What is Gesso and how do you use it?

Gesso is a primer that closes one layer or separates one from another. It’s white and usually quite thick, the consistency varies with the manufacturer. It’s made of gypsum, calcium carbonate, plaster of Paris and glue. It has a matt finish. This can be applied to just about any surface which can be then painted on when the gesso is dry. Gesso is actually an Italian word that means chalk.

Ready to go
Readymade canvases always have two or three coats of gesso already applied to them. This prevents the paint either acrylic or oil, soaking into the linen or cotton canvas.

Colour of Gesso
Gesso is usually white, but nowadays you can get black, coloured or transparent gesso. You can also make coloured gesso yourself, by adding a little acrylic paint and mixing it well. Gesso can also be thinned down with water if needed, as it is water based.

There are two different grades of gesso, the artists quality and the student quality. The student quality is usually cheaper because it contains more filler than the artist grade gesso.

Apply Gesso
To apply gesso to a canvas be it raw or already prepared, you need a large flat brush. If you want a flat surface, the gesso must be smoothed out as much as possible and when dry, sanded down in a well ventilated room, with fine sandpaper. This process must take place about two or three times. This will result in a very smooth finish.

If however, you want a more structured effect, this can also be brought about by applying the gesso with for instance a palette knife. This takes a little longer to dry than flat gesso.

Add texture
Structure and texture can also be added with sand, crushed egg shells, sawdust, rice or any other small material. All these give a rough texture to paint on when dry and the results can be very interesting.

Raised details
If you have made a painting in a certain type of medium, you can also take gesso and add details that give the work an interesting raised detail that can also be painted over with in the medium that you have used.

Diluted Gesso
Watered down gesso can also be used in a painting. This when dry, gives an underlying white surface that can reflect the pure colour. Watercolour or ink is especially good for this purpose. Unlike white acrylic, the colour tends to soak into the gesso, whereas if you paint on white acrylic, the colour remains on top.

Recycle canvas
Painted canvases that are unfinished and have been abandoned, can be painted over with a coat of gesso and used again. If you have made mistakes in a painting and want to correct them, gesso over the area and re-paint it. The previous painting can often be utilized to great advantage when the underlying structure shows through the paint.

Add thickness
If you are starting a journal and want to paint in it but have bought one where the paper is to thin, coat each page with gesso first. This will stop the paint or ink from seeping through to the other side of the paper. By giving the pages a layer of gesso it also gives the paint, ink or anything you might want to add, something to hold onto.

Using gesso with any kind of stencil will give some amazing results. This gives a three dimensional variation of form that can be painted or embellished on, the possibilities are endless.

Share your ideas with us
These are just some ideas that can be used for gesso and I am sure there are many more out there. If you have other ideas on how to use gesso, please let us know and email mail@dutchartbox.com  let us know and we will add them to our list.

Buy a pot of gesso and experiment with it, it’s great fun!


This article has been registered and has copyright. It is only intended for personal use and is not to be used commercially.

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