Getting nerdy about preparing an amazing painting surface to work on can add such a high level of quality to your work. You can experiment with coloured grounds and textures to build up the surface for a unique effect or go with a more classic smooth and white finish.
If you have bought a prestreched canvas from a shop then chances are it has a layer or two of gesso on it already. These layers tend to be pretty thin so you can build up the surface from there and create a more refined surface. I personally don't like to see the texture of the weave of canvas so I usually build up layers of gesso until that texture is obscured.
If you have stretched the canvas yourself or the canvas is raw for some other reason then you will need to apply PVA size to the canvas before you start gessoing to seal any impurities in the fabric.
A wide brush
Bowl or container about the size of a bowl
1. Choose a brush that is wide enough for the size of the canvas you are preparing. For example using a 4" brush for a 3ft x 4ft canvas will save you alot of time.
2. Mix about 10% water with some gesso in the bowl and begin applying it. Don't rush the application - as you paint the gesso on brush out any visible brush strokes.
3. Once the layer is dry you can start to paint another layer. Make sure it is totally dry, not damp or cool to the touch.
4. After the second layer is dry you can sand down any bumps with fine sandpaper and then proceed to the next layer.
5. Proceed in this manner with building up layers until you feel you have the surface you want.
6. I prefer to gesso the edges of my paintings last, some artists leave it raw and other paint the edges a different colour.
You can buy coloured gesso - Golden makes a black gesso for a totally different experience. There are many others on the market such as Holbein's gesso which comes in different colours and different textures from course to eggshell.
You can tint your gesso with fluid acrylics but keep in mind that the white pigment in the gesso will give you a pastel tone - not a saturated colour.
If you want to experiment with applying textures to your surface before you start painting there are a wide range of textured mediums you can apply. Golden and Liquitex make a variety of mediums, molding pastes, fibre pastes and crackle pastes as well as mediums that contain tiny glass beads or pumice.