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What is Gesso?

Gesso is a versatile white paint mixture that artists apply as a base coat on canvas, wood, or other surfaces. It creates a smooth, absorbent foundation that helps paints adhere better and colors to stand out more vibrantly. Intrigued by how gesso can transform your art? Discover its myriad uses and tips for application in our comprehensive guide.
J. Dellaporta
J. Dellaporta

Gesso is an art supply used as surface preparation, or primer, for painting, gilding and sculpting. Its origins are uncertain, but it is believed to have been developed in Italy, because the word is Italian for "chalk." Preparation varies according to intended use but usually consists of mixing glue with plaster, chalk or gypsum.

Created for Use in Painting

Gesso is sometimes used under the paint in oil painting.
Gesso is sometimes used under the paint in oil painting.

This substance resembles paint but is thinner and dries hard. It is applied with a brush and must dry before the surface can be painted. Gesso was first created for use in painting, to give the surface the right properties to receive paint. In Gothic and Renaissance panel painting, it was applied over a panel of wood to give the paint something to which is could adhere. It created a slightly rough surface and prevented the paint from seeping into the wood.

Gesso contains chalk.
Gesso contains chalk.

Traditional gesso was equal volumes of filler or chalk dust; white pigment, either from the powdered chalk or another mineral, such as zinc; and animal-skin glue. The mixture was then heated and stirred. This substance was brittle when dry and therefore susceptible to cracking.

Acrylic Gesso

In 1955, an acrylic paint company, Liquitex, developed the first water-based acrylic gesso. Modern gesso is a mixture of calcium carbonate, a pigment and an acrylic polymer medium. The pigment usually is titanium dioxide or titanium white.

Gesso resembles paint but is thinner and dries to a harder finish.
Gesso resembles paint but is thinner and dries to a harder finish.

Modern gesso retains the absorbent qualities of the older version but is more flexible and can therefore be used on canvas. It also can be colored during the manufacturing process by replacing the titanium white with another pigment. The artist also can color it using watercolor, acrylic paint or another coloring agent to tint the surface to be painted. Canvases with gesso already applied are available commercially.

Use in Sculpting

Gesso also is used in sculpting. During the 18th century, it was commonly used as a base for decorative gilding or otherwise embellishing carved woodwork, such as picture frames or furniture. Gesso is not always attached to or painted over another surface. Sometimes, it is used directly to form the actual artwork.

This material can be cast in a mold or used to make the mold itself, or it can be modeled or carved. It is useful for molding or building up into relief designs. Gesso also is used in manuscript illumination because it forms a raised area on the page that can then be gilded and burnished.

Potential Drawbacks

Some artists question whether modern gesso should be used under oil paint on canvas. Certain materials that are used in oil painting, such as mineral spirits, can leak oil through and damage the underlying canvas. The archival properties of the acrylic type is unknown as well.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is gesso and why is it used in art?

Gesso is a white paint mixture consisting of a binder mixed with chalk, gypsum, pigment, or any combination of these. It is primarily used as a preparatory ground for painting surfaces such as canvas, wood, or paper, providing a smooth, absorbent surface that helps the paint adhere better. Gesso prevents paint from soaking into the weave of the canvas and can be sanded to create a smooth surface for detailed work.

Can gesso be used on any type of surface?

Gesso is quite versatile and can be applied to a variety of surfaces including canvas, wood, paper, and even metal or plastic with proper preparation. However, the surface may require some light sanding or a base coat to ensure the gesso adheres properly. It's important to note that different surfaces may require specific types of gesso, such as acrylic gesso for acrylic painting or oil gesso for oil paints.

Is there a difference between acrylic gesso and traditional gesso?

Yes, there is a significant difference between acrylic gesso and traditional gesso. Acrylic gesso is made with an acrylic polymer medium, making it suitable for both acrylic and oil paints. It dries quickly and is flexible. Traditional gesso, on the other hand, is made with an animal glue binder and is intended for use with oil paints only. It is not flexible and can crack if applied to a flexible surface like canvas without proper preparation.

How many layers of gesso should be applied to a canvas?

The number of gesso layers applied to a canvas can vary depending on the desired texture and absorbency. Typically, two to three coats are sufficient for a smooth finish. Each layer should be thin and allowed to dry completely before sanding lightly and applying the next. More layers may be added for a smoother surface or to create a textured effect for the painting.

Can you make your own gesso, and if so, how?

Yes, you can make your own gesso. A basic homemade gesso recipe involves mixing 1/4 cup of talcum powder, 1 tablespoon white glue, 1 tablespoon white paint, and enough water to achieve the desired consistency. This DIY gesso can be a cost-effective alternative to store-bought gesso and allows for customization of texture and absorbency. However, for professional results, especially on archival-quality artwork, it's recommended to use commercial gesso.

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Discussion Comments

anon152712

Where can I purchase gesso sophilia?

anon56464

Can I use gesso as a pre-coat for candle printing?

anon44357

Can Kilz be used in place of gesso as a primer? Also, on the canvas that is already white, is it necessary to gesso it again?

bluemagik

I am a clay artist and do a lot of hand building. I use newspaper to make forms for small bottles, and masks. If I used gesso on the newspaper forms to smooth the surface, will it burn off in the kiln with the paper?

anon12847

Have been to the Tutankhamun exhibition today they were using gesso 3500 years ago so I don't think it was invented by the Italians!!!!md

anon11153

Is there a type of gesso that can be used as a ground for waterbased paints? I have heard that you could use glue gesso instead of an acrylic but I can't find any products of this description. Do you know where I could find something like this?

Twaxy

Dry Gesso mixture is the way to go - A mixture of crushed marble, titanium white, and animal glue - Simple instructions, great results. Just use caution (dust mask) when using any powdered pigments, gesso included.

anon3697

What is Gesso applied to before painting on it?

cbuie03

I would like to make my own gesso? Do you have a recipe?

Also, know of a place to get gesso less expensive than an art store?

ibknut

I understand what Gesso is. I need to use some to repair 2 small sections of an antique frame where the applied Gesso chipped off. My quuestion is what type of Gesso should I use and is there a special way to use it on the wood frame? Many years ago I was an antique dealer and I had the instructions. But Lord knowes where they are now. I would appreciate help

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    • Gesso is sometimes used under the paint in oil painting.
      By: dred2010
      Gesso is sometimes used under the paint in oil painting.
    • Gesso contains chalk.
      By: PRCreativeTeam
      Gesso contains chalk.
    • Gesso resembles paint but is thinner and dries to a harder finish.
      By: Rob
      Gesso resembles paint but is thinner and dries to a harder finish.