How to Prepare a Canvas for Acrylic Painting?

By Mandy Moss

To prime or not to prime, that is thy question, when we are thinking about how to prepare canvas before painting surface. If you want your colors to stay vibrant and last longer, priming is essential.

How to prepare a canvas for acrylic painting?

To Prepare a canvas for acrylic painting is a straightforward process.  You need to apply gesso normally in three coats, where you sand them in between after they dry out. Store-bought stretched canvases are usually primed with gesso and do not need any extra work before painting.

Now it’s time to get your Artist mode on! That’s right, acrylics aren’t all about toddler classroom, where paint comes in squishy bottles with your adorable kids’ impressionism.  Think big, bright colors or not, acrylics are an easy cheaper medium to work with.  Let the fun begin…

Is your Canvas already Primed and Ready to Be Painted?

Oh, the choices of canvases:  sizes, shape, material, etc…  You can even opt to make your own. 

The one thing you will notice is that most store-bought canvas for painting are pre-primed already. 

If you come home and notice that it’s not primed, no worries – you can still do it yourself!

How do I know if the acrylic surface has a primer on it already? 

First, most packaged canvases will have a label indicated whether the canvas is pre-primed or not.  If you ripped off the label before checking look at the color. 

How do I know if the acrylic surface has a primer on it already?

If you take a look at a plain canvas that is not primed, you will notice that it is mostly cream or off-white color.  A primed one will be a brighter white. 

Can I Apply acrylic paint to an unprimed Canvas?

Yes, you can! It doesn’t matter if you are using cotton canvas, linen canvas, or any other type. If you are in need to finish something quickly, go ahead and do it.  It saves time because obviously, you don’t have to wait for each coat of primer to dry.   

Now here is the big but…

Why do you need a gesso primer for acrylic painting?

Actually,  I’ll just lay it out for you, it makes it pretty!  

If this article was about oil paintings then this wouldn’t even be a question. 

In my opinion, for acrylic painting, you should apply gesso on. Priming will make your paint stick and guess what “no flaking.”  Just think, the longevity of your art-making it last around for years!

Which brings me to my next point of how to prepare a canvas for Priming.

Supplies needed

We have our canvas, and now we need to prime it if we haven’t bought the store primed one.  So, let’s get started by clearing a workspace and getting our art supplies.  

  • Canvas 
  • Gesso 
  • A wide soft quality bristle brush, like this one, will brush nicely onto your canvas
  • Bowl of water

How to prime a canvas with acrylic gesso?

How to prime a canvas with acrylic gesso?

Step by step instructions:

Step 1: Clean your Canvas

Wipe it down with paper to make sure there is no dirt on your canvas. Rubbing alcohol will work as well.  If you are using water on a cloth, make sure it’s not too damp.

Step 2: Gesso preparation

Open the can of gesso and stir it up a bit. Sometimes a little water needs to be added to the first layer of gesso, but that is your choice.  Pour a bit of the gesso into a bowl, before adding the water.

Step 3: Another layer of Gesso

Apply the gesso on the canvas as evenly as possible with the wide brush.  Use thin strokes that are even and flow in the same direction. 

Step 4. Drying time. 

Think of it as a layover between flights.  About an hour wait time between your next coat.  You can’t rush it, because you want to make sure the canvas (aka the plane) is ready with no issues.

Step 5. Sanding Gesso

Sanding gesso might be needed before you go into your next layer.  Just to even out any uneven strokes with bumps that might have occurred.

Step 6. Another layer of gesso

Apply gesso again as mention in step 3.

Step 7. Second Drying time

Now another layover of 1 hour before your last layer of gesso, and sanding before you can arrive at your final destination of Painting!

Pro Tip: make sure to clean your brushes with a brush cleaner and soapy water.  Otherwise,  you will need to bid farewell to them, soon after if you don’t. 

How to prime a canvas without gesso?

If you don’t have the gesso for the canvas, not all is lost.  One thing I would stay away from is using white acrylic paint to prime your surface. 

You can use it as a base coat but not a primer.  An acrylic medium (not paint) will work as a primer, you just need to put on a thicker layer.  There are many types of acrylic mediums, but a super popular brand Liquitex can be bought here

Now to make it a little more interesting there are a couple of types of mediums you can choose from. You will find gloss, matte, texture, gel, and much more. Do your research before buying one.

Another alternative to gesso is clear gesso, or some professional artist would call it rabbit skin glue. 

Benefits of using Clear Gesso on the painting surface

Clear gesso is widely used among Painting enthusiasts. Besides Canvas it can be used also as primer for painting on metal, wood, or plastic.

It is great for all the artists who like to plan design before on the painting surface because it won’t cover it. It’s clear!

I like U.S. Art Supply Clear Gesso. It makes my surface nice and smooth after.

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As with all gesso surfaces, Acrylic paint, oil paint, or any other will stick much better to the surface.

When to use White and when Clear Gesso?

The white variety is heavily used by artists on larger canvases. Where use palette knife to add multiple layers of gesso on the surface. On the other side Clear Gesso, I would use on smaller size canvas boards brushing over previously outlined design.

Can you make your own gesso?

Yup, you can make your own gesso! Most of the research you find online will tell you it’s basically white school glue, with some baby powder. 

It is an extra step, so if you are thinking of using Mod Podge, well I wouldn’t.

Why can’t you use Mod Podge instead of gesso?

I know I just described that gesso is made with primarily white glue.  So just grab the Mod podge – right? Nope!

Mod Podge is mostly used for decoupage or the fancy way of saying “gluing”.  It is applied to stick something to a surface.  It’s better to seal a painting with than use as a primer. 

Gesso is similar to white acrylic paint but is thin. The reason to gesso a canvas is for the bond between the paint and the canvas. Paint on an unprimed surface will flake in no time. 

Gesso and Mod Podge are two totally different products meant for different purposes.

Now that we have talked about all things gesso, here are a few tips on painting your canvas.

Should you wet canvas before painting?

Well, acrylic paint is water-based. That’s the good thing about it. Fewer toxins. If you want your colors to be thinned out, then sure go ahead, but if you are looking for the brightness to your canvas, then don’t dilute it too much. 

Should you wet canvas before painting?

In the end, it really depends on what paints you get.  Higher the qual to the better.  

Can I Paint with Acrylics on a Canvas Primed for Oil Painting?

Well, what does the label say?  If you are using a store-bought canvas, sometimes the label reads that it can be used with acrylic paint as well. Generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to mix the two.

I think Bob Ross would agree!

Just as the name suggests, the primer used for oils is primed with an oil paint primer such as Oil gesso. Basically,  use oil primed canvases for oil painting only.

Now as we read above, we need to use gesso for acrylics best suited for acrylics. The trick is to swap it.  You can use oil on an acrylic-based canvas, but you can’t use acrylics on an oil-based canvas.  

Does Artist prefer unstretched or stretched canvas?

Most professional artists buy unstretched canvas because they can get big rolls, which can be cut on Custom size upon upcoming planned projects they wish to accomplish.  These canvases can be bought either primed or unprimed.

Me as (hobby artist), most beginners and those of you who just don’t want to lose time with canvas preparation should consider buying stretched canvas In a local store.  This canvas comes stretched over a wooden frame and in most cases already primed and ready to be painted.


Whether you are making your canvas or gesso to buying it, let’s rally up the supplies, get our Warhol on and start painting! And as a favorite childhood painter of mine Bob Ross would say “let’s make some happy trees”!

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