Using Gesso

Ask an art journaler how they start a page, and you are likely to hear, “First I put on a coat of gesso.” [JESS-oh]. Ask them why and you may get a blank look or shrug. Gesso is a current fad; let’s take a look and decide if it’s the best first layer.

Gesso, in its first incarnation was a mix of rabbit-skin glue, chalk, gypsum, and perhaps some fiber or calcium carbonate. Gesso is Italian for gypsum. Today, gesso is a mix of acrylic ground, glue, and calcium carbonate. The purpose remains the same: to provide a flexible ground for acrylic paints. What most people don’t know about gesso is that the tooth has a sandpapery feel and makes it hard to write on.

Because it has a tooth, it adheres to smooth surfaces and fills in small gaps in wood, canvas and other rough substrates. It was also meant to be sanded before use.

Black gesso on the left, clear on the right. Notice how the clear darkens the background.

Gesso comes in black, white, neutral gray and clear. People have told me it also comes in beige, but I’ve never seen it. (That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, just that I’ve never seen it.)  It’s the same thickness as heavy-bodied acrylics.

On the left, you can see a matte black gesso. On the right is a clear gesso. You can see that it makes the background a bit darker and more distinct.

I smoothed the gesso with 600-grit sandpaper so I could write on it. Otherwise, it feels like writing on unglazed, baked clay or 400-grit sandpaper.

When applying gesso, you can use a brush, palette knife or credit card. A bush will leave brush strokes in the gesso, so I prefer a palette knife or credit card to apply it. In the sample below, you can see the brush marks on the left and the smoother application on the right. The paper I applied it on is slightly buckled because the gesso is still wet.

The other advantage of gesso is its density, making it useful to cover writing, collage, and creating a new surface from the old. It’s a way of recycling your canvases, cradle boards, or painting panels. Don’t forget to sand it, even if you are going to paint over it.

Collage using inked papers, gesso (black and clear) and gel transfer.

Do you need to use gesso on an art journal? Not if you have a good paper journal. If you want to cover the bare look, it’s easier to use a thinly-applied layer of acrylic paint in a neutral like Titan Buff or Parchment. No sanding necessary, and heavy-body acrylics will cover as well as gesso.

If you use fluid acrylics, thinner than heavy-bodied, you may have to use two coats.

Gesso is not a glue, because it contains an opaque color. You can use it to adhere paper to wood or a substrate, but the color will remain when it dries.

If you don’t like the slightly rough feel of cold-press watercolor paper, instead of coating it with gesso, use hot-press. It’s much smoother. If you want a background, use a neutral acrylic or watercolor first instead of gesso.

If you are using wood or unknown cardboard for your journal, then gesso makes sense. It works as a sealant and as a base coat. Just remember to sand it before you start painting.

Quinn McDonald is an art journaler and creativiy coach who experiments with sacred cow materials.