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Gesso: Is It Worth It? (hint: no)

gesso is the most overrated craft supply

Gesso is arguably the most over-rated craft supply. For someone looking to create a truly smooth surface, it never delivers. Here are some DIY alternatives.

Sometimes I want my paper mache projects to end up very smooth and glossy, with a ceramic-like finish, like this fish.

(You can see I wasn’t quite successful, but you can also see what I was going for)

So I’m always looking for something that helps to smooth over uneven surfaces, and making things smooth will come up repeatedly on this blog. But for the moment, let me just address the most over-hyped art supply out there: gesso.

Gesso on a brush

Gesso is a smoothing primer. In theory, when painters are using a canvas, they lay down a coat of gesso to smooth over the fabric texture of the canvas itself and give themselves a good surface to start with. In theory, it works well for that purpose, since it’s been used for centuries and is a staple of the painter’s toolkit. But for me… ugh.

I have seen lots of craft blogs and YouTube videos refer to it as a way to make things smooth, but maybe I’m just doing things wrong and I need more smoothing. So here are some cheaper, easier alternatives to gesso that have worked well for me.

Gesso Alternative 1: Thick Paint

If you simply want a thick paint that will go over a surface and hide some of your crimes, just make a thick paint. Gesso is made of a binder (like glue) a pigment (like paint) and a thickener (like chalk). You can easily do this yourself in your kitchen.

DIY Gesso Recipe

  1. Mix equal parts paint and glue until you have a smooth, creamy consistency.
  2. Add small amounts of corn starch, mixing well to remove any lumps, until you achieve the desired thickness.
  3. Voila!

This mixture will usually not cover severe cracks and imperfections, but it can smooth over seams and irregularities, and several coats will help you get a smoother surface.

Gesso Alternative 2: Wood Filler

Wood filler is an excellent way to get a surface truly glassy and smooth, because it works in two ways: when watered down to a clay-slip-like consistency, you can smear it on something and fill/smooth over gaps and imperfections with your finger. It’s designed to fill in and smooth over things, and, when watered down, works really well for this purpose. The second way to use wood filler is to sand it after it has dried. Again, this creates an extremely smooth surface, depending on how well you sand and how fine your sandpaper is.

Wood filler is a fast and easy way to create a very smooth surface. Generally speaking, when I am working with clay or paper mache and want a very smooth finish [side note: making paper mache smooth is a complex process that has to start from the very beginning; you can’t just fix it with surface treatments at the very end], I use wood filler and water to smooth over gaps and irregularities, and get it as smooth as I can. Then I wait for it to dry, and sand it smoother. Then I finish with DIY gesso, which I think worked well on this octopus:

If I’m wrong about gesso, or there’s a better way, please let me know. I’m always interested in The Smoothing Arts.

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2 thoughts on “Gesso: Is It Worth It? (hint: no)
  1. Apparently gelatin is also an alternative for priming paper for oil pastels. According to Leslie Kenneth in his book Oil Pastel: Materials and Techniques for Today’s Artist, “gelatin is just a purer form of hide glue, being made from bones instead of hide. Unlike hide glue, gelatin dries to a colorless, less brittle film.” The book includes a recipe from George Stegmeir.
    Just an interesting gesso alternative I’ve never heard of before.

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