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.

20 thoughts on “Using Gesso

  1. i have recently returned to pastel chalk, a medium with which I had enjoyed playing years go. Now I fine that my attempts at an autumn landscape”needs something”. The more I try to bring out the spectacular color, the more layers of chalk look murky. The colors are correct but lack the sheen apparent in the photo. Someone suggested using gesso. I see several references to gesso over chalk, but little specific about how to best apply it to bring out the natural glow. Is there a proper way to apply gesso on top of chalks, or must one learn by trial and error?

    • Gesso is used to create a base to paint on. If you paint gesso over chalk, you will cover it up permanently. My guess (and I don’t know what kind of pastel you are using or what you are drawing on, so it is a real guess) is that you are piling up too much pastel, and the blend is murky.

  2. Hi, Quinn. I love reading your blog, and have just received a copy of your book from Amazon. I’m excited to get started reading it! I’m wondering, if I gesso the pages of an old book to use as a journal, can I paint the pages with watercolors, or will the watercolors just mostly pool up on the gesso, kind of like it would on a waterproof-type surface? Thanks so much!

    • First of all, thank you for buying my book. I appreciate it, and I hope that you find a connection to your own creativity with it. Watercolor paper is very absorbent. That’s the point about watercolor–absorbency. Gesso seals the page. You can paint it with watercolor, but the watercolor can’t soak in. So it will eventually dry, but not quite like watercolor does. The fun with gesso and watercolor is that you can “erase” the watercolor with a sponge and water if you don’t like what you did.

      As an alternative, instead of gesso, you can use Daniel Smith’s watercolor ground. It is designed to paint over paper, glass, metal and the watercolor on it. It might provide just what you need. The idea is to experiment, it’s OK not to know what will happen.

  3. If I understand correctly, “tooth” means roughness? I don’t get the part about it not being a glue because it has a color, though. If you apply gesso to paper and then use that paper as sandpaper, does it work? Finally, I’m disappointed it’s pronounced with a soft ‘g’ because that means the “yeah, I gesso” joke that occurred to me doesn’t work. Sigh.

    • Yep, tooth means roughness, but it’s relative. So you can say that corduroy has more tooth than silk. But you can’t sand much with corduroy. Glue used in mixed media often shows in the completed piece. Matte Medium, often used as glue, is also used as a varnish. But gesso, if used as a glue, must be completely under the glued paper, or it will stain the surrounding area white (or other colors). Because of its tooth, it can also create little lumps under the glued piece.

  4. Sometimes I’ll go over the page with various chalk pastels and then the gesso, it seals the colour and gives a lovely hue to the background – no blank white page staring back at me!
    The only reason I gesso some pages is that, once dry, I don’t get the cheap paper in one of my journals rippling while I play.

  5. I rarely use gesso… usually just to cover something up. I have used it to create some texture on a page beore painting it… And you’re right – it was near impossible to write on! Good to know – I’ll have to try sanding it next time.

  6. On a smooth surface like shipping tags, gesso will act like a resist for distress inks. I haven’t used other inks, but I know the distress inks do this.

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