International studio — 34.1908

Page: LXXIV
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Gesso

GESSO-METHODS AND SUGGES-
TIONS
BY OTTO WALTER BECK
Gesso has a faint resemblance to pot-
tery decoration with which American artists are gen-
erally familiar. The method consists of painting
soft clay with the brush upon the pottery, produ-
cing the design in slight relief. In gesso the surface
painted upon is the wooden panel, usually covered
with canvas, and the materials are plaster or
whiting, mixed with glue and oil, and applied with
the brush.
We are conscious that in our day it would be
folly to try to revive or copy the early Renaissance
ideals as pictured in Cennini’s treatise, although
we lean for support upon his methods. A few
English publications are valuable; see, for instance,
the Art Workers Quarterly, Vol. II, No. 5 (1903),
and Vol. Ill, No. 9 (1904), yet the American
problem is a peculiar one and awaits development.
Some solution may be considered found when
gesso is looked upon as a help in bridging the
gulf that separates the easel picture from mural
decoration.
The old master grounded his apprentice in the
work of preparing panel or canvas, painting
in tempera, fresco or oils and working in gesso.
Mural painters are rare to-day because of the
neglect of this technical education by our art
academies. Remaining ignorant of the chemical
side of our art, we fail to use its resources, and it is
very natural that a concentration on easel picture
work should be the outcome of our complete
reliance upon manufactured materials. We make
transportable pictures and isolate them by a wide
margin of gold.
But a decoration should be made for a definite
place and should serve a direct purpose. An artist
training himself for mural work must see to it that
he gradually lessens the gold in relief forming his
frame, and transplants some of it into his picture;
in other words, he must learn to use gold as a color,
and distribute it with the same science or art that
he uses in placing any color. The immediate result
of this proceeding is a rapid development of his
decorative faculties. Gold used in the picture
forces out the grays we cherish in our easel paintings
and replaces them with strong, positive colors; it
influences the line composition similarly, making
firmness in contour a substitute for delicacy of
outline; depth gives way to flatness of effect.
Gesso work used in a picture and gilded is
virtually bringing the habitual frame inside the

picture, with the wholesome result of converting
the artist and the public to the view that our
modern frame is a very much abused factor.
We are experiencing to-day a reversal of the
process history describes, when the mural painting
descended, first to the gessoed altar panel, next to
the painted altar piece, and, finally, to the easel
picture. Gesso panels are now leading us away
from the easel picture in the direction of the wall
painting. We may speak of them as constituting a
natural school for the mural painter. Receiving
training at this work, the artist is better prepared to
fulfill efficiently the exacting conditions for wall
decoration laid down by the architect.
Methods
The panels Union and Ulysses S. Grant are each
four by eight feet in size. Because of cost and
weight it would be impractical to use wooden
panels on so large a scale. A substitute for the
wood is found in fibrous plaster (see William
Millar’s "Plastering,” page 343), but we have a
more convenient material for the two panels in
compo-board, used by builders as a substitute for
plastering walls and ceilings. It is made of
wooden laths, covered with cement and strong
paper. The boards have a uniform width of four
feet, while their greatest length is sixteen feet,
the thickness being about a quarter of an inch.
Their weight is slight, but considerable labor is
required to efface the ribs of the laths. Use several
grades of sandpaper, applying it until smoothness
is attained, even though the wooden lath is laid
bare by the friction. A flat surface being secured,
the compo-board is strengthened by gluing over it
on both sides either burlap or raw canvas. This
material helps to guard against any defects in the
wood, prevents warping and gives "tooth” to the
gesso relief-work. The quality of canvas is a matter
of choice. Good white glue is used, and is prepared
by covering it with cold water, letting it swell, then
dissolving it over a slow fire, without bringing it to
a boil. Give the panel one application of hot glue,
lay over this the canvas, add more glue as freely as
necessary, pressing it into the meshes by means of
a paperhanger’s roller. This will also smooth away
all wrinkles. Allow at least twenty-four hours for
drying, then sandpaper the canvas. When solid
wooden panels or veneer panels are used, the treat-
ment with the canvas should be the same.
The Wooden Panel
If the dimensions of the picture are less than six
feet, a greater stability, evenness of surface and
durability is to be had in the panel made of wood,
procurable in the planing mill, from the cabinet-

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