What is black gesso? – 15 compulsory things to know before using black gesso

When we think about gesso, the first person that comes to mind is Bob Ross, who introduces the best strategies to use it. You must be familiar with white gesso, but there is also a black gesso which can be really helpful to create some value for your artwork. But first, you need to understand what black gesso actually is.

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Table of Contents

This blog aims to deliver essential information about what is black gesso, its uses, and everything you need to know about this material for oil painting. As a result, you would be able to decide whether you need to use it to create your masterpiece or not.


Lesson 1: Introduction

This introduction contains a complete description of the most common questions asked by artists about black gesso.

What is Black Gesso?

Black gesso is a type of primer that is used to prepare a black surface for oil painting. It is made by a combination of black pigment, glue, and some additives. You can use it for any surface ie. canvas, or wood because it has some unique adhesion properties. Working with black gesso allows the creation of some beautiful artworks with a dense black finish.

What is black gesso? This image is showing the working Liquitex Black Gesso on canvas
working of Black Gesso on canvas

Using white gesso is like a day with sunlight and black gesso is like a night that has its own beauty for oil paintings. You can create a lot of stuff with black gesso such as a night sky full of stars, a moonlight landscape, a dark forest, and so on. The ability to create dark and opaque surfaces makes black gesso a unique choice for artists.

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U.S. Art Supply Black Gesso Acrylic Medium, 500ml Tub - 16.9 Ounces over a Pint*
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MONT MARTE Black Gesso 17oz (500ml), Universal Primer, Suitable for all Paints Including Acrylic and Oil*
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Who invented black gesso?

Robert Norman Ross, famous by the name of Bob Ross, was the one who introduced black gesso in his famous television show, “The Joy of Paintings“. He not just introduced it but also gave various tricks to use it effectively. Today, black gesso is famous by the name of “Bob Ross Black Gesso“.

An image of Bob Ross who introduced black gesso.
Bob Ross | Image Credit: flickr | Under CC0 1.0

However, Bob Ross does not invent black gesso, the history of gesso started in 1955 when famous artist Henry Levison invent gesso to make the surface more smooth for painting. But there are no marks in history about the invention of black gesso.

What is black gesso made of?

The black gesso which you get from the market is made of a mixture of acrylic polymer medium, black pigment, and calcium carbonate. But there are various substitutes for these products. Some black gesso also contains chalk, plaster of peris, binder, etc.

Black gesso is a gel-like mixture same to oil paints but its consistency is very smooth and can easily flow over any surface. If someone asked you to tell the difference between black gesso and black oil paint, you might say that black gesso is more flexible, smooth, and flowy and typically dries within 20 minutes but black oil paint is more stiff and hard which takes a longer time to dry.


Lesson 2: User Guide

In this section, you will learn the detailed process to use black gesso as a primer and as well as a contrast to create some unique oil paintings.

How to use black gesso for oil painting?

Using black gesso is somehow similar to white gesso but there is confusion among beginners to use it for oil painting, so I am breaking the procedure into some simple parts which will simplify the use of it as a primer.

1. Surface selection

As our main intent is an oil painting, so we have to choose those surfaces which will work well with oil paints. Some of the most recommended surfaces include canvas, wood panels, or thick paper.

if you are using an already primed surface that comes from the market, then you can apply black gesso on it as well because the factory primer coating is different. If your surface is old and already painted, then you can also prime it.

2. Take out the required things

For the priming process, you gonna need a clean brush according to the size of your canvas. If the canvas size is bigger, use a bigger brush to save some time. Start from the center or any corner part of the canvas and apply a thin layer just to cover the canvas completely.

Let the thin layer dry completely before applying another layer of oil paint.

Mixing white and black gesso results in a grey shade which can also create some unique contrast with your oil paints. 

3. Sanding for best results

Once the black gesso dries completely, you can sand it with sandpaper or sand. It is also known as polishing of the surface which is recommended for professionals to create the best results.

If you want to do sanding with sand, sprinkle some sand over the canvas but ensure the drying of black gesso.

Should black gesso be wet when I paint it?

This is not compulsory to paint over wet gesso. If you want strong adhesion which will prevent the oil paint to crack, paint on wet gesso. But if you want to do sanding, your gesso must be dry.

Oil painting in which Bob Ross used black gesso.
Bob Ross’s oil painting with black gesso | Image Credit: Flickr | Under CC BY-NC 2.0

To make sure your gesso is dried, give it at least half an hour to let it dry then use your finger to touch the surface, if the gesso comes off then give it more time to dry. You can also paint on a wet gesso if you want strong adhesion with no worries of cracking.

You don’t need to place your canvas under the sunlight to help make the gesso dry faster because it is already a fast drier which dries 20 times faster than the oil paint.

What can you use instead of black gesso?

You can use white gesso with a mixture of black pigment, acrylic paint, or even black pastel oil paint as a substitute for black gesso. But there can be some differences in the consistency. However, using white gesso with a mixture of black pigment is the best alternative to black gesso.

Black gesso is really just a white gesso with a black tint. You can use white gesso and add a little bit of black pigment to get the same results but make sure you use only a small amount (approx 10 to 25 percent) which can give you the same contrast as a black gesso.

