Have you been thinking of buying gesso to use in your art journals? You’ve heard other artists talk about this gesso but you still aren’t quite sure why and how to use it and whether you even care about having it.
What I’ve been asked a lot is what gesso is, what to use it for, if it’s really necessary and many other questions. So, my purpose today is to answer 15 practical questions about gesso and art journaling before you buy it.
This way, you’ll get the important info you need in order to pick the right product for your needs. Having this in mind, I’ve created a cheat sheet you can use as a reference for choosing which type of gesso to buy. Download it for free by filling out the form below.
1. What’s gesso?
Gesso was primarily used for priming canvases before painting with acrylic paint. The word gesso means chalk in Italian. Chalk is one of the ingredients of gesso.
It is mostly and widely used in art journaling for preparing the pages before you put a lot of different media on them. Gesso tends to “lock” the paper’s ability to absorb, and thus the paint will remain on the surface, rather than bleed through the paper.
When the gesso is dry, the pages become sturdier and the paper won’t soak liquids.
Gesso is a great thing to use in mixed media projects and art journaling because if you do mixed media, you’ll definitely use a lot of paint and other liquid media.
There are different brands and kinds of Gesso. It also comes in white, black and transparent. I haven’t tried the transparent one, but I have it in mind.
Also, you’ll find the more expensive artist grade gesso and the student grade gesso. I don’t like spending money on professional art supplies, because this student-level gesso is perfect for using it in my art journals.
How do you know the difference? Well, look at the prices, and it’ll be pretty obvious. The more expensive the gesso, the more quality you’ll get. But let me tell you one more time, just to give you a tip: if you’re going to use gesso just for your art journaling, you can go with the cheaper options.
2. When to use gesso?
This medium is versatile. Apart from using it to prime the pages, it can serve many other purposes.
One of them is to make your pages sturdier so you don’t have to glue two pages together (in case they’re thin).
Also, you can use it to create texture on the page before you even start painting. The tools you use for this determine what kind and amount of texture you’ll get. The tools that give the most texture are a kitchen sponge and the brayer.
Read more about tools for applying gesso to paper here.
Are there pages that you don’t really like and would like to use the page again for something else you’ll perhaps love more? Of course, you have these pages, we all do. Or have you experienced an Oops moment, like spilling too much ink on the page?
In any case, you can use gesso to cover stuff. Maybe you won’t be able to completely hide the previous page, but you’ll definitely get a faded background which can be really interesting.
3. Where to get gesso?
At any shop with art supplies, hobby shops, arts and crafts stores, etc. You can ask at the store which kind is the most popular with buyers and buy that one.
You can also buy many brands online.
If you feel stuck buying it, download the free cheat sheet to help you pick your perfect gesso. Get the cheat sheet at the bottom of the post.
4. Can gesso be watered down?
Definitely! If you mix it with a bit of water, you can get a hazy look on your page. The layer of gesso will be very thin so you can use this technique to desaturate a colorful page.
5. Can I mix gesso with acrylic paint?
Of course you can. If you want to prime your page in any color, just add some paint to the gesso. Experiment with the shades and the amount of paint, and tint it any way you like.
6. What is gesso drying time?
This certainly depends on the brand and the amount of gesso you apply on the page. If you put a thicker layer of gesso, it’ll need more time to dry, longer than acrylic paint in the same case.
However, if you apply just a light, thin layer, it’ll dry quickly. I usually use my heat gun to dry it faster, and with this tool, it’s a matter of seconds. Without the heat gun, you’ll usually have to wait for a few minutes.
7. Can I use gesso with watercolor?
I’ve tried this many times and I’m not satisfied. Some of my art journals have very thin pages. I’ve always wanted to use watercolor in my journals, but for this, I needed a lot of water. So, I figured I’d just use gesso for priming and that’s it.
However, I didn’t like the results. First of all, the colors became desaturated and flowed easily over the page because the gesso made the surface smooth.
It just doesn’t behave like watercolor paper. This isn’t good or bad, it just depends on what you like. I prefer watercolor paper for painting with watercolors.
But you can also have fun with using gesso before watercolors. This is an example when I tried it, and I can use this background for anything. It has a lot of texture and I like that. This technique would be great for abstract watercolor painting.
8. Can gesso be used as white paint?
Why not? Although gesso is thinner (at least the student grade is) than acrylic paint so it’ll be more transparent than the paint.
I often use gesso to lighten the color a bit on my page or to distress the page. In the latter case, I mostly use my fingers to apply it. Here’s a page I’ve done this way.
9. Can gesso be used as glue?
Not really. At first, it’ll seal the paper down, but when it’s dry, the paper will lift. This is because one of the main ingredients in gesso is chalk. And anything that’s powdery or chalky is less likely to be used as glue.
It just didn’t work for me.
10. Are gesso and textured paste the same?
They are different media used for different purposes. While the gesso is used to prime surfaces before applying paint and wet media, the textured paste is used to create a 3D effect. Crafters usually use the paste with stencils and the results are amazing. Here’s an example of this:
I’ve never tried heavy gesso, maybe it’s so thick you can use it as a texture paste. In any case, I think you’ll have to apply a great amount of gesso to get the same effect as with textured paste. And then, it’ll need a lot of time to dry.
11. What do you use to apply gesso to paper?
You can use many tools. I’m a fan of the brayer, make-up sponge and a gesso brush. Some tools help gesso create texture, but some leave the papers smooth.
If you want to know more about these tools, read the post about 9 tools you can use to apply gesso to paper.
12. What kind of products/paints blend well on gesso?
I like using Faber Castell Gelatos when I want the blended look. And these blend perfectly on the gessoed background.
However, watercolor doesn’t blend that well. Not like on watercolor paper. Not even close.
13. Can I use pens on top of gesso?
I haven’t had much luck with this. My pens tend to clog and stop working if I try writing with them on gesso. Especially if it’s a textured background.
However, if you want to write over gesso, try using markers. Posca markers are great for this.
All the white doodles in the photo below were done with the white Posca pen.
14. Can I use gesso for projects other than art journals?
For example, if you want to paint a plastic cup and make it into a plant dish, just cover it in gesso and then paint it. You can apply gesso on many surfaces to prime it for paint. Perhaps you’ll need to apply more than one layer to have the desired effect and better coverage.
16. Can I use watered down gesso in a spray bottle?
I wouldn’t do that. Gesso contains chalk, and my guess is this can easily clog the spray.
If you want a consistent white look with gesso, try applying it with a baby wipe. It waters gesso a bit so you get a transparent look. You can use this technique for desaturating a bold colored page.
Below is an example of using this technique on a patterned scrapbook paper.
WHAT GESSO IS THE RIGHT FOR YOU?
First, let me say that once you start using gesso, it’ll be on top of your list from that moment on. I use it all the time, whether it’s for priming my art journal pages, to get a hazy look, or to cover my unwanted “mistakes”.
You definitely won’t be sorry for having it. Maybe there’ll be effects that you won’t like, but I’m sure you’ll find it useful and practical.
If you need more help with deciding on this product, I’ve prepared a cheat sheet for you to take to the store with you, or use it as a reference during your online shopping. It will help you ask the right questions at the store or look for important info in the reviews. Get it at the bottom of the post.
My advice is to go through these questions above, and then use my cheat sheet for buying gesso to help you find the right kind of gesso for you. There’s even an option on the cheat sheet to make your own notes, from this post, or other useful info you’ve found.
If you want to know some basic things about the gesso and its history and uses, check out this article on Wikipedia.
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