Exploring Gesso in Unexpected Ways

Gesso Innovations and Creative Applications

This post explores using gesso in unexpected ways. Instead of using gesso as a traditional primer, this post is about unlocking gesso’s untapped potential.

Here are some unexpected ways to use gesso.

Mixed Media Magic

First, you can incorporate gesso into your mixed media projects. Apply it as a base layer to create a textured foundation for various materials like collage elements, fabric, or found objects. The gesso will not only help these materials adhere but also introduce intriguing textures to your artwork.

3d render of white gesso painted on a canvas to make textured waves created by DALL E 2023-08-19 17.44.13

Add Dimension

Then, you can try to experiment with sculptural effects. You can make 3D textures and effects by mixing gesso with modeling paste or other additives. Apply the mixture to your canvas to build up raised elements. This will give your artwork a three-dimensional quality that pops off the surface.

Reverse Painting

Also, you can flip the script and try some reverse painting. Apply gesso as your base layer, and then create your composition by selectively removing gesso. This will reveal the underlying surface of the work. This technique adds a layer of depth and negative space to your artwork.

Photo Transfers

Additionally, you can combine gesso with photo transfers. This is a neat look because it blends some traditional and contemporary art.

How to Photo Transer with Gesso

  • Apply gesso to the surface
  • adhere a photocopy of an image
  • gently rub away the paper
  • reveal the transferred image surrounded by a textured gesso border

There are several contemporary artists who have experimented with photo transfer techniques using gesso in their work. Here are some examples:

  1. Christian Boltanski: French artist Christian Boltanski has utilized photo transfer techniques in his conceptual and often emotionally resonant artwork. He has incorporated photographs and personal imagery onto canvas or other surfaces using gesso and other mediums.
  2. Kiki Smith: American artist Kiki Smith is known for her multidisciplinary approach to art. She has incorporated photo transfer methods, combining them with a variety of materials, to create intricate and layered artworks.
  3. Mark Bradford: American artist Mark Bradford often incorporates photo transfer techniques in his mixed-media artworks. His works often feature collage elements, including photographic imagery, layered with gesso, paint, and other materials.
  4. Lorna Simpson: American artist Lorna Simpson is renowned for her photography-based artworks that explore themes of identity and gender. She has used photo transfers in conjunction with other techniques to create thought-provoking compositions.
  5. Wangechi Mutu: Kenyan-American artist Wangechi Mutu combines various techniques, including photo transfer, in her visually compelling collages. Her works often feature imagery from magazines and other printed materials, transferred onto her compositions using gesso and other media.
  6. Eduardo Recife: Brazilian artist Eduardo Recife is known for his intricate and layered mixed-media artworks. He often uses photo transfer techniques along with gesso to create visually rich and textured compositions.
  7. Alison Saar: American artist Alison Saar has explored photo transfer methods in her mixed-media sculptures and artworks. Her pieces often incorporate photographs and other found materials, embedded within layers of gesso and paint.
  8. Dinh Q. Lê: Vietnamese-American artist Dinh Q. Lê has used photo transfer techniques in his installations and artworks that often address themes related to history and memory. His works can involve transferring photographic imagery onto various surfaces using gesso and other mediums.

Stencil Sensations

Use gesso as a stencil medium to add intricate patterns or designs to your artwork. Apply gesso through stencils using a palette knife or a brush, and let it dry before adding color for a captivating mixed-media effect.

Textured Typography

Incorporate gesso into your typography projects. Apply it in layers to create a textured background, and then paint or draw your text over it. The contrast between the smooth text and the textured gesso can make your words pop.

Artistic Repurposing

Then, you can try to give new life to old canvases or surfaces by applying a layer of gesso over existing artwork. This can create a blank canvas for your next work. Or, you can gesso on top of your old work to create a layer of history in your work. Be careful, though. You will lose some of gesso’s archival qualities when you do this.

Try Tinted Gesso

You can use tinted gesso to create subtle shading in your work. Tinted gesso will create tonal variations in your artwork. Apply different shades of gesso to create a monochromatic underpainting that enhances the final layers of color.

What artists use tinted gesso?

Several artists utilize tinted gesso in their work. Here are a few notable exammples:

Cy Twombly

The American painter Cy Twombly often used tinted gesso as a base layer for his large-scale canvases. He would apply thin washes of gesso mixed with pigment to create a muted and textured background for his gestural and expressive markings.

Anselm Kiefer

Renowned German artist Anselm Kiefer is known for his mixed-media works that often involve complex layers of materials. He has used tinted gesso to create textured surfaces that serve as a foundation for his symbolic and introspective paintings.

Antoni Tàpies

Spanish artist Antoni Tàpies was known for his abstract and textured artworks. He often used tinted gesso to add depth and dimension to his pieces, combining it with various materials to create richly textured surfaces.

Frank Auerbach

British painter Frank Auerbach is celebrated for his thickly textured, impasto-style paintings. He sometimes used tinted gesso to prepare his canvases, allowing him to create intricate layers of paint and build up depth in his compositions.

Joan Mitchell

American abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell incorporated tinted gesso into her work, allowing her to establish vibrant color foundations for her energetic and emotionally charged paintings.

Gerhard Richter

German artist Gerhard Richter has experimented with various techniques throughout his career. He has used tinted gesso to create underpaintings that subtly influence the final layers of his paintings, adding complexity and depth to his compositions.

Helen Frankenthaler

American abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler employed various techniques in her innovative approach to painting. While she is known for her “stain painting” technique, she also experimented with tinted gesso to establish tonal variations in her work.

All of the above artists have used tinted gesso in their artistic practices, but the specific techniques and effects they achieved vary widely. So, check out their work and see which piece speaks to you.

Ingrid Maria Pimsner
Ingrid Maria Pimsner

Ingrid Maria Pimsner is a painter, arts writer, and educator. Her representational oil paintings depict the people, places and things that are closest to her.

She is also the founder and current director of The International Institute of Contemporary Art and Theory, an artist residency in Romania. In addition, she co-curates the Archive Space Project , a curatorial project founded by Annie Daley in 2010 and originally located in the Crane Arts building in Philadelphia, PA.

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