How to prime a board with traditional gesso, an introduction
The term “gesso” can be something of a misnomer, as some people use this word to describe “acrylic primer”, which is completely different and doesn’t work with egg tempera paints, for example.
Gesso for use as a ground for egg tempera can either be bought ready-made or mixed from rabbit skin glue and whiting/powdered marble dust (scroll down for step-by-step instructions).
Ready-made gesso saves a lot of time and a small pot is enough to apply several coats to a medium-sized panel, but using rabbit skin glue and whiting/powdered marble dust may be a cheaper alternative.
Remember to read the labels on the packets and use a mask to avoid breathing in fine particles. I also like to wear a pair of protective gloves.
You will need:
- ready-made gesso, or packet of rabbit skin glue and a packet of whiting/marble dust
- double boiler
- panels ready for priming
Priming a panel with gesso, step-by-step
Cut several panels to size and sand them ready for coating with gesso. Egg tempera needs a rigid support. MDF or wood panels provide an excellent surface as they are rigid. Avoid using green MDF (waterproof treated board) as this will be water resistant, so may effect any paint used on top. I usually prime several boards at once and save them for future projects.
To make the gesso, you will need to use rabbit skin glue and whiting/marble dust. You can also buy ready-mixed gesso, if you don’t want to mix your own. To make rabbit skin glue for gesso, mix 13-14 parts water with one part rabbit skin glue. Soak the glue overnight. Always read the labels on the packet. Instructions may vary between brands.
Pros: Ready-made gesso is a lot quicker to prepare and use.
Cons: Ready-made gesso may be more expensive to use in the long run and not a viable option for regular use. You need to plan ahead if you are going to make gesso from rabbit skin glue and whiting/marble dust as the glue needs to soak overnight.
Summary: The end result is the most traditional and best base for egg tempera. You can create an incredibly smooth surface for fine detailed work.
Other pages of interest
- Buying pigments from an unknown source can make the process a bit of a mystery: Read more about natural pigments bought in Morocco
- A test of the lightfast quality of organic pigments:Read more about natural pigments, how stable are they?
- Before adding any paint, you will need to create an underdrawing: Read more about underdrawing
- Before you can mix up your paints, you need to grind them: Read more about grinding pigments for use with egg tempera
- This is the traditional recipe for making egg tempera paints:Read more about mixing egg yolk with pigment (traditional egg tempera)
- Using this recipe gives a paint that is closer to the quality of oil paints:Read more about the whole egg tempera recipe
- A technique that mixes layers of egg tempera with oil paints: Read more about the Mische technique