Gesso – What It Is and How to Use It

Gesso can be a useful option for artists journals as well as painting and mixed media art. I use gesso often, because I often create heavily embellished pages in my journals. I need the extra strength that gesso adds to my art journal pages.

If you create heavily embellished pages in your journals, as I do, gesso can provide more support. It can strengthen the paper you’re working on.

However, you don’t have to gesso pages in your artist’s journal. In fact, most artists never use gesso in their journals. I only suggest it if you’re working with paint, heavy embellishments, or mixed media.

What is gesso?

Gesso is a primer. It looks a lot like paint, and it goes between the surface you’re working on (the support) and whatever you’re using for your artwork.

Originally, gesso only came in white. Artists put it on surfaces such as:

  • Canvas
  • Wood
  • Hardboard (such as masonite, MDF or plywood)

On wood and hardboard, the gesso is a two-way barrier. It prevents the board from soaking up the paint too much. However, it also prevents any acids, oils or glues from migrating into your finished painting. (The latter could spoil the colors.)

On canvas, gesso prevents the fabric from soaking up the paint. The colors won’t bleed, and you won’t use as much paint.

That’s a good reason to use gesso on paper if you’re painting in your art journals: You’ll have more control over the color, and you’ll save money on paint. (Generally, gesso is a lot cheaper than paint is.)

Gesso makes the surface a little stiffer. It can also give 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. So, the gesso can be part of your finished artist’s journal page, too.

pages 31-32 aisling's journal

Gesso is useful for mixed media artwork, too. When I’m using a cigar box as the support for an art shrine, I almost always cover it with gesso… unless the design on the box is going to be part of the finished shrine.

(Also, some wooden cigar boxes look spectacular if they’re simply polished, so the wood shines.)

What’s the difference between gesso and regular paint?

Gesso is usually thinner and creates a slightly rough surface when you apply it.

Long ago, artists made their own gesso. They mixed calcium — like chalk — in a thin base of animal glue.

Yes, it was rather smelly. It also had to be shaken or stirred regularly, because the chalk quickly settled to the bottom of the mixture.

I don’t recommend making your own gesso, but if you want to try it, here are a couple of websites with recipes:

When you see religious paintings and icons painted on wooden supports, gesso is probably underneath the artwork. That gave the wood some “tooth” so the paint stuck to it (and didn’t peel off), but it also kept the paint from sinking into the grain of the wood.

By the mid-20th century, gesso began to change. In 1955, the first water-based acrylic gesso was created by Liquitex, the paint company. That gesso could be used underneath oil paint and underneath acrylic paint.

In recent years, some artists have questioned whether or not acrylic gesso is the right product to use under oil paint.

That’s not an issue for most people working in art journals.

However, if you also work with oil paints and want to buy just one gesso for both, discuss this with someone who’s current on this topic. (Or, look it up online to see what the latest theories are.)

Gesso and artists 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.

Note: The acrylic/oil issue shouldn’t affect art journalers who use oil pastels and crayons over acrylic gesso.

However, since the oil in oil paints, oil pastels, and similar products can weaken the paper in your journal, it’s a good idea to treat the paper with a coat of gesso, first.

When I journal, I use white gesso most of the time.

However, I’ve also used black gesso as part of the finished work. Here is an example of a page with black gesso on it. It’s from my Decluttering Journal.

Kingston quote - aisling's decluttering

I used rubberstamp letters (alphabet letters) and an opaque (pigment) white stamp pad. I also added details with a white gel pen. The “tooth” (rough texture) of the black gesso can work well with opaque (pigment) gel pens, such as Sakura Gelly Roll pens.

How to use gesso

Like paint, 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.

Shake the gesso container so it’s well mixed. Whether it’s acrylic gesso or traditional gesso, it’s still likely to separate.

Because gesso is water-based, you can use a regular brush to paint it on. I use a sponge brush for fast coverage.

If I’m working with an art journal, I apply a thin coat of gesso to one side of the page. That’s usually enough.

However, if I’ll be using heavy embellishments and the page needs to be very strong, I’ll use gesso on both sides of the page. Depending on how thick the gesso is, I may apply more than one layer to each side of the page.

Remember that the binding of your journal is also subject to wear & tear. Sometimes, especially when it’s a spiral-bound journal, I’ll paint gesso out to the edges of the page, including around the holes where the wire is.

Also, a journal with heavy embellishments will only hold up to a certain amount of page-turning. (In my classes, I often pass around my journals so people can look through them.) I closely watch the condition of my journals, and “retire” them from classroom use when they start to show signs of stress.

Cheap gesso has more water in it and will 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.

Does price or quality matter?

No two people are likely to agree on this question.

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 gesso in large tubs — like ice cream containers — to save money. As long as you put the lid back on securely, gesso stores well.

That’s sort of the best of both worlds: By buying in bulk, I get the best price for a higher-quality gesso.

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

In addition, I’ve tinted 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 until I achieve the color that I want.

For color, I’ve had luck with:

  • Plain (unsweetened) Kool-Aid
  • Dr. Ph. Martin’s concentrated water colors, added drop by drop to white gesso
  • Cheap watercolor paint drizzled into the gesso
  • Adding acrylic paints to the white gesso

Remember: If your Kool-Aid contains a sweetener, that can attract paper-munching insects and rodents.

Getting fancy

You’ll find a variety of gessos, each created for different kinds of art.

In addition to 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 heavy journal cover or other rigid support.

Gesso powder will mix into acrylic (and other) gessos to make them heavier, thicker, textured, and so on.

Summary

  • Gesso is the primer. It helps paint stick to any surface, including paper, cloth or board.
  • Gesso prevents paint from soaking into your journal page.
  • Gesso strengthens paper so that you can apply layers of collage and heavier embellishments.

You don’t have to use gesso, ever. It’s just an extra tool for certain kinds of art journaling.

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