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Gesso: Information on Uses

 Photo by Suzanne Hellums

Acrylic painters often refer to their surface and canvas prep as gesso (pronounced JESS-o). What is gesso? Gesso is an art supply, typically used on a blank canvas, to ready the surface for painting and to give the paint a “tooth” to grab onto. Gesso can be purchased ready-made from art supply shops, while other artists make their own. It is like white acrylic paint, but tends to contain chalk or other agents, to help the paint adhere to it. It is usually thinner than heavy bodied acrylic paint, and often seems to have the same consistently of soft bodied acrylics. Gesso dries hard, to help make the canvas, or paint surface, more stiff. If an artist works with high flow acrylics, they may sand their 1st coat of gesso, wipe the residue off, and gesso their surface a 2nd, or even, 3rd time. 

Gesso prepares surfaces such as linen, or cotton, for painting. It prevents paint from seeping into the canvas weave layer itself, as well as allowing the surface to be as textured, or untextured, as the artist wants. Most artists wait ~24 hours for each gesso coat to cure fully, depending on the size of the canvas (an 8” x 10” would probably be ready to paint on in as little as 8-10 hours). Allowing the gesso to fully dry before painting prevents unnecessary moisture in the layers of a painting, which can cause mold, or other unwanted chemical reactions with pigments of the 1st paint layer.

Gesso is also applied other surfaces.  I have lightly sanded and gessoed slate coasters, to allow my acrylic paint to have something to hold it to the slate. Almost any surface you wish to paint with acrylics can be lightly sanded and primed with gesso! Gesso is white, and has even been used as a mixing white, when used in small amounts as an impasto technique (straight on the canvas) during painting. Just remember to let this layer fully cure before you proceed to other layers over it.

Black, or clear gesso, can be used instead of white. Gesso can be made with any color you want to mix into it (as you can see from the image, above). Start by mixing a small amount of your acrylic paint to a larger amount of gesso. Adjust the mixture by adding in darker paints, or more white gesso; for desired effect. I recommend Artist grade gesso (Liquitex is a good one), as it has more pigment than student grade (or you can add white Mica pigment into the student grade).

The artist’s grade gesso is thicker and more opaque (not translucent). Gesso is also available as a spray. While I haven’t tried gesso in spray form yet, it seems to be similar to spray paint primer and for me, it is a matter of time before I find a used for it (above picture has an example of this)!

Recently, I have read that gesso has branched out into the oil painting world. It is gesso for oil painters, and is to be used in place of the animal/rabbit – based prep used previously. If you have ever painted your walls in your home, and primed them before your paint coat; you have used a form of gesso! I think it is safe to say that we haven’t heard the last of for what gesso will be used! Happy Painting and Art Your Heart Out!

Suzanne W. Hellums, independent artist

505 Art & Art Your Heart Out: AYHOsuzanne@gmail.com

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