We use Gesso a lot in mixed media, and this question comes up frequent;y:
"Should I start with Gesso?"
My unfortunate answer is not the most satisfying: "It depends."
Made worse by the fact that I launch into all the variables and people's eyes glaze over and...
Well, maybe I can make it more clear.
First, I think it's important to understand Gesso as part of the Acrylics family of mediums.
So I always say that the first thing is to understand Acrylics. Acrylic paint is made from basically the same synthetic material that is used to make acrylic resin (plastic) and even acrylic fibers used for fabrics and other fiber products such as rugs (plastic soil resistance).
Acrylic paint is a kind of plastic too—when it's dry. Unlike many other art mediums, acrylics dry hard and waterproof.
BUT. The beauty of acrylics is that when they are wet, they do mix with water and other liquid materials beautifully. They are not waterproof until dry. Also, acrylics dry quite quickly, unlike oil paints which can literally take months to dry.
Okay, so in addition to acrylic paint—color acrylics—there are also many acrylic mediums that are made to work with acrylic paints in different ways. That is the purpose of acrylic mediums: to work with acrylic paint.
So you may have heard of "Matte Medium" or "Gel Medium" or "Molding Paste", for instance. There are many other acrylic mediums too, but basically all acrylic mediums are made to create different effects by adding to acrylic paint.
(It's super fun to experiment with these different mediums as we get curious about how to create different effects. )
Another fun fact about acrylic mediums is that sometimes these mediums get used for other purposes than just for what they were intended. Matte Medium, for instance, is actually intended to mix with acrylic paint to extend the pigment, but it's also an amazing collage adhesive—and the only one I recommend for collage.
And as you'll see in a moment, we can use Gesso for other purposes too.
Gesso is one other acrylic medium
Gesso looks like white acrylic paint and dries white. However, Gesso has a grit to it, it's thicker than paint, and therefore spreads much less fluidly than acrylic paint. It's purpose is to be a primer for acrylic paint.
What's a primer?
Something that gets you ready for the next step. So Gesso primes the surface for the next layer: acrylic paint. First, it coats and seals the surface. So if you're working on a porous surface like paper or canvas, a beginning layer of gesso will allow your acrylic paint to slide right on top without absorbing into the surface. Or if you have a very shiny surface like some papers, Gesso will add some tooth for acrylic paint to grab and hold.
We also use Gesso for other purposes than to prime a surface. Three favorite techniques:
- Because it's so gritty and non-shiny compared to acrylics, we can mix it with water and rub it over a bold surface to "push back" the boldness.
- We can spread Gesso as a thick layer and create texture with marks or stencils that when dry, acts as a resist for the next water-based layer.
- We can paint over a color with Gesso to make a white surface so that the next color is its true color (and isn't influenced by any color below)
Over time we play with these techniques and many more ways to use Gesso and other acrylic mediums in the projects we make in Art Fix classes.
So now let's get back to the question at hand: "Should I start with Gesso?"
Now you can see that this is a question just about using Gesso as a primer for a mixed media piece. And the answer "depends" on what your next layer is going to be.
When you might want to use Gesso first
If you don't want the next layer to soak into the paper, Gesso first.
If you want to unslick a surface, Gesso first.
If you want your next layer to slide across the surface faster and further (because it's not busy soaking into the surface), Gesso first.
When you might not want to use Gesso first
If your first layer will be another acrylic medium, maybe not. All acrylic mediums will also dry hard and waterproof and seal the surface. You often don't need Gesso as well.
For instance, if you will begin your piece with collage, the Matte Medium will seal in your papers and the surface below and around it (when you apply the adhesive correctly, below and above). No need for Gesso first.
If your first layer will be acrylic paint on paper, you also often don't need Gesso, despite its manufactured purpose. Yes, the paint won't slide as fast and far because some of it will absorb into the paper, but if the paper isn't too porous, that shouldn't matter too much. The paint will seal the paper and—bonus—you don't have to wait for the Gesso to dry before beginning.
I usually don't use Gesso first in my Art Journal particularly if I begin with acrylic paint.
Finally, a fun fact: If you're creating on a canvas, don't apply Gesso first because stretched canvases are already primed with Gesso. Canvas is basically absorbent cloth so Gesso is a pre-manufactured given.
Okay, guys, so that's the word on Gesso. I hope this clears up the many answers to the very understandable question of how and when to use Gesso.
Now go make something! Pull out a blank surface and ask yourself, "Should I start with Gesso?"
Now you'll know the answer.