One of the most frequently asked questions I receive from workshop participants and readers of my book, Abstract Explorations in Acrylic Painting, is, “Why do you use gesso?” Often there are a few words tacked on to the end of that question: “Why do you use gesso instead of white acrylic paint?” or, “If you’re going to coat the slick surface of Yupo with gesso, why not just coat watercolor paper instead?”
The answer to these questions can be summed up by two words: Appearance and Absorbency.
• Appearance. When I want to make a tint (white added to a color), I will add white gesso to it rather than adding white acrylic paint. While most acrylic paint dries to a glossy finish, gesso dries to a matte finish. When you add gesso to your acrylic paint you’ll achieve a matte or, depending on the ratio of acrylic paint to gesso, a satin finish. Often the first layers of my paintings, although painted with acrylic, are done in a very fluid and thin manner much like watercolor. Because this layer is thin and absorbs into the surface, it will not dry with the usual glossy appearance that we are accustomed to seeing with acrylic. I like to carry this same matte appearance throughout the painting, and adding gesso to my paint, rather than white acrylic, allows me to accomplish this. There’s nothing wrong with a glossy finish, and I do have paintings that I finish this way, but, if I’m after a final matte surface, and the painting requires opaque or translucent paint, gesso is the solution.
• Absorbency. Gesso gives tooth and a certain level of absorbency to a painting surface. Several of my abstract painting techniques involve the use of the synthetic, polypropylene material called “Yupo.” It has been adopted from the commercial sign printing industry and because it is essentially plastic, it’s non-absorbent. For certain purposes, like using it with alcohol inks, this is just what you want; but for my purposes, I find it a bit too slick. This is where gesso comes to the rescue with its ability to add both absorbency and tooth (surface texture) to the Yupo.
Now this is where my students and readers start to cock their heads to the side and begin to ask the follow-up questions:
• “Why don’t you just gesso regular watercolor paper instead of Yupo?”
• “Won’t a gessoed piece of watercolor paper give you the same surface as a gessoed piece of Yupo since you are essentially sealing the surface below with gesso?”
To answer this, I wish I was sharing a video rather than an article because I find this very hard to explain without my hands! But, for you, I will give it a try.
The answer comes back to the issue of absorbency, not of the gesso, but of the surface upon which it is being applied; and for my purposes, I don’t want that surface to be absorbent. As you may know about watercolor paper, if nothing else, it’s absorbent. When you coat watercolor paper with gesso you’re applying a slightly absorbent material on top of an absorbent surface. Some of the gesso will absorb into the paper’s surface and the resulting surface will still be somewhat absorbent.
Imagine geology class and a picture that is a cross section showing layers of rock. Watercolor paper is like a layer of sand. Gesso is like a layer of packed dirt on top of it. When you apply diluted, watery paint, it will absorb through the packed dirt (the gesso) and once it gets to the sand (the watercolor paper) it will be sucked up.
Now consider Yupo. Yupo is like a hard compact layer of stone, and gesso is still our hard packed dirt on top. When you apply your diluted watery paint, it will absorb through the packed dirt but it will hit bedrock! This means that much of that watery paint is going to remain on the surface longer and take longer to dry because it is not being sucked up by the underlying layer. You still get the advantages of the non-absorbent surface along with the advantages of the slightly absorbent gesso. This combination allows you to have more control over your paint application than if you were working directly on Yupo, but the gessoed Yupo still allows much of the paint to remain on the surface where you can manipulate it, remove it, or add to it before it dries. In Arizona, where the paint dries as it’s leaving the bottle, this is very advantageous.
So, why do I use gesso? One last reason. It’s much less expensive than white acrylic paint and I can buy great big bottles of it verses the little tiny bottles of acrylic that I can afford. But, I will always choose the product that helps me achieve my vision; I am just glad that gesso does the trick!
Bio: Jo Toye is an experimental artist who finds great delight in bringing the intuitive nature of play together with the more formal elements of design. She lives in Scottsdale, Arizona where she joyously shares her evolving process through her popular art workshops and classes. To see some of Jo’s work or a video walk-through of her book, Abstract Explorations in Acrylic Painting, visit her website at www.inspiredpalettestudio.com.