View Full Version : Gesso - looking for advice

03-04-2012, 09:12 AM
Hi all,
I'm not sure which channel is best to post this but here we go.
I've for a long time wanted a little return to natural materials and to get away from using petro-chemical industry processed products in my painting. I studied historical techniques way back when, but most of it was theoretical. Now i'm finally attempting to put that knowledge to use and trying to prepare painting surfaces with traditional gesso. I've cross-indexed my books and pretty much all agree that the gelatin size should be mixed at 1:10 rabbit skin to water (double-boiled of course!) and that the gesso should be 1:1:1 glue:zinc:calcium.
I'm wondering if I should be using a mortar / pestle or a muller / slab to get a really consistent gesso? Right now i've just been using a large palette knife and palette for mixing. Even my 8 year old students know what happens when you mix 1 part liquid to 2 parts solid and that is a really thick paste, so there is no way you're applying that stuff with a brush! I think it was Doerner who said to use a spatula, and yes this is much more like mudding drywall than anything else.
I'm still not satisfied with the results but i'm determined. If anyone has any experience in making "real" gesso and preparing painting surfaces I would be much obliged.

03-05-2012, 12:01 PM
Hi Craig;

You shouldn't get a thick paste gesso: the consistency of the warm, ready-to-use gesso should be that of heavy cream. I either make a bunch of panels at one time about once a year, or I order pre-made ones, so it's been a while, but the steps I follow are:

Make the glue by adding dry granules to water in a glass jar, then let it set overnight in the refrigerator. I forget the proportion, but yours sounds ok.
The next day, the glue is of a jelly consistency. Heat it up slowly in a double-boiler setup. NOTE: do not actually boil anything! I just use hot-tea temperature tapwater or microwaved water to pour in a pot in which I set my jar. Placing this on a stove burner would be way too hot.
I then use some of the liquid RSG for sizing, and use the rest for gesso-making, usually the next day. For gesso-making the next day, I let the jar cool and the next day, heat it up again as before to start making gesso with it
To the warmed liquid glue, I mix my dry ingredients and proceed to gesso my panels with a brush, warming up the water-bath around the gesso jar as I work to keep it from thickening.

David Rourke has an excellent tutorial on the process at:

I also frequently use pre-mixed dry gesso mixes, available from a variety of companies, that have the dry glue granules and chalk/whitening powders all mixed together, so you basically just mix with however much water the manufacturer's directions say, let gel for several hours or overnight, then heat it up and use.

03-12-2012, 09:26 PM
Why do I even bother?

03-12-2012, 09:49 PM
Thank you for your information, Jeff. I haven't made my own gesso yet, but I think I will one of these days. (I've got a painting planned that won't fit on a standard Claybord.) I appreciate any practical advice I come across about gesso or egg tempera in general. So I, for one, am glad you bothered looking in on this quiet forum and posted your words of experience.

03-12-2012, 11:32 PM
Jeff, Thank you for your contribution. I was waiting as I thought this would be an easy place to get a plethora of advice and information, but perhaps I am mistaken.

My attempts have been going slow but slowly improving. Things have gotten a little better by using a mortar and pestle and certainly improved with the use of a very large spatula. Perhaps things would be better again with a muller and glass slab. Perhaps I could try screening my gesso through cheese cloth to get it smoother. 320 and 400 grit sandpaper have certainly helped as well.

In short this is where I have been gaining my insight:

Massey (Formulas for Painters)- Hide Glue Solution: 1 part hide : 10 part water. Soak for 1/2 hour then warm in double boiler until glue dissolves. Gesso : 1 gypsum : 1 zinc white : 1 hide glue

Doerner (Materials of the Artist)- Size, Glue : Water 100ml : 1l. Gesso : equal parts glue / zinc / gympsum. First coat stippled very thinly with a brush, subsequent coats applied with a spatula.

Cennini recommends to use slaked plaster and I have been using precipitated calcium carbonate. As it is not hard to slake plaster (I do it inadvertently when making plaster waste molds) I could try this as well. It would just take a little bit of prep.

Mayer (the Artist's Handbook) also has a section on gesso, some of which is the same and some of which are different than what is stated by Massey and Doerner. His recipe would certainly make a thinner gesso, but even he states that it will be a "paste"

All the literature states that gesso was used in the modeling of relief work for alterpieces and furniture. In all of my experience with working in plaster using a brush to model has played a minimal to negligible part of the process with most of the work being done with plaster spatulas and sandpaper.

Unfortunately as i'm living in Japan I do not have access to all of my books which are in Canada and only have a few for reference here.

I do not trust the David Rourke tutorial as he has not indicated sources for his method. At one part he recommends to add the pigment to the hide glue which is against all of the literature that i've read and contrary to anything i've heard or read on making paint in general. It is always done by adding the liquid component to the pigment slowly and gradually. He also says to let the pigments "soak" for 10 minutes in the glue. Unfortunately the pigments do not have any absorptive properties and cannot "soak" What we are doing here (as in general for making paint) is called "suspension"


03-13-2012, 12:33 AM
I was thinking of making my first gesso using the method in Altoon Sultan's book, Luminous Brush. She uses French chalk and gelatin. She advises adding the chalk to the liquid (slowly) and letting it soak for 15 minutes. She gives a lot of tips on how to avoid air bubbles and other problems. (You can find the book on Google Books.)

