Art & Design Magazine

Gesso Vs Oil Priming

By Ingrid Christensen

Gesso vs oil priming

Red Scarf
24 x 12

My favorite surface is stretched, oil primed linen, but, it's a tricky surface to ship.  Where I live, it's so dry that you could mummify a body just by wrapping it up and putting it outdoors.  There's absolutely no humidity in the air.  That's the environment in which I stretch my linen.  The galleries that show my work are, for the most part, in more humid climates (less humid isn't possible) which means that some of my work gets loose on the stretchers after hanging for a while.  I had to restretch a few the last time I was in Rendezvous Gallery in Vancouver.  The solution is, of course, to find a different support.  
Commercial canvases don't seem as affected by changes in climate, so I'm giving them a try.  The painting above was done on acrylic-primed canvas and I'm ambivalent about the result.  I like the painting, but I miss some of the marks that I can get only on oil priming.  Acrylic priming gives a softer, melting look to the marks; they don't sit up on the surface, and they don't break to allow complex color layering.  It worked for this subject, but I wouldn't want in for everything.  I remember reading a blog post by the excellent landscape painter, Marc Hanson, in which he said that he used acrylic primed supports to capture the softness of a misty day.  It's a good strategy since it doesn't attempt to fight the natural limitations of the material.  
You can tell I'm on the fence about this. 
I know I can put a layer of oil priming over the commercial canvas, and I may start to do that, but I do find the oil primers to be very stinky in the studio, and they take a week to dry for use (I'm thinking of the Gamblin Oil Ground). 
Before I go down that road, I'm going to experiment with adding layers of acrylic gesso to the commercial canvases, and with gessoing rigid supports.  I've got some aluminum-surfaced Alupanels in the studio that I've been using to glue linen on to.  That works fine for pieces small enough to fit into my 24" heat press, but isn't practical for larger panels.  So I'm going to gesso one and see if the working properties of the gesso are different on a rigid support.  I'll also add texture in the form of crossed brush marks as I apply the gesso, in the hopes that it will simulate a weave and give the paint something to break across.  
Painting isn't so much about the image for me as it is about the paint quality and the edges.  I'm looking for something that allows me to make both of those things interesting and varied.  I'll let you know when I find it.  
Happy painting!

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