Gesso – Definition, Examples, History & More – Art Conservation and Restoration Glossary

What is Gesso?

Gesso is a traditional material used in art conservation and restoration to prepare surfaces for painting. It is a white, chalky substance that is applied to canvas, wood, or other surfaces to create a smooth, absorbent base for painting. Gesso helps to seal the surface, prevent paint from soaking in, and provides a stable foundation for the artwork.

Gesso can be made from a variety of materials, including chalk, gypsum, pigment, and binder. It is typically applied in multiple layers, with each layer being sanded smooth before the next layer is added. Gesso can be tinted with pigment to create colored grounds for painting, or left white for a neutral base.

History of Gesso

The use of gesso dates back to ancient times, with evidence of its use found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 3300 BC. In medieval Europe, gesso was used to prepare wooden panels for painting, as well as to create decorative elements on furniture and architectural surfaces.

During the Renaissance, gesso became an essential material for artists, who used it to create detailed and intricate paintings on canvas and wood. Gesso was also used to create elaborate frames and decorative elements for paintings.

Composition of Gesso

Gesso is typically made from a mixture of chalk or gypsum, pigment, and binder. The chalk or gypsum provides the bulk of the material, while the pigment adds color and the binder helps to hold everything together. Common binders used in gesso include glue, gelatin, or acrylic medium.

The exact composition of gesso can vary depending on the desired texture and absorbency of the surface. Some artists may add additional materials, such as marble dust or sand, to create a coarser texture or to increase the absorbency of the surface.

Application of Gesso in Art Conservation

In art conservation, gesso is used to repair and restore damaged paintings and other artworks. Gesso can be used to fill in cracks, tears, and other imperfections in the surface of the artwork, creating a smooth and stable base for further restoration work.

Gesso can also be used to create a barrier between the original artwork and any new materials or paint that are added during the restoration process. This helps to protect the original artwork from further damage and ensures that the restoration work is reversible.

Types of Gesso

There are several different types of gesso available, each with its own unique properties and uses. Traditional gesso is made from chalk or gypsum, pigment, and binder, and is typically applied in multiple layers to create a smooth, absorbent surface.

Acrylic gesso is a modern alternative to traditional gesso, made from acrylic polymer and pigment. Acrylic gesso dries quickly, is flexible, and can be used on a variety of surfaces, including canvas, wood, and paper.

Colored gesso is tinted with pigment to create a colored ground for painting. Colored gesso can be used to create interesting effects and textures in paintings, or to provide a base color for the artwork.

Techniques for Using Gesso in Restoration

When using gesso in restoration work, it is important to apply it in thin, even layers and to allow each layer to dry completely before adding the next layer. This helps to create a smooth and stable base for the artwork and prevents the gesso from cracking or peeling.

Gesso can be applied with a brush, palette knife, or roller, depending on the desired texture and effect. Some artists may choose to sand the gesso between layers to create a smoother surface, while others may leave the texture of the gesso visible in the final artwork.

Overall, gesso is a versatile and essential material in art conservation and restoration, helping to preserve and protect artworks for future generations to enjoy.