Should You Always Use a Gesso Canvas for Oil Paints?

You know you should always apply gesso before starting an oil painting, but you might not know why. Plenty of artists do this without ever questioning it. However, is it okay to skip on the gesso if you don’t have any at home?

Should You Always Use a Gesso Canvas for Oil Paints?

You should always use a gesso canvas for oil paints. Whether you buy the canvas premade or stretch it yourself, you never want to skip on using gesso. The gesso acts as a barrier between the paints and canvas, protecting it and also giving you more texture to paint on.

I made sure to cover why you should always use gesso before painting, what happens if you don’t, and what you can use if you don’t have any in this article.

Why You Need To Prime With Gesso

You should never use oil paints on a raw canvas. Without a barrier in place, the colors soak into the canvas fibers. Since there’s no texture for the pigment to grab onto, it becomes harder to paint.

Most gesso is also white, so artists use it to establish a blank area to work on. You can also draw with a pencil on gesso, allowing you to create a base to paint over. That said, you can find clear or pigmented gesso, which you can incorporate into your work differently.

When you don’t prime with gesso, the oil paints also deteriorate the canvas with time. Oil paints contain many chemicals that slowly break down the canvas’s soft fibers. Putting the gesso down first creates a barrier between the paint and the canvas, so you don’t have to worry about damage.

Overall, you must prime your canvas before you start using oil paints. If there’s no gesso, you’ll likely face several issues while painting.

What Happens if You Paint Without Gesso

What if you want to get started right away and paint without priming your canvas? It’s not worth trying to skip gesso to save time since your finished work won’t last long. If you put in the effort to make a painting, you want it to last as long as possible.

When you don’t apply gesso, the oil paints sit directly on the canvas and even soak into it. This process can be very harmful to the canvas, making it crumble after the paints start to oxidize. Oxidizing also makes the fibers brittle and easier to take damage from light pressure.

However, that’s if you use oil paints. You can actually safely use acrylic paints on raw canvas without damaging it. 

Alternatives to Priming Canvas With White Gesso

If you don’t have any white gesso at home, you might not need to run out and buy any. There are a few different options for protecting your canvas from oil paints.

  • Clear gesso. This primer is usually very matte and adds texture to the canvas. If you like the look of canvas, it’s also clear, so you’ll still see it in areas you don’t paint.
  • Rabbit skin glue. This primer was more popular in the past, although many artists still use it today. You’ll need to be careful not to expose it to humid conditions since it can expand and damage your art.
  • Switch to acrylic paints. You can use acrylics directly on a raw canvas, unlike oil paints. If you can’t gesso a canvas but have acrylic paints, you might want to consider switching to avoid a trip to the store.
  • DIY gesso. You can also make your own gessoOpens in a new tab. by combining ground chalk, pigment, and a binding agent (a type of glue) with water.
  • Premade canvas. Many art stores offer already stretched and primed canvases. If you have some, consider using them instead.
  • Repurpose an old painting. You can apply oil paints over acrylic. So, if you have old acrylic paintings that you no longer want, you can always paint over them with your oils. It’s an excellent option to reduce waste and save money. Please note the opposite is not as easy, as we discover in our article on Can You Paint Over Old Oil Paint With Acrylic Paint?Opens in a new tab.

In short, you don’t always have to use traditional white gesso in your oil paintings. You have several options, all of which can offer different effects on your work.

Can I Use White Acrylic Paint as a Primer?

You can’t use white acrylic paint as a primer, even though it looks similar to gesso. Acrylics don’t contain the same ingredients as gesso, giving them a different texture. They make a smoother surface, which is harder to paint on, and wouldn’t offer your canvas as much protection from your oils.

A gesso mixture contains chalk to give it a more textured surface when it dries and hardens the canvas, so it doesn’t absorb the oils.

Gesso is also much thinner than acrylic paint, allowing it to spread easily over the surface of your canvas. It would take a ton of white acrylic paint to cover the same surface area, so it’s probably not worth trying.

Lastly, you can use oil paints over acrylics, but not the other way around. So, while you shouldn’t use acrylics to prime your canvas, you can still combine them with oil paints in a piece and get great results.

Can I Use Mod Podge Instead of Gesso?

You can’t use Mod Podge instead of gesso when making an oil painting. Mod Podge is a sealant, not a primer, so you won’t get good results with it. It doesn’t contain chalk and can’t offer any texture to paint on. Plus, it’s not going to protect your canvas very well.

Overall, you’ll want to use different primers instead of Mod Podge. While it’s possible to use Mod Podge in acrylic works, you won’t get the same results when using it with oil paints.

Final Words

To summarize, you should always use a gesso canvas for oil paints. These paints contain many harsh chemicals that can damage the canvas, so you need the protection gesso provides. Plus, it gives you a blank, textured surface to paint on.

WATCH – What is Gesso? How To Use Gesso + Why It’s Important For Sketchbooks & Paintings!

Jess KarpOpens in a new tab.
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Ines, a self-taught artist from Caracas now based in the UK, explores diverse forms of art, from unconventional materials to sustainable and responsible use of resources.

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