Acrylic paint is a substitute for gesso, which can be used to prime a surface for oil painting. Apply a thin layer of black acrylic paint with a paintbrush to prime the surface. Wait for 10 to 20 minutes to let the paint dry. Acrylic paint is the second best alternative when you don’t have any other way.

Black pastels can be used to create black thin ground for oil paintings but using it for priming is not recommended. Use it only when you want to darken the surface.

Is black gesso the same as liquid black?

Black gesso and liquid black are not similar because their purpose is far different from each other. Black gesso is a gel-like mixture of black pigment, binder, and calcium carbonate which is used as a primer for surface preparation but liquid black is a thin paint that is made by mixing black pigment with a binder. Liquid black is used to create blending effects for oil paintings.

Liquid black is the same in consistency as liquid white and has a thin consistency which is very similar to honey. Liquid black is used for creating thin washes and glazing effects on upper layers. You can even make liquid black quickly on the palette.

On the other hand, black gesso is a thick, gel-like mixture that is very similar to hair gels in consistency. The main purpose of black gesso is to prime the canvas in darker contrast and you cannot use it on the upper layers of oil painting. Both of these mixtures were used by Bob Ross in his tutorials and he also told about their working and benefits.

Black gesso vs black acrylic

Black gesso and black acrylic are both different. Black gesso is opaque which gives a matte finish and we often use it to seal the pores of the canvas, as a primer. On the other hand, black acrylic is a fast-drying water-based paint that is made by a mixture of water, pigment, and acrylic resin. Black gesso cannot be used instead of black acrylic but black acrylic can be used instead of black gesso.

Black acrylic can be used to create opaque layers of black in acrylic painting and you can also mix it with other colors to create other shades.

Liquid white and white gesso - Difference

What colors can be used for wet on wet over black gesso?

When painting wet on wet over black gesso, you can use several colors to get the best results:

  • Metallic colors: Silver, Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze, etc
  • Brighter colors: White, Neon, Fluorescent, etc
  • Warm Colors: Red, Yellow, Orange, etc
  • Cool colors: Blue, Green, etc

Lesson 3: Handling and Making

This section covers some important questions including how to make black gesso at home, cleaning, and caring while working with gesso.

How to make black gesso at home?

How to make black gesso at home?
Let’s make black gesso at home

Black gesso is expensive to buy, you can even make it at home with some basic painting accessories. Let’s move on to a quick guide for making black gesso at home.

Read also: how to make white gesso?

Things to need:

  • Gypsum Plaster or Talc powder
  • Binder or any glue
  • A black pigment or black acrylic
  • A bowl
  • Black ink


  • 50% Talk powder or Gypsum Platser
  • 25% binder
  • 25% Black acrylic


Take a small jar and put two parts of Gypsum plaster or talk powder in it. Add 1 part of the binder and mix very well so there are no lumps in the mixture. Now, add 1 part of black acrylic paint or any other black pigment. In the last step, mix all the materials very well. If needed, you can add a few drops of black ink or water to get the desired consistency.

How to clean black gesso off a brush?

How to clean black gesso off a brush?
Dirty paint brushes

To clean black gesso, you can use the following methods:

  1. Use distilled turpentine
  2. Use soap and water solution
  3. Use a paint thinner
  4. Use rubbing alcohol

Taking care of paintbrushes at the back end is also a part of the work. But cleaning black gesso could be different from cleaning oil paint from brushes.

Distilled turpentine is an ideal mineral spirit that is specially made to clean artists’ paint brushes. Just take a little amount of distilled turpentine in a jar and rub the bristle of the brush inside the liquid to remove gesso stains.

Soap and water solution is also an effective strategy, make a soapy solution and try to remove the stains with your hand until all the gesso comes off.

Paint thinner works like alcohol that can thin out any paint. An additional amount of paint thinner can also be used to clean gesso stains from paint brushes.

Rubbing alcohol is a cleaning agent that works very well to clean paintbrushes. As a guide, I shall recommend keeping rubbing alcohol every time in the studio for emergency uses.

Watch on youtube: Homemade Gesso

Video by: Creative Cat

Final Words

Black gesso is a primer that is very helpful to create a black base layer over the canvas to create a smooth and ideal surface for oil paints. I hope this blog successfully covered all your questions related to what is black gesso and if some of your questions are remaining, just scroll down and check out them in the FAQs. If still you need some help, just drop your question in the comment section.


How long does black gesso take to dry?

Black gesso is a fast drier which can take up to 20 minutes to dry completely. However, drying time can fluctuate based on the thickness of the layer.

What black gesso does bob ross use?

Bob Ross used his own self-made black gesso for oil painting but there are some brands who have advertised their product by the name of Bob Ross. Bob Ross Black Gesso is best for use as a primer.

What acrylics can you use like black gesso?

Liquitex Acrylic Gouache is suitable to use like black gesso.

What would happen if someone stick their tongue in black gesso?

Black acrylic gesso is completely safe but if someone sticks their tongue and eats it, definitely it could disturb the normal functioning of the body.

Is black gesso toxic?

Black gesso is a non-toxic water-based primer that is completely safe for any age range.

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