Technique Tuesdays: Gesso

Welcome to another Technique Tuesday! Today we’re going to take a look at a substance that is near and dear to many an artist’s heart: gesso.

Technique Tuesday Gesso

What is it?

Pronounced “jesso”, this unique substance acts as a type of primer for many mediums of painting. Traditionally, gesso (an Italian word for gypsum) consists of a binder of some kind (historically, animal glue) combined with gypsum and chalk. Mixing and applying gesso is an art form in itself, but many artists find it well worth the effort to master the application, as gesso acts as an excellent primer that not only extends the archival life of a painting, but also can add an incredible textured effect to the finished work, as we will shortly see.

Examples from art history:

The use of gesso dates back to ancient times, as it was often used to create relief sculptures like those inside Egyptian tombs. It was also once popularly used in the production of ornate mirror frames. In fine art painting,  gesso has long been used to help paintings and especially frescoes (paintings done on a wall) to last longer. Today, many different types of gesso exist, for oil paints as well as for egg tempera and for acrylic. Though the very popularly-used acrylic gesso mixture does not contain the gypsum for which the substance was named but rather calcium carbonate, the term has firmly stuck in art vernacular, as both a noun and a verb (you can gesso a canvas by applying gesso).

Many old religious panel paintings and icons were painted on a surface of gesso to preserve the paint and delicate gold leaf
Many old religious panel paintings and icons were painted on a surface of gesso to preserve the paint and delicate gold leaf

Example of gesso at Principle Gallery:

Many of the artists whose work you see in Principle Gallery make use of gesso or very similar primers. One excellent example of the use of gesso for more than simply increasing the longevity of the work is seen in the paintings of GC Myers. Most of the pieces that he creates on canvas are begun with a carefully applied layer of gesso, thickly applied and manipulated to create just the right texture. In fact, Myers admits that sometimes the finished effect of the gesso layer is so lovely that he’s almost reluctant to paint over it! (He always does, though). Let’s take a look at this work by GC Myers, called “Neighborly.”

"Neighborly" by GC Myers, 18x18
“Neighborly” by GC Myers, 18×18

GC Myers is well known for his striking landscapes, and their distinctive stylization and color palettes. Each one seems to emit an energy and a luminosity that adds poignancy to the already evocative paintings. Check out this picture, taken at an angle to reflect the light, to see the swirling, textured layer of gesso beneath the paint:

Myers tilted

Gesso is used not just as a primer in Myers’s work; the use of a textured layer of gesso under the paint serves to add a visual interest and energy to every part of the composition.

Myers detail neighborly sun
Detail of “Neighborly” by GC Myers
Detail of "Neighborly" by GC Myers
Detail of “Neighborly” by GC Myers

To see more incredible landscapes by GC Myers, visit his artist page on our website by clicking here!

Check back with us next Tuesday for another Technique Tuesday post!

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