Gesso Messo

By far the most annoying part, for me, of being a painter is preparing the panels. Last fall, and then again this spring, I did a marathon panel prep and now have a trailer full of various sizes to choose from. All have five or six coats of gesso already on them but there is still a good deal of texture revealed from the portrait grade canvas that I use…and I do not like this.

On some paintings where I use lots of paint and deliberately rough up the surface, like roiling seas and wind blown landscapes, that texture is just fine and gets hidden quickly in favor of the brushstrokes.

For other works, like finely detailed still lifes and interiors, I want the texture to be of my design, not the canvases.

I have experimented and struggled for years now to produce a reliable and smooth gesso finish. And the first three or four coats which I apply with a wide putty knife go on great. But once that weave begins to fill in every single tiny speck of dust of dog hair or wooly caterpillar fluff gets caught in the sweep of the blade and drags a gully across the panel.  UGH !

I tried to get a photo of this to help illustrate the problem…but didn’t have the patience to light it right…here’s a shot of the gesso I have found to be the best for the final coats… Art Boards Gesso which I get from Dick Blick. (This is not a plug for them…just a reference since I had some difficulty finding it in the usual haunts. I have found it to be the best as far as pliability on a rigid surface as well as having just the right tooth for the oils I use.)


I’m eager to get to the easel to work on some of the new ideas I collected while on Martha’s Vineyard last month and I worked all day yesterday to get a sketch ready for the first one up. Last night I hauled out a panel and applied a final coat of the gesso to dry overnight. In the light of morning most of the gesso had smoothed out but there were dozens of those nasty streaks so I got out the sander and took it back down to a uniform level…which or course sanded off more gesso than I wanted so I decided to thin it down and re-apply with a brush.

Disaster. It dries too fast and the brushstrokes become clumpy and no amount of raking light can reveal all the imperfections. With nothing to lose I went back to the putty knife and had a little bit more success leveling out the hills and valleys. But not much.

I’ll have to let this dry and then give it a wet/sand finish which is very time consuming and a big mess…but it does work. You slowly build up a slurry by taking a wet-sandpaper of 400 or 500 grit and progress in small increments. The advantage is that you do not remove any gesso…just smooth it around but it’s tedious work and I am low on patience at the moment.

I’d welcome any thoughts and suggestions on how you other artists handle the gesso messo.

For now that’s enough whining !!! …as Pat says…everything happens for a reason so I must need the practice…and it’s a beautiful grey November day here in the studio yard…


take note if you will …that pole leaning on the lilac bush, circled in red, is the one that drove itself into my sinuses a couple days ago…quite a wake up call…doing just fine now …and the lingering soreness is all the reminder I need to get back to painting thank you !


3 thoughts on “Gesso Messo

  1. Hate the gesso events myself. But at one point I was told that a moist sea sponge may correct some of the issues you describe … remember sometimes a soft touch can do more then a grinder…

    I knew you’d like that!

  2. Hi Heather, I work on portrait linen, larger works so never worry about the tooth of the canvas. I have a couple of friends that want completely flat surfaces. Scott Fraser paints on Masonite Panels (no canvas) and even with that he puts on about 8 coats of gesso and sands it with a fine sandpaper. Deborah Deichler didn’t trust Masonite and actually paints on aluminum panels, then a really traditional application beyond that. Scotts is much easier – acrylic gesso which it sounds like you are doing. If you ever want to chat with him I could give you his number (he really doesnt email).

  3. Mercy. Gesso Messo.
    Most of us think you guys just sit down with your brush and paint.
    My respect for the efforts put into these works of art has once again grown larger. Wow.