So What Is Gesso Anyway?

Last Updated on May 1, 2019 by Nancie Waterman

Gesso and Test Sheets

This afternoon, I did another experiment using the Strathmore Premium Cover white cardstock I purchased a few weeks ago, this time looking at how prepping it first with gesso changes the way a variety of art mediums behave on it. All of the art mediums I tested are commonly used by stampers: regular colored pencils, watercolor pencils, watercolor markers, archival pigment markers, watercolor crayons, pastel pencils, alcohol ink markers and Gel-Sticks/Gelatos.

My inspiration to play with this traces back to my most recent “Gelatos, Gel-Sticks & Stamps” eArticle. In researching the topic, I learned that you can improve dry blending of Gel-Sticks or Gelatos if you first prep the surface with a light coat of gesso. After I purchased the Strathmore Premium Cover but wasn’t happy with the way it takes colored pencils, I wondered if some gesso might make a difference. So today I gave it a try.

First, you might wonder, “What is gesso?” Gesso is a type of acrylic paint used to prep a surface on which you will be using art mediums. Artists have traditionally used gesso to prep canvas and other surfaces before they paint. I’ve mostly used it in the past to prep the little tan craft boxes you can buy in craft stores. If you simply stamp or color on those boxes, the color can sink into the box fibers and be uneven and sometimes hard to see. The gesso gives it a base coat of white (although you can also purchase it in clear, black or colored versions) that you can then stamp or color on more easily.

Paint with Gesso

But you can also paint gesso on cardstock. You might think that this is very finicky and would add a lot of time to a stamp project, but the process is surprisingly fast and easy. I learned in researching another eArticle, “Sponge & Brush Techniques For Stampers”, that an inexpensive foam brush is handy for applying a light thin coat of paint. (It tends to create less stroke marks than a bristle brush.) Simply shake the gesso bottle to make sure the paint is mixed and then squeeze out a puddle of the paint on a palette or craft sheet. Then dip the foam brush into the paint puddle and brush the paint across the surface of the cardstock, using as many strokes as necessary to get a smooth even application over the whole surface.

Dry Gesso with Heat Too

Clean off the palette or craft sheet and the brush while you let the gesso dry naturally. (It only takes a few minutes.) Or use a heat tool to speed things up. (Sheesh, I really need to clean the ink off my heat tool!) Now you are ready to stamp, paint or color on the prepped surface. If you find you like using surfaces prepped with gesso, you could prep a few sheets to have ready to go for future projects.

My original paper was Strathmore Premium Cover Ultimate White (80#), a paper that is very white. The Liquitex gesso is described on the bottle’s fine print as being Brilliant White. It is not quite as white as the cardstock, so the gesso treatment made the paper just a little less white, but still a good base white color. The gesso also changed the original very smooth feel of the paper to a kind of chalky feel. Basically what you have done is sealed the paper and created some tooth. (Hmmm, sounds good for colored pencils doesn’t it?)

Gesso and Art Medium Test Sheets

This is a photo of the various art mediums scribbled on the untreated cardstock (top) and the gesso prepped cardstock (bottom.) No photo or scan is going to show you exactly how this looks in real life, so I encourage you to try this yourself with your own supplies to really see how this works. But this at least gives you an idea of what happens.

Mediums that like a little tooth go on the gesso prepped surface more easily than the unprepped surface: regular colored pencils, watercolor crayons, watercolor crayons and pastel pencils all like the prepped surface better. Notice that these mediums all pick up some of the gesso texture in the coloring. I personally like this look better and think the color tends to be richer, but you may like the other application better. Neither is right or wrong, just different.

Watercolor markers seemed happy on either surface. I really couldn’t detect a difference. Pigment ink markers and Copic alcohol ink markers worked OK on the prepped surface but were streakier. They really preferred the original unprepped surface, which I had previously found to be a good one for markers in general. The Gel-Sticks color the same on both papers; it is only when you try to dry-blend them that you can see that the color moves and blends better on the gesso prepped surface.

Gesso is a handy thing to have in your stamping stash. You can buy a bottle in the art paints section of local craft or art supply stores. You won’t want to use it for every stamp project, but it can be useful for those times when you want to seal your surface and give it some tooth. Try it for prepping craft boxes or chip board shapes. Try it for prepping tags or other small pieces of paper or cardstock that don’t have quite the right surface for a particular art medium. It only takes a few minutes and can really make a difference!

Have you used gesso on a stamp project? How did you use it? What is your experience with gesso?


11 thoughts on “So What Is Gesso Anyway?

  1. Another great article, Nancie! But when commenting on gesso, I always feel compelled to warn other artists NOT to rinse gesso down their kitchen drains, for the same reason we don’t leave it to dry on our stamps. Once dry, it is rock hard. Let just a little of it do the same in a bend of pipe and plumbers have to cut and replace – no amount of unclogging or snaking helps. I have a 2-jar set-up when gesso-ing (I use 2 empty glass pickle jars). One jar is for keeping my gesso brush in water until I am finished, and I pour jar #1 into jar #2 when I need some fresh water in jar #1. When jar #2 is full, I take it outside and pour on the grass or in a rock bed we have, just by the back door. I clean my brush with Mona Lisa soap and rags/paper towels. I rinse jar #1 into jar #2 until I can wipe it out pretty good with a paper towel. I’ve labeled my jars and my brush with same deco tape so I only use them for gesso.

