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Gesso
what it is and how to use it

©2004 - 2006 by Aisling D'Art



Gesso is a useful option for art journaling. It's also used for painting and mixed media art.

I use gesso often. However, many (perhaps most) artists never use gesso in their journals.

Here's what gesso is and tips for how you can use it.

WHAT IS GESSO?

Gesso can go under paint or heavy collage or embellishments, to make your journal pages stronger. It's not required, but it can help.

Gesso is a primer. Artists may apply it to a surface before painting on it. In fact, gesso looks a lot like paint.

Originally, gesso only came in white. Artists put it on canvas, wood, or other surfaces before creating a painting with oil paint or acrylics.

Gesso makes the surface a little stiffer. It prevents paint from soaking into the support (canvas, paper, wood, etc.), and it gives the surface a little more texture (called "tooth"), so the paint sticks better.

Today, gesso comes in many colors. White is still the most popular, but black and colors are also widely used for art journaling and other art.

It's useful for mixed media work as well as fine art paintings. For example, I almost always cover a cigar box with gesso before painting it when I make an art shrine.

WHAT MAKES GESSO DIFFERENT FROM REGULAR PAINT?

Gesso is different from paint. Generally, it's thinner and creates a slightly rough surface when you apply it.

Originally, gesso was a mixture of calcium--like chalk--in a thin base of animal glue.

When you see religious paintings and icons on wood, they were probably painted over gesso. The gesso kept the paint from sinking into the wood too much, and it made the paint stick better if the wood surface was really smooth.

But, gesso changed in the 20th century. In 1955, Liquitex (an acrylic paint company) developed the first water-based acrylic gesso. It provided a consistent and inexpensive primer layer for both acrylic and oil paintings.

In recent years, some artists have begun to question whether or not acrylic gesso is the right product to use under oil paint. While this isn't an issue for most people working in art journals, it's something to think about if you're also working with oils.

GESSO AND ART JOURNALS

As many of us began to create art journals, we found new uses for acrylic gesso. For example, it's ideal for use under collages.

And, the acrylic/oil issue shouldn't affect art journalers who use oil pastels and crayons over acrylic gesso.

When I journal, I use white gesso as well as black gesso.

BLACK GESSO

Here is an example of a page with black gesso on it, and white rubberstamp'd letters. You can see how well gel pens write on black gesso on this other page from my Decluttering Journal.

HOW DO I USE GESSO?

It's easy to use gesso. However, gesso can get messy if you play with it. I usually spread newspaper on the desk, table, or floor where I'm working, just in case.

Then, shake the gesso container so it's well mixed, open it, and start painting the gesso onto your surface.

I use a cheap sponge brush to apply gesso. Because gesso is water-based, you can use a regular brush if you prefer, and rinse it out afterwards.

If I'm using gesso in an art journal, I apply a thin coat to one side of the page. That's usually enough.

However, if I'm planning to apply a heavy collage to the page, I may use gesso on both sides of the page for added strength.

Generally, I apply one coat of gesso, wait for it to dry, and then decide if I need to add another coat.

Cheap gesso has more water in it and may take longer to dry. If you're going to apply gesso to the back of the page, too, be sure to let the paper dry completely before painting that second side. Otherwise, you'll seal in moisture and weaken the paper.

I usually gesso several pages--three or four at a time--while I'm at it. I separate the wet pages with wax paper so that they don't stick together while drying.

(For more about using wax paper when creating art, see my article, Wax paper and art journals.)

CHEAP OR EXPENSIVE - DOES IT MATTER?

Everyone will have his or her own opinion on this question.

Personally, when I'm using white gesso--which is most of the time--I buy whatever's cheap. It works fine for my art journaling pages.

I often buy it buy gesso in bulk for additional savings. (It even comes in quart buckets and tubs about the size of ice cream containers.) As long as you put the lid back on securely, and shake or stir the gesso before using it, gesso stores well.

When I want a colored gesso, especially black gesso, I spend considerably more and shop for very good brands.

Also, I've had very good luck tinting small amounts of cheap white gesso for special projects.

I start with a jar or paper cup that's partly filled with white gesso. Then, I slowly add coloring to it, until I achieve the color that I want.

For color, I've had luck with:

GETTING FANCY

Many companies are making a variety of gessos for different kinds of art. In addition to a wide range of colored gessos, some companies make a "hard gesso" that goes on thick and can be sanded to a smooth finish. Although this product would be too heavy for use on regular journal pages, it could be useful on a rigid journal cover or other support.

You can also buy gesso powder and other powders that will mix into acrylic (and other) gessos to make them heavier, thicker, textured, and so on.

SUMMARY

Gesso is the primer that helps your paint stick to the paper or fabric (or other) surface, and also keeps the paint from soaking into your journal page.

Gesso can also add body or strength to the paper, so that you can apply heavier elements such as layers of collage.

You don't have to use gesso, ever. It's just an extra tool for us to use when we're creating art in our journals.

If you plan to buy gesso online, here's one cheap brand that I've used with success. It's difficult to find in stores, so this is a link to Amazon.com: Economy Easy-Pour Acrylic Gesso 100 fluid ounce Jar

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