October 28, 2009
Gessoing Painting Panels
Painting with egg tempera requires working on a hard surface; tempera requires an absorbent ground which traditional gesso provides; the gesso is brittle and would crack on a flexible support like canvas. So I have a friend who is a former cabinetmaker build these panels for me in the sizes I require. The surface is medium density fiberboard which is cradled on the back to keep the panel flat. Last night I sized the panels with a solution of food grade gelatin and water in preparation for the gesso today. Many painters use rabbit skin glue, which also works well, but I find the gelatin works well and is easy to store and measure. I prepare a few panels at a time, unless I have a very large one.
Above is the first coat of gesso, made with the gelatin size mixed with chalk. I usually rub the first coat with my fingers to spread it and remove any air bubbles. Subsequent coats are carefully painted on with a wide brush. The gesso coat is allowed to dry between coats only till the shine is gone from the surface, which can take from 15 minutes to an hour or so. When I have the woodstove going, on a day like today, the room is very warm and dry so the process goes more quickly than it would during a humid summer day.
I put 6 or 7 coats of gesso on the panels; it has to be thick enough to leave plenty of material after the panels are sanded smooth. After sanding, the painting surface is silky smooth, with a luscious sensuous feel. Working with egg tempera requires some preparation of panels and pigment, but this enriches the entire painting process; I am physically engaged with the panels and see pigments in their powdered form before they become paint. This making-by-hand of the elements of a painting, which is itself a very hand made object, seems almost medieval. I love these jarring inconsistencies: blogging about traditional pursuits, painting machinery using an ancient medium.