Surface Explorations

I’ve been in search of the “perfect” gesso and surface for a while now. I saw an Elizabeth Peyton exhibit at the Walker Art Museum some years ago, and fell totally in love with her painting surface. The only problem is… I don’t know what she uses to prepare her surfaces 😉 (I have Googled my little heart out to no avail.) They look almost like enamel. The oil paint is gorgeous and brilliant on top of the white ground, but not shiny. I think that is the hard aspect to replicate.

I have used a number of oil and acrylic gessoes over the years, and none of them look like that. I decided to try Gamblin’s oil gesso products. They have a traditional gesso, made with rabbit skin glue, gypsum, marble dust and titanium dioxide. It is heated up in a double boiler and applied warm. It sounded very much like a gesso that I had experimented with when I was painting with egg tempera many years ago. That surface was very finicky, but beautiful… almost like a baby’s bottom… absorbent, soft and smooth. Gamblin also has another oil gesso called Gamblin Ground that is non-absorbent and made with an alkyd resin.

Neither surface has proven to be exactly what I am looking for, but they both have promise. Like one’s children, they each have delightful qualities. I’m attaching some pictures of the beginning stage of some new paintings. I’m not sure if the differences will be detectible, but I hope so.

Here is the traditional gesso on a birchwood panel:

Traditional GessoI really love how the thinner oil paint looks almost like a watercolor wash, because of the absorbent qualities of this surface. One caveat is that this gesso can only be used on a rigid surface. It is too brittle for canvas.

Here is a detail of the Gamblin Ground, the non-absorbent gesso, on a birchwood panel:

Gamblin GroundThe paint is gloriously brilliant on this surface. It doesn’t absorb with quite the same loveliness as the traditional gesso, but it does produce an interesting range of surface affects with varying thicknesses. The caveat here is that it can be a little shiny.

This 3rd example on canvas was not prepared with either of the Gamblin gessoes, but I’m including it as an example of the difference the texture of the canvas can make in our visual experience.

I am currently finding the canvas texture to be too intrusive and distracting.

So… the jury is still out.

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