Recipe for True Gesso

Instead of acrylic gesso, artist Deborah Morrissey-McGoff prefers using the original recipe for the gesso she applies to wood panels for her paintings. Here’s the recipe:

1.    To one quart water, add 2½ ounces hide glue (rabbitskin glue or canvas glue sizing). Let this mixture dissolve overnight.

2.    In a double boiler, slowly heat the glue mixture to a moderate temperature. Do not boil.

3.    With a wide brush apply this mixture to the sides of the panel you will paint on. Let it dry overnight.

4.    Repeat the above formula. While the mixture is warm, slowly add 2 pounds whiting (powdered marble), continually stirring gently to avoid air bubbles.

5.   Still stirring, add approximately 1⁄3 cup zinc or titanium powdered pigment. The final mixture should be the consistency of melted ice cream.

6.   Using the palm of your hand, apply the first coat to the wood panel. With the heel of your hand, push the gesso into the grooves of the surface (the wood’s grain).

7.     When the first coat is thoroughly dry, apply a second coat with a soft, wide brush. (I apply five coats in all. Each coat is applied in the opposite direction from the previous coat.) Apply coats gently to avoid brush marks.

8.     Let the panel dry overnight.

9.    To prepare the panel for paint, first sand the surface with fine sandpaper. If there are any drips on the sides of the panel, sand those down. You may also do a “wet” sand by dipping your hand in water and rubbing the surface in a circular motion, which will dissolve the gesso enough so you can move it around and make the surface smoother. Let the panel dry completely.

10.     Brush a mixture of one part white shellac and two parts denatured alcohol generously on the panel to seal the surface. Wipe off the excess with a soft cloth. (Note: White (clear) shellac has a shelf life of approximately one year. To test its viability, put a small amount on your fingertip and rub. It should feel smooth, not grainy.)


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