Can you use white acrylic paint instead of gesso?

Yes, you can use white acrylic paint instead of gesso as a primer.

However, your work won’t be as archival as it would be with real gesso.

But, if you’re working on a budget or don’t have access to it at the moment, acrylic paint can serve as a makeshift primer. Many artists have used it as an alternative to gesso.

acrylic paint vs gesso

To understand the difference between white acrylic paint and gesso, it helps to think more carefully about what gesso is. Artists have been using gesso (pronounced ‘jesso’) since ancient Egyptians, Grecians and Romans wanted to prepare their paintings.

Back then, they made their gesso with chalk, gypsum, and glue. Later, during the Renaissance in Europe, artists relied on the glue-like properties of gesso to be able to roll their canvses during transportation.

Quick recap:

Originally, gesso was made with:

a square wooden panel with a squiggle of gesso on it laying on the grass
  • chalk
  • paint pigment
  • binder/glue

So, gesso is some chalky, gluey, paint-like subtance…while acrylic paint is just paint.

Due to this, there are a few issues to consider when using acrylic paint as a substitute for gesso:


Acrylic paint is generally more opaque than gesso, so you may need to dilute it with water to achieve a thinner consistency for priming. This will help ensure it doesn’t create too much texture on the surface.


Acrylic paint can dry to a somewhat rigid surface, which might not be ideal for flexible surfaces like canvas. Gesso is specifically designed to provide a more flexible and stable surface for painting.


Acrylic paint can be more absorbent than gesso, so you may need to apply more coats to achieve the desired level of smoothness and paint adhesion.


Gesso is known for its archival qualities, ensuring the longevity of the artwork over time. While acrylic paint can be quite durable, it might not offer the same level of protection for the artwork in the long run.

Final thoughts…

Personally, I would stick to using gesso. If you have access to it, it’s generally recommended to use gesso as the preferred primer for your artwork. Sure, in a pinch, using white acrylic paint as a substitute can work, especially for small projects or practice pieces. But, for any professional work, you need to use the right materials.

Don’t cheap out on the right materials for your woork because you will regret it later. Also, don’t be lazy. Take the time to preprae what you need for your artwork, including the correct primer. That’s my suggestion to you.

To learn more, read below.

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Ingrid Maria Pimsner
Ingrid Maria Pimsner

Ingrid Maria Pimsner is a painter, arts writer, and educator. Her representational oil paintings depict the people, places and things that are closest to her.

She is also the founder and current director of The International Institute of Contemporary Art and Theory, an artist residency in Romania. In addition, she co-curates the Archive Space Project , a curatorial project founded by Annie Daley in 2010 and originally located in the Crane Arts building in Philadelphia, PA.

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