Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Art Journal Basics - What is Gesso?

Today in my basics series I am talking about gesso and other mediums.  

Gesso: As a painter my first encounters with gesso were in preparing canvas to paint on. It is the white base that has already been applied when you buy a ready to paint canvas. Usually it is an acrylic binder with chalk added but it can be made of other similar things. It is used to seal and prime the page or canvas. Gesso stops the colors from one page in a journal going through to the next one if you apply it evenly over the page before you begin. It can also be used to cover something that you don't want seen, like when you use an old book as a base and need to cover the writing.

There is a wide range of difference in qualities between manufacturers of gesso. Some gessos are very fine and others very chalky. The gloss levels can be different too and this affects how they work on the page.  A chalky gesso will mean you can generally use any medium on top but glossy ones are harder to work on with waxy mediums like pencil. You need to experiment with gesso to find the one that you like best.

Liquitex gesso is very fine and fluid so it spreads easily with a paint brush or makes a very thin layer when spread with a credit card. It dries to a nice matte finish so is great as a base for colored pencils or any type of paint. It is the one I use the most.
The Derivan (an aussie company) is a thick gesso that has similar properties to the Liquitex but won't spread as easily with a brush.
The Mont Marte (another aussie brand) gesso I have here is almost empty. It is the cheapest gesso I have bought and also thick like the Derivan. It works just as well as the more expensive brands except that it dries with a slightly glossy finish. It doesn't like pencils on top but if I do a background of matte acrylic paint then I can use pencils on top of that.

Some of the other ways I have used gesso on a page are:
(you can click on the photos to go to the blog post about the technique)
1. Preparing paper that is not art paper.
2. Heating it to make a bubbled texture
3. Using it as a resist. Glossy gessos are best for this technique
4. Creating texture on a page
more texture
Clear gesso is a transparent binder with a more gritty substance added. When it dries the surface feels like fine sandpaper. It is great to use over a surface that other mediums won't stick too. If you have used glossy paints then a coat of clear gesso will allow pencils to work on them or soft pastels and chalk. I don't use it often.

Gel Mediums are another great product. They can be used as glue, for adding texture or changing the surface texture to either matte or glossy. It usually tells you on the bottle if it is matte or glossy. Some gel mediums have different additives like fiber, pumice, grit to create textured backgrounds. My favorite medium is the Liquitex matte medium because it goes on with a paint brush very smoothly and when it dries I can use anything on top like pencils or paint. I use it to glue papers to my page and if any leaks out the side or gets on top of the paper it doesn't matter because it won't show.

Thicker mediums can be used like the thicker gesso to add texture through a stencil or with a palette knife. Glossy gel medium doesn't color as easily as matte and can be used as a resist in areas that you don't want colored. Glossy medium also gives you a little time to wipe paint away if you want to create a distressed look because the paints take longer to dry over them. The main disadvantage of glossy mediums is that they can be easily seen on a page if you use them as glue. For a beginner journaler I would recommend getting a matte medium to start with.
A page that has gel medium on top

Modeling paste or texture paste/gel are another interesting product to experiment with. They stay in the shape you apply them as they dry, so if you push it through a stencil it will create a raised surface. Applying it with a palette knife looks a bit like a rough plaster. The Liquitex brand modeling paste I pictured here is extremely light on the page and doesn't add weight. It is great for journals. Different brands dry with a different finish, some can be quite glossy. Golden modeling paste is smoother than the Liquitex but a little heavier so I use it more on canvases. I used texture paste in the previous post.

Glues I like to use are varied. I used to use mod podge a lot but not so much these days. It tends to stick to itself if you use it on opposite pages. Sometimes I go over a page with wax if that happens but I try only to use it as a base layer these days. That is why I now use the matte medium as a glue because it doesn't make pages stick together. Another glue I like is UHU stick glue. It doesn't make the paper buckle. Yes paste is the same as the stick glue but in a tub so you can apply it with a credit card. I recently found it online and am impressed so far. A little really does go a long way and it covers so quickly.


  1. Do you ever used alcohol based pens and paint? If you do what gesso product do you prefer for that?

    1. I don't often use alcohol inks or pens with gesso underneath. I tend to like using them on plain paper but when I do use them with gesso the Liquitex is the smoothest for the pens to go over. Another idea you might want to try is white acrylic paint instead as a base for alcohol markers, just let it dry for at least 24 hours.