Alaskan Artist - Elise Tomlinson
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Home » Archives » May 2004 » Traditional Gesso Ground on a Panel (and a bit about canvas at the end)

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05/14/2004: "Traditional Gesso Ground on a Panel (and a bit about canvas at the end)"

I got a lot of great suggestions on the post about canvas vs. panel. Stacey mentioned the Old Masters and reminded me that I still have one book checked out from the library called "How to Paint like the Old Masters". I looked up to see if they have a section on surfaces and they do, this next excerpt is from the section on panels. (I thought I'd start a new entry for this since it's kind of long).

"Wood is the best support for a panel, but properly seasoned wood is difficult to come by. Untempered masonite and marine plywood are good substitutes."

1. "Using a large brush, apply a coat of warm, liquid glue size on each side of the panel and allow the glue to dry. Coating both sides prevents warping.

2. Give your panel three or four coats of gesso on each side, sanding after each coat. Keep the gesso lukewarm in a double boiler as you work. Dampen each dry coat of gesso before you add the next coat.

3. To isolate the gesso from your paint, brush on a final coat of warm rabit skin glue that is 1 part glue to 30 parts water. You can tint the glue with a water-based color such as a watercolor, acrylic, casein, or even poster color; paint on the tinted glue with a wide brush. Leave the striations of the brush visible if you like (as in the demonstration of the Rubens technique), since they break up the reflected light and show through the transparent shadow areas.

4. When the panel is dry, it is ready for use.


Painting on canvas generally requires more paint than does painting on a panel because of the roughness and absorbency of the fabric. Paint does not sink into a board but sits on the surface; that is why the masters preferred panels for quck, transparent painting. However, canvas is better for painters who work slowly and build up a lot of paint. The best ground on canvas is a flexible coat of white lead or acrylic gesso- not the brittle, traditional gesso."

Then there is a section on how to gesso a canvas, put that is pretty straight forward. I think what I've learned from all this is that the steps involved in preparing a panel would take WAY WAY WAY too long for me personally. I used to build my canvases by hand and I would spend hours and hours on a single canvas and by the time it was done I had put so much effort into it, I practically couldn't paint on it out of fear of messing up and ruining the canvas. I find that my painting productivity has increased by %50 since I started using the pre-stretched canvases.

But now I have probably 20 panels lying around taking up space. I'd still like to give them a try, but maybe after July when I have more time. Then I can experiment with a new way of painting too, building up transparent layers etc. For the time being I paint slowly building up thick layers of paint so it seems like canvas (still not sure between cotton and linen) is probably still the way for me to go.