Just as there are keys that determine a quality support, there are qualities that make a great primer for use beneath oils.
Rigidity. No surprise here. A rigid gesso will contribute to the overall rigidity and stability of the support system.
Tooth. There should be some degree of irregularity and tooth to provide mechanical adhesion for the oil film.
Balanced absorbency. This is the last big piece of the puzzle. There are many gesso products available that are overly absorbent, drawing the oil out of the paint film and leaving the oil color at best dull, flat and lifeless (see the example above). This is why many of you reading these words are now slapping your collective forehead, exclaiming, Thats why my colors look flat and dull two days after they looked brilliant when I first put them on the canvas! The worst-case—and, sadly, all too common—scenario is a gesso so overly absorbent that it leaves the film on top without enough oil to fully lock the color in place. The result? A flat, underbound paint film, ready to crack or flake at the slightest environmental tremor or temperature change.
Steve Smith is the senior editor of The Artist’s Magazine.