Close up photo of hand applying gesso to a canvas with a medium brush

The History of Gesso & Artist Primers

Historically, artists primed their painting surfaces with a traditional gesso made with animal hide glues such as rabbit skin glue, clay and limestone powder. Besides being hard on the rabbit population, these primers tended to be brittle and susceptible to cracking. With the invention of plastics in the early 1900’s, petroleum-based, acrylic gesso (liquid plastic) became the most commonly used artist primer among artists in the the 1950's to this day. Acrylic gesso also contains ammonia and formaldehyde as preservatives and a variety of other carcinogenic additives, which is why many recommend wearing a respirator when you prime your canvasses. 

Acrylic gesso makes a plastic film on your canvas that's an impenetrable layer with the paint sitting on top. We have grown used to this quality even though it's very different from the original, traditional gessos. Traditional gesso and Eco Gesso have a slight absorbency aspect that most artists aren't used to. During the Renaissance, artists preferred their gesso to protect the canvas or wood surface but also allow a slight absorbency into the top layer of the gesso so that the paint was permanently adhered to it's support - not just sitting on top like a layer - this was more susceptible to cracking or peeling. 

The Eco Gesso Kit is an exact replica of traditional gesso recipes from the Renaissance except instead of rabbit skin glue, it includes methyl cellulose (plant fiber glue).


What is Methyl Cellulose?

Methyl Cellulose is polymer derived from plant fibers and is a vegan alternative to animal glues. It is naturally archival. It is also widely used in foods and cosmetics, and it is non-allergenic.

Why is the Gesso not pre-mixed in liquid form?

Once these ingredients are mixed into liquid form, they have a limited shelf life in a container. We have not discovered a non-toxic preservative that works, and we refuse to use toxic preservatives to extend the shelf life. By mixing it yourself you’re eliminating the need for any additional toxins or preservatives. You can mix what you need and anything leftover will stay good for up to a year.

What if I want the gesso to be less absorbent and more like acrylic gesso?

Simply add more methyl cellulose to your gesso mix. Or brush an additional coat of methyl cellulose to your canvas as the final step. For example instead of adding 4 Tbsp of methyl cellulose to the gesso mix, add 6 or 8. 

Do I need to prime wood before painting with oils?

No, you don't - the Mona Lisa was painted on raw wood. However, when painting on raw wood, the first layer of oil paint will seep into the wood to create more of a wash look and then subsequent layers will stay on top. Many artists prefer to prime their wood with just Methyl Cellulose to show the wood grain. However, many want tp prime with the Eco Gesso so there's a white surface and the paint stays on top and doesn't seep in. Here's an example of what each option looks like...