    1. Thank you for sharing this preventative hint. I did not know it. I don’t use gesso often, but I will never rinse my brush in the sink again!

    2. Hi Amy, Good point. That is the beauty of, and the downside of, acrylic paints. They are water-based and so can be cleaned up with water but once the water evaporates, they dry hard. So once it is dry, you can’t go back and re-wet the color and continue working with it on a project in the way you might with watercolor paints and some other water-based art mediums, but on the plus side, wet fingers won’t accidentally move the color later once it has dried. And they can dry inside pipes and clog up plumbing. There is a video on Blick’s website where they show a similar cleaning method for brushes. I put a link to it in my “Sponge & Brush Techniques For Stampers” eArticle (for those who like video instruction.)

      Depending on the needs of your project, if you use a disposable foam brush and an improvised palette (like plastic from product packaging), you could alternatively throw them away after use. If you prep a bunch of sheets of paper or canvas or whatever ahead of time, it would reduce the number of times you would either have to clean up the acrylic paint or toss the brush and improvised palette.


  2. I’d like to caution about using a heat tool for any acrylic medium.
    When I studied with Liquitex, we were told never to heat any polymer with out using a respirator , even outside.
    We encouraged working on several pieces at once and waiting for them to dry.
    Inhaling the fumes causes lung and liver damage.
    I love using all the paints and I want everyone to use them safely and live healthfully and creatively for a long time!

    1. Hi Robyn, That’s interesting. I’ve never heard that before. It makes sense since acrylic is a polymer and I know that if you burn plastic, you can get some nasty fumes. It’s a bit confusing though because there are for example, many acrylic fabric paints that need to be heat-set when used on fabric. And one of the advertised uses of a heat gun is to dry or even remove/strip paint. (I remember that when I last purchased wall paint (latex) they put a dab of the mixture on the top of the can and dried it with a heat tool.) Liquitex Glossy Acrylic Enamels are meant to be heat-set by baking them in an oven apparently. So there’s a disconnect somewhere.

      I’m not, not, not arguing, because I know that there are many artists over the years who have gotten ill by doing unsafe things with art supplies and just because a lot of people are doing something doesn’t automatically mean that it is safe. (Texting while driving as an example!) But there must be a line somewhere if companies are selling acrylic paints that come with directions to heat-set them. Maybe it’s a matter of differences among the various acrylic paint formulas? Or maybe it is a matter of not letting the temperature go too high? Heat tools, even the ones we stampers use (which I don’t think get as hot as some heat stripper types) can get pretty hot. Maybe use a hair drier rather than a heat tool to avoid overheating the paint? Nancie

  3. I read on a blog awhile back that white flat paint is just as good as using gesso and they were practically the same thing but less expensive. I was wondering what your opinion is on that. And could you do a comparison?

      1. I’m sorry, yes, flat latex wall paint. I can’t remember the blog I saw this on but that’s what they said. It has to be the flat wall paint.

        1. Hi Carolyn, I hadn’t heard of that before, but if you google it online, I found lots of references to doing this. You asked for my opinion. OK. Keep in mind that I haven’t tried this myself. But I’m always a bit leery of substituting things not designed for a specific purpose for something that is designed for that purpose. Now in this case, the use is fairly similar. Both products are designed to prep surfaces to accept additional layers of paint. Gesso and acrylic gesso were designed (from what I understand) to prep surfaces for oil or acrylic paintings. We stampers also use it for some other art mediums, but I think it is really meant for that purpose. Flat latex wall paint, on the other hand, is designed to prep walls for wall paint.

          Keep in mind that while two products might appear to be the same or work in the same way, there could be differences that you don’t see. Manufacturers put added ingredients into paint to make it work better for whatever the intended purpose might be. The lightfastness can vary by intended use as well. And in the case of pigmented products, the amount of pigment can vary. Some products will last for a few years; some are designed to last for decades or more.

          Assuming that it works the same way (something I haven’t tested), I think it comes down to two things: First, how important is your project and how long does it need to last? If I were making something meant to be an heirloom that should last for years, to be part of a scrapbook page for example, or something that I was going to sell, I would go with the acrylic gesso designed for artwork rather than risking using the flat latex primer paint. But if you are just fooling around or creating a project where it doesn’t need to last forever, it might be OK. Keep in mind though that some wall paints give off fumes so check labels if you try this.

          My second thought though is convenience. Most wall paints come in a can that you have to pry open and then you stir the paint with a stick and pour out a bit to use. The Liquitex acrylic gesso I’ve got comes in a bottle that is light enough that I can shake it to mix the paint. Then I can flip up the top and squeeze out as much paint as I need. If I am only coating a couple pieces of paper, I can even squeeze the paint directly on a foam brush and not even dirty a palette. This is much handier to my mind. For the amount of gesso I use, I’m happier sticking with the acrylic gesso designed for art use. But if anyone else has tried this, I’d be interested in hearing what you think about it though! Nancie

  4. thank you so much for your thoughts. I can see you really put a lot of thought into this. I always look for a cheaper way of doing things and you gave me much to consider. Thanks again!

    1. Hi Carolyn, Sure thing. Sorry not to have a more definitive answer. To test it correctly you’d probably need to create the same basic project twice, once with acrylic gesso and once with flat wall paint and wait and see how they do over a period of months or years. Nancie

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.