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What is Gesso?

By J. Dellaporta
Updated May 23, 2024
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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

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.

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.

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.

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Discussion Comments
By anon152712 — On Feb 14, 2011

Where can I purchase gesso sophilia?

By anon56464 — On Dec 15, 2009

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

By anon44357 — On Sep 07, 2009

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?

By bluemagik — On Nov 15, 2008

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?

By anon12847 — On May 14, 2008

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

By anon11153 — On Apr 09, 2008

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?

By Twaxy — On Oct 10, 2007

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.

By anon3697 — On Sep 12, 2007

What is Gesso applied to before painting on it?

By cbuie03 — On May 28, 2007

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?

By ibknut — On May 09, 2007

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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