Curious About Making Gesso?
Updated: Aug 7, 2022
(Editor's Note: This essay has been re-titled corrected and reworked. It was first published on April 19, 2016. Essays will be periodically reviewed, corrected and updated.)
Artists appear to be composed of two types of people, some who desire to experiment and others who are happy with the array of art materials at hand. Perhaps the experimenters were that way as children, always trying out things and making strange concoctions in the basement. They didn't blow themselves up so they moved on to adulthood and more sophisticated experiments.
So many of these experiments with art materials ignore the fundamental nature of substances. A number of artists like to try to make paint, but other than oil paints, which are relatively easy to produce, most of the other art materials require some advanced knowledge of chemistry and/or physics.
So many artists go on the Internet and poke around looking for a website that discussed some secret of the Old Masters. Testimonials abound about how wonderful the thing turned out when they made it and swear that everyone else will share in the bliss if they try to make it as well. Cite somewhere in the text of the recipe that Chenino Chenini had something to do with the formulation and artists who experiment with art materials will emerge from the woodwork and believe that the ancient recipe rediscovered has been blessed and ready for them to attempt to make it with current day materials. Some of the more bizarre experiments have to do with making "gesso."
Experimenters use the Italian word for this priming material because it gives it a cachet that bestows a validation of the recipe. Next comes the recipe itself. It is a stew of liquids and a bunch of white powders. It may be boiled or just mixed cold. Either way, it gets applied to a canvas or most times a solid support because that's the substrate the "Old Masters" used.
When the results are posted later, readers of the post come to find that the product cracked or shrunk or did some other unusual thing. What is even funnier, the artist experimenter and others commenting on the results of the formulation, blame the solid support, not the "gesso." However, if you really want to make your own art materials, find a decent reference. It rarely comes from an online chat room frequented by artists. Read translations of ancient recipes. Read modern adaptations that have specific ingredients, measurements and instructions.
For gesso, find a frame conservator who recreates or restores old frames and ask how to make true gesso to apply to a solid wood support. (Gesso does not work on canvas, Sorry!) See the host of chalk, pigment and glue grounds to mess around with making primers for canvas. They usually involve rabbit skin glue as a size for the canvas and then a chalk and glue combination. Later, lead primers or some variations on that became popular. Most of this stuff is dangerous to work with unless you have a commercial-grade workspace that complies with OSHA standards. Or do what most artists do. Buy good quality commercial products and spend the time painting rather than making art materials.
Syntax of Color