Differentiating Between Acrylic Gesso and Williamsburg Oil Ground


Grounds are selected to provide the proper color, level of absorbency and tooth to meet an artist’s needs. Oil painters have the extra concern of protecting from oil penetration into the substrate, which can mean more coats, and often additional time spent in preparation. This article looks at a couple of our popular grounds for oil painters and points out some of the basic characteristics and differences between GOLDEN Acrylic Gesso, Williamsburg Titanium Oil Ground and Williamsburg Lead Oil Ground.


The first thing to consider is how much time you are willing to spend preparing the surface and waiting to start your painting. One of the virtues of Acrylic Gesso, is that it is a single product and is ready for paint in a couple days. If you are eager to get painting, Gesso is the best option for you! It comes in white and black and can be mixed to any shade of gray desired, or tinted with acrylic paint to create a toned ground. Gesso can be applied with a brush or trowel and can be thinned with water up to 25%. It can be layered once it is touch dry, so multiple layers can be applied in a single day. Three coats should be sufficient to protect the natural fibers in canvas, linen or paper from the degrading effects of oil paint or oil ground. After the final layer, we recommend waiting 3 days for the acrylic to fully dry before painting on top with oils. Oil paint can be applied directly onto acrylic gesso.

Oil Ground takes a little longer to prepare. This is because natural fiber substrates or panel first need 2-3 layers of sizing before applying the Oil Ground. Any number of acrylic products can be used as a size – Fluid Matte Medium, GAC 100, GAC 200 or Gesso, just to name a few. These layers should be allowed to fully dry for 3 days before applying Williamsburg Oil Ground. Once applied, the first layer of ground should be touch dry in 1 -2 days, after which time additional layers can be applied. Usually two layers are sufficient, but any number can be applied to suit your preference. Once the final layer is applied, we recommend 1-2 weeks for the ground to go through the most active part of the drying process before starting your painting on top. This is best achieved in a warm, well-lit environment. Oil Ground can be applied directly from the container with a knife or trowel, or thinned with mineral spirits or turpentine for brush application. Undiluted Oil Ground does not shrink upon drying, like Gesso does, so can easily fill the weave of fabric surfaces or build a dense film with just a couple layers. Click HERE for written directions, or HERE for a video of Williamsburg Oil Ground application.


Image 1: left to right: Acrylic Gesso, 3 year old Titanium Oil Ground, 3 year old Lead Oil Ground. Acrylic Gesso is bright white and does not change over time. Titanium Oil Ground starts off bright white and settles to an off-white, ivory color when cured. The Lead Oil Ground is similar, but becomes more gray and a little darker than the Titanium Oil Ground.


The color of the ground can contribute to vibrancy of the painted layers. Acrylic Gesso is brighter white and cooler than either of the oil grounds and does not change over time. Thin, translucent oil colors applied over white Acrylic Gesso are noticeably more vibrant than the same color over Oil Ground. Both Titanium and Lead Oil Ground are slightly off-white when freshly applied, but settle to a muted tone after several years, especially if stored in darkness or low light, such as in the image above. This is important to consider if the ground is left exposed in a painting, as time will impact the color.


Acrylic Gesso and both Oil Grounds are fairly matte in appearance, especially when troweled onto the surface. Brushed applications tend to have slightly more sheen. In terms of feel, they are not dramatically different from one another, but they are unique in subtle ways that is mostly experienced during application of the first layer of paint. Acrylic Gesso is a little more slick than the oil grounds. This quality allows the brush to slip over the surface for faster mark making or gestural type painting. The brush can still chatter across the surface when it’s dry, but as paint builds on the acrylic surface, the oil paint can slip around and expose the luminosity provided by the gesso. The oil ground feels drier and toothier than acrylic gesso and provides more brush drag. This seems to pull the paint from the brush and beds the material into the surface more easily.

We assumed because the Acrylic Gesso feels less absorbent than the Oil Ground, that it would be easier to wipe off wet paint. But, that was not necessarily the case with this test. In the majority of our samples, the acrylic gesso stained about the same, or more, than the oil ground. Fresh oil ground applications, dried for several weeks to a couple months, stained about the same as the gesso, where older oil ground samples allowed us to wipe back to the ground without much staining at all. As the oil ground cures over time, the surface becomes tighter and less absorbent than a younger film. The lower right corners of image 3, shows it was a little easier to wipe back to the white of the oil ground than on the acrylic gesso. That said, the white of both grounds could be regained with a little mineral spirits or oil on the wiping cloth.

Image 2: Left: Acrylic Gesso – Quinacridone Magenta brushed directly from the tube provides more definition in the brush strokes. Right: Titanium Oil Ground – Quinacridone Magenta brushed directly from the tube made a more uniform stain with less definition in the strokes. Lower right shows a Quin Magenta glaze with linseed oil.


Image 3. Left: Acrylic Gesso – Quinacridone Magenta thinned with odorless mineral spirits and brushed onto surface shows definition within the brushstrokes. Right: Titanium Oil Ground – Quinacridone Magenta thinned with odorless mineral spirits and brushed onto the surface shows a grabbier surface that takes the paint as a more uniform stain. Wet paint in the lower right was wiped back to surface with a dry cloth to expose the ground.

In the end, these grounds are not extremely different from one another. In fact, when testing these grounds next to one another, applying straight paint, washes or oily layers onto the surface, our ability to differentiate them was challenged. Their qualities are more intuitively experienced than physically felt. Their differences lie in preparation, their color, and the subtlety of how the brush feels on the surface. Like a lot of the materials used in oil painting, ground preferences ultimately depend on a combination of factors. The amount of time one is willing to invest in a surface, the artist’s technique, their relationship to the different grounds, whether personal or historical, all influence that decision. We encourage oil painters to try these grounds to see for themselves the differences and similarities between these materials and how a ground can influence the painting experience and final look of the artwork.

If you have any questions about these materials or their application, please do not hesitate to contact us at or by calling 800-959-6543.

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8 Responses to Differentiating Between Acrylic Gesso and Williamsburg Oil Ground

  1. Patricia Ogden March 19, 2020 at 12:25 pm #

    Thank you for this useful article. I spoke to Greg at Golden a few weeks ago regarding Williamsburg Oil Ground and how to use it. He was so knowledgeable and helpful. I paint in oils and am investigating Old Master techniques. I like the Williamsburg paints for their clarity and tooth.

  2. joanne gervais March 22, 2020 at 12:02 pm #

    To limit the slippery surface of acrylic gesso, I add a small amount of fine ground pumice to the gesso. Adds tooth that helps grab the oil paint similarly to an oil ground.

    • Greg Watson March 24, 2020 at 4:27 pm #

      Hello again Joanne,
      We also have Pastel Ground and Fine Pumice Gel which both provide a slightly abrasive surface. They can be applied over the Gesso or added to it in any amount. Painting with oils is fine on these products. When adding powdered solids to our Gesso we would recommend keeping the additions below 10%, as the solids level in the gesso is already pretty high. Overloading the solids can lead to a less flexible film.

  3. JOANNE GERVAIS March 22, 2020 at 12:03 pm #

    A good quality professional level acrylic gesso is easier to oil paint on than some of the cheaper acrylic gessos which sometimes feel like painting on a slippery tile floor.

    • Greg Watson March 24, 2020 at 4:22 pm #

      Hi Joanne,
      Thanks for the comment. GOLDEN Acrylic Gesso is well balanced with good tooth and absorbency. It is a pleasure to paint on with oils!

  4. Mark March 31, 2020 at 3:54 pm #

    Is there any Zinc oxide in your acrylic gesso?


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