • It takes more time to prepare.
  • It takes much longer to dry (at least 12 hours).
  • Cannot be painted on with acrylic paints.

Acrylic Gesso

Pros

  • Widely available for purchase.
  • Fast-drying (within a matter of minutes).
  • Can have a layer of oil paint over an acrylic underpainting.

Cons

  • In use only since the 1950sOpens in a new tab.; not considered by some to be truly archival.
  • Can cause discoloration as it dries.
  • May prevent the paint from properly adhering to the canvas.

What Exactly Is Gesso?

With the stereotypical image of artists, easel and brush in hands, applying their magic to a canvas, it’s quite easy to overlook the preparation that precedes such a moment. For one, artists first have to get their canvases ready. This is where gesso comes in.

Gesso is a typically white primer used to seal surfaces for painting. It dates back centuries and was used by Renaissance masters. In fact, the word gesso comes from the Italian “gypsum,” meaning “chalk.”

This chalk or plaster was combined with animal glue to create the mixture for priming canvases and other substrates, while the modern spin on gesso, acrylic gesso, is usually made of calcium carbonate and acrylic polymer and serves the same purpose as its traditional predecessor.

Gesso can be applied to canvas, hardboard, wood, and even paper. Many artists opt for priming the pages of their sketchbooks with gesso before painting on them.

The absorbency of this mixture prevents bleeding or seeping when the paint is applied onto a primed surface. Gesso essentially seals the fabric of the canvas. 

Whether you’re using oil or acrylic paints, starting off by priming your surfaces with gesso is very beneficial. For most, it’s absolutely essential, and which one they use–oil gesso or acrylic gesso–depends on the other media involved.

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U.S. Art Supply Clear Gesso Acrylic Medium, 480ml Bottle - 16 Ounce Pint - Blendable with Acrylic Colors Opens in a new tab.
  • Premium acrylic gesso is used to prepare painting surfaces for acrylic and oil paint
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  • Gesso is water-based but permanent and flexible after drying- 16 Ounce Pint - Blendable with Acrylic...

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Oil Gesso

Traditional oil gesso has come to be known simply as oil paint primer or oil primer. While acrylic gesso is more common nowadays, some modern artists and hobbyists still prefer using oil gesso as a surface prep for their media. 

The process of priming a canvas with oil gesso directly follows the routine of some of history’s finest artists, which certainly appeals to today’s experienced and novice painters alike. Never mind that it can take days to dry. If you are wondering if you should always use a gesso canvas or gesso yourself, we talk about this in more depth in the article Should You Always Use a Gesso Canvas for Oil Paints?

As you might expect, you can use oil grounds and oil paints on a surface primed with traditional oil gesso. However, you can’t use acrylic paints on it. 

Acrylic Gesso

Centuries later, there are now other alternatives to oil primer. Some artists even use black acrylic-based paint to prep their canvasses. But the most common and effective surface prep today is acrylic gesso.

Acrylic gesso is made of chalk (calcium carbonate) and a binder (acrylic polymer medium). A typically white pigment (titanium dioxide) is added to the mixture, although black gesso and colored gesso are quite common.

Acrylic gesso is sold in three grades: student, artist, and professional. They vary in concentration due to their different ratios of pigment and filler. The higher the concentration, the more expensive the gesso. 

Professional grade gesso is the most concentrated of the three, followed by artist-grade and student-grade. 

Surfaces primed with acrylic gesso can have acrylic grounds with an acrylic underpainting before adding on a layer of oil paints. 

WATCH – All Gessos Explained – How They Help & What They Do!

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Do I Really Need To Gesso My Canvas?

Some beginners are tempted to skip the gesso stage altogether. However, doing so will impact the way you paint, the result of your painting, and how long your artwork will last. Priming your canvas with gesso is absolutely essential.

Both oil paints and acrylic paints will sink into the fibers of a raw canvas. This “bleeding” will make it tougher for you to blend colors. Additionally, your paintbrush will not come off as smoothly from a gesso-less surface. 

Moreover, certain chemicals in gesso contribute to an artwork’s archival lifeOpens in a new tab.. If you want your paintings to last more than just a couple of years, skipping gesso priming is unthinkable.

It’s also important to note that while store-bought canvasses are pre-primed, you will still need to gesso them yourself. 

For one, you can’t be assured of the gesso quality used at the factory. On top of that, canvasses typically get three coats of gesso. It takes up to five coats to get an even surface. That’s why it’s recommended you gesso a pre-primed canvas at least once.

It may seem like a lot of extra work, but you can’t argue with the results. Those couple more coats of gesso will make a discernible difference.

Final Words

Gessos are an essential material in painting. They act as the foundation for the masterpieces stroked upon them. But for the end result to turn out as a proper work of art, choosing the right type of gesso to use should not be taken lightly. 

Being well informed about which type of gesso is suitable for the painting you have in mind will go a long way to your vision translating successfully onto canvas. You will be thankful that you took the time to learn.

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Ines

Ines is a self-taught artist based in the UK. Originally from Caracas, she has dabbled in the world of arts and crafts in a diversity of ways participating in city intervention projects, sustainable practices’ open exhibitions, and her illustrations being featured in anniversary editions of literary magazines.

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