03-13-2012, 10:15 AM
A 1-to-1 ratio is fine in general, but can vary depending on humidity. A 1:10 glue to water mix is also a good starting point, but may also vary. 1:11 is usually best for me. I'll just mix it in by sight until the result suits me. A mortar is not required unless your not using as fine a grade of powder as you should be. Your environment and materials can vary so you should be prepared to alter your mixture as necessary.

If the pigment is wetted in diluted alcohol before being added to the heated glue, that can help the pigment mix better in water. Alum powder is also sometimes suggested to make a stronger gesso, but I've not really noticed a difference.

One problem people often have with gesso is pinholes appearing when it dries as it releases air. I've found that if I let the gesso sit overnight in the fridge or for a few hours and then slowly reheat it, that gives better results. Also be careful when dipping a brush into it or stirring it.

I've never tried applying with a spatula, but have used a metal scraper to try and get a more smooth layer. When the gesso is thin enough, that isn't really necessary. If the gesso is too thick or the glue too strong you can get cracks.

I also sometimes make gesso from casein instead of r.s.g., which is easier for me to handle since it doesn't require constant heating. R.s.g. quality can vary, but I know what I'm getting with casein.

03-20-2012, 10:55 PM
Thank you db.
I've been making some progress here, but am still having problems.
I've been trying to use 1:11, glue:water. a 1:1:1 glue:calcium carbonate:zinc is incredibly thick, but even with just a slight amount more glue it gets a bit more liquid. Applying the gesso with a large spatula is very nice. I haven't had any trouble with pinholes, but i have had some troubles with cracks. At first they start off as hairline cracks but as more layers are applied they get deeper until the ground starts to flake off. This could be from one of several reasons that I can think of, but i'm still uncertain as to what is truly causing this problem. Perhaps I am not waiting long enough between coats, though the literature that i've read does not suggest that one has to wait such a long time between coats and sanding. Perhaps my glue:water ratio is to blame. Perhaps the gesso ratio is to blame. I cannot find any ratios in either Mayer or Cennini. I was starting to think that you can make the gesso as thick or as thin as you like and that it becomes preference, but the cracks that I am getting is telling a different story. Both Doerner an Massey suggest to use an equal component of zinc, whereas Mayer suggests only to use a small addition of zinc. Perhaps this is to blame or perhaps it is the precipitated calcium carbonate. It's honestly a bit of a puzzle. I'm getting tired and really need to get back to painting, but i'd also really like to nail this gesso ground.

03-21-2012, 08:48 AM
The gesso should not be thick at all. Cracks are likely due to the thickness of your mixture. As you lay down several thin coats it will become opaque enough. 6-8 coats is plenty, or even fewer depending on how bright your support is.

It sounds like you might want to use less pigment, something down to 25-50% of your solids mixture will still work fine. You should also not have to wait long between coats, just long enough for the layer to become touch dry is sufficient.

You haven't mentioned what temperature your using. It should be heated between 125-135F and not hotter than that. As long as you keep a close eye on the heat, a double boiler isn't really necessary.

I made a series of posts on my blog (http://dbclemons.wordpress.com/2011/02/27/gesso-panel-part-1-gluing-fabric-to-a-panel/)awhile back for making a gesso panel that you may find helpful. Links at the top of the page will step you through the process.

03-24-2012, 01:40 AM
Thanks David,
I have no idea why Massey and Doerner are saying to use a 1:1:1 (glue:calcium carbonate:zinc) if the case is that you want a 1:1 or less ratio? Perhaps I should be reading Daniel Thompson's Practice of Tempera Painting or Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting. I am primarily interested in oil painting though I understand most people who are making gesso grounds today are using it for tempera painting. Mainly i'm just trying to expand my knowledge of materials and techniques.
Well I thought that my 3rd attempt was looking pretty good, so I made the cartoon, transferred the image and started laying it in with washes of iron gall ink. After several washes I noticed that cracks have been developing in the gesso. I imagine that if I continue with the ink washes the cracks will continue getting larger until the ground starts to flake off as in my second experiment. I could just try going direct to oil now and hope it will all adhere or... start again.

03-24-2012, 08:49 AM
...Perhaps I should be reading Daniel Thompson's Practice of Tempera Painting or Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting...

Thompson writes to use a 1:10 ratio ("gesso grosso") to make a thicker initial coat of gesso and then cover that with at least 8 layers of a thinner mixture at 1:16 ("gesso sottile",) at least that's an overview of how he described Cennini's process. His whiting to glue ratio is 1.5 to 1. I don't know what the ratio of this "gilder's whiting" itsef is, but the components are calcium carbonate and chalk. Cennini used calcium sulphate (aka "french chalk.") No mention is made of pigment at all, that I can find. I've found that initial thicker layer to not be necessary, just use the thin mixture all the way through.


Sinopia describes a different recipe :

Their glue size ratio is 1:12, and the whiting is a 1:1 chalk to pigment mix, combined with 3 parts glue.

None of this is written in stone, (pardon the pun.)