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Home-Cooked Gesso

The messy studio - a far cry from the "gallery look" of last weekend!

I've finally decided it's time to bite the bullet and become a painter who preps my own supports.

"Support" is the general term for what an oil painting is painted onto, either a wooden panel or stretched canvas. I prefer wood panels to stretched canvas because the surface is smoother and more rigid.

Previously I have mainly used factory-gessoed wood panels, like GessoBoard. Gesso is the chalky white paint that is layered on a canvas or wood panel before you start an oil painting. But I've decided that if I'm going to spend 60 hours on a painting, I may as well spend a couple hours preparing the surface.

So being an all-or-nothing type, I dove in and spent 3 solid days layering 19 panels with 2 layers of rabbit skin glue and 5-6 coats of homemade gesso, sanding between each layer. My right deltoid muscle aches to say the least.

I used traditional gesso materials from Sinopia (glue crystals, chalk, and white pigment) and combined them using their traditional gesso recipe. For the wood panels I used ArtBoards of all sizes, rectangles and squares from 6 x 6 inches up to 18 x 24 inches.

I bought a single burner hotplate for using in my studio, and improvised a double boiler by nesting two old cooking pots together - two pots that won't ever be used for food again.

First I soaked the rabbit skin glue crystals in water overnight, which made a transparent, gelatenous gray lumpy mixture. Then I put the mixture into my double boiler, and when it warmed up it got clearer, runnier, and became a thin, watery glue. It spread really easily onto my wood panels with a housepainting brush, but immediately began to sink in to the wood and dried almost instantly.

Re-reading the directions, I found out I had to do TWO coats of the glue. It wasn't too horrible, and I have a good ventilation system in my studio, but there was definitely a distinctly funky odor. I don't know exactly how they make rabbit skin glue, but I imagine vegetarian painters don't use it.

Once the panels were sealed with the glue, I mixed together the chalk, white pigment, and remaining glue mixture and warmed it to make the gesso. It made a watery, not very paint-like liquid, so I had to play around with the proportions a bit. But I found it works best if it's slightly more watery than housepaint, so you can paint thin layers.

This was how I stacked them to dry, "good side" leaning down to avoid dust, but careful not to let the front surface touch anything. I got pretty good at perfecting a sort stable mutual leaning system. Every time I added a layer of gesso to a panel, I had to lean it up to dry, and by the time the last was painted the first was ready to be sanded, so I had to rotate them around quite a bit.

The sanding was the most tedious part, and my arm began to really ache. The second and third day I tried to use my left hand as much as my right to sand, so now both my arm ache.

Anyway, the project was a success - I now have 19 beautiful panels with a silky/chalky/smooth surface, plus a dozen teeny tiny panels that were just laying around the studio, for little oil sketches. Hopefully I won't have to do this again for a long time!

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Reader Comments (8)

You're nuts! Which is a good thing. Perhaps next time a small orbital sander with fine grit sandpaper?

October 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterScott

Yeah, that would probably be a good idea :)

October 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri

Hey thanks for visiting my blog. I'm really glad you like the painting. Nice to see you again!

Congrats on the panels, they're beauts. Your work is beautiful!


October 24, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterlisagloria

You're a braver woman than I - but I'm sure it'll be worth the sore arm(s) once you go to paint on these surfaces, I'll look forward to hearing how you like them!! Happy painting -

October 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDiane Feissel

I always build my own stretchers when I paint. They are usually over built but I like doing it and I learn in the process about what I am going to paint while I am making them. DK

October 27, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterdavid kramer

Sadie, how durable are wood panels as compared to canvas? Does the wood warp or expand/contract based on humidity or is it relatively stable once it's dry?

November 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSpatula

Hi Spatula -

The wood panels are very stable. The panels are coated on all sides with the gesso, so they don't warp. You can also get cradled boards which have a frame of wood on the back to support the panel. Most of my panels are not cradled, though, and they do not warp.

You should try painting on panels, I really prefer how they feel. No "give" and no woven texture to contend with.

November 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri

i find that in making my own gesso and it to leve a marble like finish i put one part rabbit skin and 10 part whiting powder then i add 25 part water heat in a dubble boiler and sturr untill all the rabbit skin is disaperd then leve to stand for 12 hours this turns it to a gell like substence like gloss but when adding layers onto the surface you are working on a lot faster aply it as usuel then lightly rubb down with a fine sandpaper to remove any brush marks!

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTim Burgess
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