Experienced painters sometimes forget exactly how intimidating art supply lingo can be for a beginning painter. I learned to paint from books, so not only did I not know what gesso was, I didn’t even know how to pronounce it. So I felt like a double-dummy asking for it in the art store. We’ve all been there. There is no shame in it.
Here is everything you need to know about Acrylic Gesso. And more.
Pronounced, Jess-O000, Gesso is typically a white, opaque liquid mixture used as a absorbent primer or base coat for your canvas. Today, lots of read-made, stretched canvas comes already coated with acrylic gesso.
Five Acrylic Gesso Facts:
- Although usually white, Gesso also comes in other colors too, such a black, gray, gold, blue, red … even clear.
- Gesso had adds tooth to the surface. Meaning it dries with a rough not slick surface to which paint can more easily adhere.
- Thick layers of Gesso are more prone to cracking than thick layers of acrylic paint. Three thin layers are better than one thick layer of Gesso.
- Gesso is NOT the same as acrylic paint. Might sort of look the same, but it is NOT the same. Gesso will not perform in the same manner over time. See article What is Acrylic Paint?
- Gesso smells funny. Kinda yucky compared to the mostly orderless acrylic paint.
Old School Gesso
While many oil painters do indeed paint over Acrylic Gesso, some purists contend that over time, like decades, oil paint will delaminate (peel off or fall off) from the acrylic gesso undercoat. They suggest using old school gesso made from rabbit skin glue for preparing canvas for oil painting.
Back in the day, gesso was made from Gypsum. The Italians, pronounced this as Gesso instead of Gypsum and the name stuck. This old school gypsum substrate was rather brittle and susceptible to cracking, so it was mostly used for wood panels back then. Later, gypsum was traded in for rabbit skin glue, but artists still referred to it as gesso. Go figure.
Tidbits: In researching “how to make rabbit skin glue”, all the instructions begin with a bag of store bought rabbit skin glue nuggets. But where do the nuggets in the bag come from? How do you actually make it? I think I know but I am scared to say it out loud. Does one actually go catch a bunch of rabbits and take their skin off? If I had a pet rabbit, I might think twice about moving next door to a traditional oil painter. Yet one more reason why acrylic painters ROCK over oil painters!
This entire animal skin glue topic begs further research on my part but I don’t have time to go into it now. I think it is safe to conclude that simply buying a bag of rabbit skin nuggets doesn’t really count as making your own rabbit skin glue. Does making your canvas involve actually growing the cotton, weaving it into cloth, then stretching it?
Don’t try to use acyrlic paint over rabbit skin gesso, it won’t “work” and you will be very, very sorry in a few years.
Today’s Acrylic Gesso
Modern Acrylic Gesso does more than add tooth to the surface. It also seals the canvas. It provides a flexible substrate with tooth. This will enable your acrylic paint to adhere to your canvas longer than a bad date waits for a kiss your front porch.
All of these pretty much mean the same thing, so don’t let it confuse you. Basically it’s the stuff you put onto your canvas before you can paint on it. And most likely, that stuff is called Acrylic Gesso.
How to Properly Gesso a Raw Canvas:
Like skinning a cat, or a rabbit in the case of gesso, there is more than one way to do it. But most artists agree on 2 -3 THIN coats. Some lazy ones choose to slap on one thick coat and move along to something more fun.
The first gesso coat should be watered down a bit, allowing the water / gesso mixture to penetrate the cotton or linen fibers. I have found the water helps shrink the canvas a bit, tightening up the whole affair so that you don’t wind up with a loose, soft painting surface. (I am assuming that you are dealing with stretched canvas, on wooden stretcher bars, not just a floppy piece of canvas that you cut off the back of Omar’s tent)
The second gesso coat is applied thinly, but not watered down. Some traditional types suggest a light sanding before the second coat to remove the fuzz that develops from the wetting of the canvas cloth on the first coat. I never do this, and it works fine for me. If you want an extra smooth painting surface, better to sand it.
By the way, never sand where you paint. There is no vacuum on earth that can truly get rid of the dust that results from sanding anything in your painting studio. It will eventually get into your wet paintings or your final varnish coat.
- Get off your stool
- Take your tush outside your studio
- Sand your surface.
The third gesso coat is generally agreed upon to be optional. If you are sloppy or tend to spread your gesso is really thin, a third coat will ensure all the little pinholes and missed specks are covered completely with gesso.
Acrylic Gesso on Paper or Wood:
If you don’t like to paint on canvas, many acrylic painters choose to apply gesso to professional watercolor paper or smooth wooden panels. It works the same to prepare the surface for acrylic paint and give it tooth. You can also paint directly onto watercolor paper with acrylic paint, but this works best when using thinned acrylic paint and watercolor techniques.
Painting on wood panels adds another level of complexity to your preparation process. Wood panels require additional sealing and sanding, depending on the type of panel.
Did I leave anything out?
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