The Evolution of Gesso

Most people recognize the Italian loan-word “Gesso” as both a noun and verb referring to a water-based priming for artistic painting, but not many know the origin of the term, how its meaning has changed, or the story of how the founders of Utrecht Art Supplies invented an Acrylic-based Gesso that transformed in-studio preparation of painting supports from a risky, two-week ordeal into a fast, safe way to make almost any surface into a universal painting support.

Today, when most artists say “gesso”, they’re talking about the familiar acrylic dispersion primer that’s found in practically every studio and classroom. But, that’s a fairly recent use of the Italian word, which has other meanings, including a very different type of painting ground from the one most artists know.

In Italian, “Gesso” can mean chalk or plaster, including chalkboard chalk or a cast on your arm, but where painting is concerned, for centuries it referred to a painting ground made of chalk or slaked plaster and glue. Use of traditional gesso predates the introduction of stretched canvas as a painting support. This type of gesso is quite hard and stiff, and it was mostly used on wood in preparation for painting and gilding. Historical artists mainly relied on specialist workshops to craft their panels, where gesso was applied in multiple layers, sanded and burnished. Use of hard, glue-based gesso continued over the years, especially in the tradition of painting icons, but most artists used stretched canvas, prepared with glue sizing and oil-based priming. In the mid-20th century, however, there was a major development that forever changed how artists prepare their own painting supports.

Image (right): Left - Plaster cast of a human hand. Right - “The Entry into Jerusalem”, ca. 1400. Gold and tempera on gesso on wood panel

In 1957, Utrecht became an early innovator when they created one of the first acrylic dispersion painting grounds. This was called New-Temp Acrylic Gesso, because it was water-based like tempera, and, like historical gesso, contained calcium carbonate chalk to impart texture and absorbency. The Utrecht founders had invented a painting ground that could make canvas, panels, paper, and many other surfaces ready to accept oil or acrylic paint almost instantly. The most revolutionary advantage of Acrylic Gesso was that it was not only fast-drying, it also served as both sizing and priming in one step.

Before Acrylic Gesso, artists had to apply glue sizing one day, and slow-drying, lead-based oil-based primer the next, waiting two weeks before the ground could accept oil paint. With Acrylic Gesso, artists were ready to work almost as soon as their gesso was dry.

There are important differences between historical gesso and the acrylic product. Traditional gesso, made of a gelatin-like glue, chalk, and white pigment is very hard and brittle, so it works best on panels, and while it does accept oil paint, it’s more often associated with egg tempera and silverpoint. Traditional, glue-based gesso used on canvas can easily crack and flake.

Image (right): Instructions for oil priming, Utrecht Linens publication, ca. 1960

Acrylic Gesso, on the other hand, can be used on a wide variety of supports including canvas, wood, hardboard, paper, stone and even some metals.

Acrylic polymer vehicle gives gesso flexibility and high adhesive strength, while calcium carbonate and white pigment impart texture and absorbency to ensure a strong bond with paint and support material. Titanium white pigment provides a reflective base that brings oils, acrylics and alkyd colors to their best appearance.

While some still insist that the only true “gesso” is the traditional, hide glue product, the word is now widely accepted as a generic term for water-based, acrylic primer, as well as the act of applying it. Even in Italy, the modern product is known as “gesso acrilico”. And, while both historical gesso and oil primers are still in use today, the majority of artists have enthusiastically adopted this amazing, universal primer that made preparing painting supports easier, safer, and quicker than ever before.

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