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  • Testing Gesso as a Primer


    Recently, I've read about miniature painters using gesso as an alternative priming medium for their figures. I struggle with spray primer even when it isn't snowing and the brush primer can be a little tender, so I wanted to give gesso a try.

    Traditional gesso is made of an animal glue mixed with chalk and pigment (usually white). Modern acrylic gesso is a latex acrylic medium mixed with calcium carbonate and pigment. Acrylic gesso can be tinted with acrylic hobby paints if you want something other than white or black, or you could mix white and black to create a Gray primer. Gesso has been used primarily to size and prime artist's canvas or wood prior to painting.

    The Test

    I picked up a bottle of Daler Rowney Acrylic Gesso at a local store, and selected a highly textured figure from my "unpainted" box. The test subject is Reaper's Thorgram, Dwarf Warlord sculpted by Werner Klocke.

    After a good scrubbing with warm soapy water, I slathered on the gesso with a #2 flat. Yes, slathered. According to some of the information I'd read, you do not want a thin layer of gesso or it will leave holes in the coating as it dries and shrinks. As you can tell by the photo, I put it on rather thick.

    After giving the figure a couple of hours to dry, I painted it with a thinned black wash to give it some contrast in the details. The black wash (RMS #09255) flowed rather well over the gesso and into the crevasses. If nothing else, I really love the surface this gives for painting.


    I like the surface this medium gives as a primer. Since it's acrylic-based, it will naturally be more tender than an aerosol primer, but it is far better than the brush-on primers I have used. Gesso isn't for everyone. I did notice that there was some thick/thin spots on large flat areas, likely due to the liberal coating I gave it. Gesso will now be my primer of choice when the weather is too cold or damp.
    Comments 12 Comments
    1. Noddwyr's Avatar
      Noddwyr -
      Thanks for the review. Looks like it worked quite well. Personally i use VMA grey primer and its been great but I may have to try this just to see what the difference is.
    1. seasonman's Avatar
      seasonman -
      Thank you very much for these notes. Nice to see a pictures of miniatures painted in this manner .. Thanks
    1. NeatPete's Avatar
      NeatPete -
      This is interesting! My friend had a jar of this stuff at her house the other day, and I was asking what it was. She was shocked that in all my painting, I'd never heard of the stuff, as was I. Now I know it can be used on minis! Thanks for sharing your experience.
    1. Captain Sprout's Avatar
      Captain Sprout -
      Nice review and SBS Frogimus. Good stuff!
    1. Boris's Avatar
      Boris -
      Thanks for this. Sounds like it takes a while to dry which would put me off, but the surface does look nice.
    1. Cregan Tur's Avatar
      Cregan Tur -
      This is intersting, but I'd like some more information. Do you have to adjust your painting techniques to accomodate this new primer? The pics look good, but are there any details that wee obscured by the thick gesso you applied?
    1. Vern's Avatar
      Vern -
      Interesting stuff, I might have to try that out
    1. frogimus's Avatar
      frogimus -
      Quote Originally Posted by Cregan Tur View Post
      This is intersting, but I'd like some more information. Do you have to adjust your painting techniques to accomodate this new primer? The pics look good, but are there any details that wee obscured by the thick gesso you applied?
      It wasn't so much the fine details that were obscured but the larger ones. If 2 fairly large surfaces met at 90 degrees or less, there was a tendency to pool rather thick into the corner. Now that I've seen this, it's rather simple to adjust my technique on future works. Next time, I'll brush it on normally (though still thick). I wanted to see how "sloppy" I could be and still get good results.
    1. Kramer's Avatar
      Kramer -
      I use liquitex black gesso almost exclusively and I love it. Whilst it won't prime something as big and flat as a tanks hull without leaving brushstrokes (just), you can be sloppy with it and have no worries. My only gripe is that I haven't found a white gesso that isn't either too thin or very powdery!

      for me it is the #1 alternative to spraying and a must have for the winter months!
    1. Shades's Avatar
      Shades -
      Wow, man, that works a *lot* better than I thought it would. I may have to compare a side-by-side with spray primer.
    1. Tabris's Avatar
      Tabris -
      Actually i began with some kind of gesso because i tought acrylic base was the same thing as acrylic primer. It gets the colors fine but it has a tendency to pool. Maybe if i painted it the same way i paint a basecoat it would be better, but last time i tried to paint i lost some details in the minis. Most notable the mini had a spear which had a point with holes in it (imagine something like that /|\) and the gesso almost closed the holes.
    1. shanerozzell's Avatar
      shanerozzell -
      I got a free sample of the liquatex gesso so I used some on a base and it was okay but a bit too thick in places so I wouldn't use it on a mini.