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What the Heck Is Gesso?

5 Mar 2014

Gesso is one of those words that seems to stop beginners in their tracks. It leaves many wondering how to use with acrylics or if you even need to use it in an acrylic painting.

Historically, it is for oil painting and was traditionally used to prepare or prime a surface so oil paint would adhere to it. It is made from a combination of paint pigment, chalk, and binder. Gesso would protect the canvas fibers, provide a nice surface to work onto and give a little flexibility so the canvas wouldn't crack if it was rolled.

Acrylic gesso. Photo by Will Kemp.
Acrylic gesso. Photo by Will Kemp.
Traditional oil gesso (pronounced ‘jesso‘) could be described as more of a ‘glue gesso' as it contains:

-Animal glue binder - usually rabbit-skin glue

-Chalk

-White pigment

The oil gesso creates a surface that is both absorbent (this comes from the chalk) and has a ‘tooth' (texture) that allows the paint to grab onto the canvas.

So what is acrylic gesso?

Modern acrylic painting gesso is a combination of:

-Acrylic polymer medium (binder)

-Calcium carbonate (chalk)

-A pigment (usually Titanium white)

-Chemicals that ensure flexibility, and long archival life.

Note how the acrylic gesso doesn't contain glue. Acrylic paints are non-corrosive and stable overtime, so you don't need to worry about the paint damaging the canvas, and therefore, you don't need the glue in the mix. Remember, traditional oil ‘glue' gesso soaks into the canvas fibers and helps to protect them from the corrosive nature of oils, over time.

Why do I need to use a gesso primer for acrylic painting?

Technically you don't. It provides you with a nice, slightly more absorbent surface to work onto, especially if your working on board or raw canvas but for a pre-primed canvas it's unnecessary. Don't forget your pre-primed canvas from the art store already has a layer of gesso on it. Gesso is the same as a primer, as in ‘pre-primed canvas.'

But here's a pro tip for painting with acrylics and gesso: you can also add other paint colors to your gesso to give you a toned surface to work onto.

So grab your paints, you're ready to go! You can also have a look at how I apply acrylic gesso to a canvas.

--Will

 


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Comments

angaba wrote
on 13 Jan 2013 8:03 AM

One of my art teachers used a recipe for gesso that included marble dust. I don't know if marble dust is a traditional type ingredient or if it was an innovation of my teacher. He used it for canvas and panels. Don't know why.

chizel wrote
on 17 Jan 2013 11:03 AM

Thankyou for providing information on Gesso, its ingredients and how it works, but it's pretty low embedding housepaint Ads when we think we are being taken to artists websites for further instruction.

on 24 Jan 2013 8:02 PM

Actually, gesso makes the painting surface "less" absorbent. Working on raw board or canvas will absorb your paint like a sponge if it's not first coated with a primer or gesso.

BonnieC3 wrote
on 8 Mar 2014 2:46 PM

Becoming a miniature oil painter, I could not bring myself to paint on what has become the traditional surface oil miniaturist paint on; "ivorine".  No way around it; it's plastic and the artist in me rebelled at it.  I kept hearing my techniques professor, "always paint on the most permanent surface!".  So I am using gesso on linen in multiple layers sanding between each on until I have the ultra smooth surface I need.  I remember that from techniques class too.  

on 8 Mar 2014 5:10 PM

Thanks for the tip on adding colour to the gesso for a toned surface.

I just wanted to add a tip for those of you using Masonite boards for painting. When you apply your gesso make sure you prime both sides of the board and the edges. This will prevent the board from warping and the edge painting will not allow moisture to penetrate the wood. Do several coats of gesso and sand in between each coat on the side your going to use if you want a smooth surface.

If your priming a stretched canvas you can also sand ( with fine sandpaper obviously ). If your stretched canvas is pre primed you can sand then add more gesso. I like to paint with a lot of fine detail so do not want the tooth of the canvas getting in my way.

Anne Armitage B.F.A.

Picture Pefect Pets

on 9 Mar 2014 3:14 AM

Great explanation.

I like to give a second coat of  gesso because it gives me less "fabric weave" and better surface texture in the end product. .

I'm surprised that you say there is no glue in in acrylic gesso as I consider the polymer medium as just a special kind of glue (or binder) that holds the gesso and the pigment to the canvas or board that it is applied to.

Here's a question - is acrylic gesso adequate for an under-painting layer for oil painting. I think it should be. Is there any need now for the traditional oil painting gesso (with rabbit skin glue) since the organic glue is susceptible to mould and mildew? I haven't used the oil gesso recipe for years and subsequently have had no issues with my paintings in storage.

I like to add yellow ocher or burn sienna to the ready made acrylic gesso so that if I miss a spot while painting, it's not a blaring white that shows through but a softer, warm mid-tone. It also saves a bit of time.

There are manufactured gessos in black and other earth tones. I sometimes paint  the light toned gessos in the areas that will ultimately be light, but black  gesso on the same ground, to give richness to the shadowed areas.

Jeff Webb wrote
on 12 Oct 2014 2:58 AM

I appreciate this description of "gesso" but I must add that this isn't entirely accurate. Gesso is an Italian word for "plaster" and the ground created for painting on was made from slaked plaster and an animal hide glue. It was NOT created for oil painting, but rather for tempera painting. One would never use traditional gesso on canvas because it is far too brittle and would very easily crack. It is meant for a more rigid support such as a wood panel. There is another formula for using a gesso-like substance on canvas and that is the half chalk ground which is a strange type of emulsion of a weaker glue based gesso with a drying oil. This method is till being used by some canvas manufacturers in Europe and was favored by many of the Renaissance Italian painters. Northern European Baroque painters preferred using a weaker hide glue or gelatin sizing on canvas and then a ground of white lead. Gesso is very absorbent and is uncomfortable for oil painting because it absorbs the oil from the paint. Before working on a gesso ground panel most artists need to rub it in with oil medium or varnish to make a more accepting surface. Acrylic Gesso is a very suitable surface for acrylic paint and although it is suggested by manufacturers that it is suitable for oil painting, most purists will disagree since acrylic  resin is hydro porous and will not make for a satisfactory bind with oil paint. Acrylic gesso very often has the addition of marble dust as an additive to make it slightly denser. It is in fact just an acrylic paint primer that has no gypsum or plaster in it at all. Ther were two types of gesso used by the old masters, gesso grosso and gesso sottille. Gesso grosso was what was used to create textural and modeled surfaces in the old icons that were painted in tempera and gesso sottille was used for the smoother surfaces on which the general tempera painting was done.

Iandugdale wrote
on 13 Oct 2014 9:14 AM

Only Jeff Webb's comment is accurate here regarding traditional gesso. Putting it on canvas is asking for trouble as it really is brittle. The one thing I would adjust in his statement about traditional gesso being used for oil paint is not to apply medium or varnish to make it less absorbent for oil - once you've sanded it apply a couple of coats of Rabbit Skin Glue to seal the surface. Angaba mentioned her teacher using marble dust - yes, that's fine, in fact it's very normal to use. Don't use French Chalk, however as it's too light. Certainly in England, you'd normally use Whiting.

There is a chalk ground you can use for canvas, but, while related, it isn't gesso. I can't remember the recipe, but it does have linseed oil in it to give it some flexibility. Ralph Meyer's book will have a reliable version.