Art Supply Review: Gel Versus Gesso

Forgive me if this post ends up being a bit lackluster, but I’m battling my way out of the fog of a head cold. I’m slowly winning, but the little buggers who invaded my sinuses have sure put up a good fight.

Anyway, it’s the third Wednesday of the month (yes, already) and that means it’s review time. Since my one of my latest projects involved both Blick’s Acrylic Gel Medium and Liquitex’s Acrylic Gesso, I thought those two mediums deserved some closer scrutiny. In good old build-the-suspense-with-a-quandary fashion, I’ll tell you right now that one passed with flying colors and the other is sitting in the corner with a dunce cap on its head.

What Are These Things?

First off, maybe you don’t have a clue what I’m talking (writing) about when I say “gel” and “gesso” (which is officially pronounced Jess-Oh, but when I’m alone I just say “guess-oh” since the cats aren’t going to tell anyone of my mispronunciation, nor of my talking to myself).

Acrylic gel medium (to use the long name), is basically acrylic paint without any pigment added to it. It comes out of the tube white, but dries clear and you can opt to end up with a matte or glossy finish. So what do you use colorless paint for? Since acrylics tend to get a bit weird if you mix them with too much water (some water is okay), you can use the gel as a paint thinner without ending up with runny paint.

Another use is to give your entire painting a coat of gel as a sort of varnish and to give the whole work the same sheen (handy if you use different brands of paint that don’t all dry to the same finish). The gel also works as a type of glue and can be used to build body…aka “make your paint stand up.” This is handy for adding some texture to your work such as I did to add some feathery texture to Mr. Pelican.

Ooh, texturized!

Gesso is something I’m only just discovering. For its most basic use, you put gesso over a surface before you paint. You can also use it as an alternative to white paint. Why not just use white paint? Well, when you paint over a surface, the paint gets thicker and your surface loses its texture which can make it more challenging to paint over the white. Since gesso is intended to dry with a little bit (or a lot, depending on the type you buy) of texture (“tooth”) you can continue to paint over it as you would a fresh surface.

Like gel, you can also use gesso as a sort of glue. If doing a collage or mixed media project, you can paint a coat of gesso on your surface, lay down your collage piece (for example), and then let it dry. If you want, you can paint a layer of thinned gesso over the collage piece so you can layer on some paint.  There are other colors of gesso, but white is most common.

The Winner and the Loser

The first time I used the acrylic gel, I was scared. Even though I tested it out on a scrap piece, this stuff goes on WHITE, making it look like your painting is ruined. Okay, I still get scared, but every time it dries clear. Phew.

The tube I have is from Blick. I opted for their store brand because it was half the price of the “real” brands and because I haven’t met a Blick product that I haven’t liked. This gel was no different.

As I mentioned, it dries perfectly clear and leaves a nice glossy-but-not-too-glossy finish to a painting. It does take a little practice to get it to build texture, but I think that would be true of any gel. As a glue, wow! When I used it to apply the twine on my Cherries painting, I was expecting to have to come back and touch up places where it didn’t stick. Nope. Once it was dry, the twine stuck and it stuck good!

My only complaint is the cap. It’s a tiny, plastic, screw-on thingie like an old toothpaste tube. Once you get a little gel on the threads of the tube, the cap doesn’t seat very tightly which means the tube could dry out. I solved this problem with a little engineering in the form of plastic wrap.

So for Blick Gel Medium, I would give it a huge thumb’s up and would definitely buy it again.

And now for the (sort-of) loser: Liquitex’s Gesso. Okay, first off I did opt for the lower end Basics line from Liquitex, but I’ve used Basics paints before and found them pretty darn good. I was expecting the same from the gesso. Also keep in mind, I don’t know exactly how gesso should perform so maybe I’m just expecting too much.

Besides playing around with some abstract techniques that require gesso, my main hope for this stuff was to be able to cover over mistakes without gunking up my canvas with white paint (as I normally do). Since Cherries was done mainly with make-up sponges, there were a few messy areas where I colored outside the lines. To tidy them up I got out the gesso and put down a layer. Um, wait, where did the layer go?

The back of the bottle has a graphic showing the gesso is supposed to be the most opaque you can get. Perhaps the people who made this graphic don’t know the difference between opaque and transparent because it took about six layers of this “opaque” stuff to cover up my little green and red mistakes.

As far as being useful as a white paint substitute, I have played around with it a little bit and I’d give it a solid “okay” but only because it’s less expensive and a little more fluid than the white paint I have. Still, I can see its potential for this application.

So for Liquitex’s Basics Gesso, I have to say next time I would definitely opt for a different brand. The only problem now is, since gesso doesn’t come in sample-size bottles, I now have 16 ounces of this stuff to get through. Sigh.

Any experience with either of these mediums? How did you find them? Any recommendations for other products I should try?

To continue with Review Week, I”l be back Saturday to review one of the books I read over the past month. And next Wednesday, I’ll be back to show off some new artwork, for better or worse!

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10 thoughts on “Art Supply Review: Gel Versus Gesso

  1. crawcraftsbeasties says:

    Iiiiinteresting! I’m afraid I can’t offer any insights into a better gesso (painting, like crochet, is one of my uncharted arty-crafty areas which will remain so until someone adds at least 3 extra hours to the length of an Earth day), but thank you for explaining what some of those mysterious tubes in the paint aisle are!

    • painterwrite says:

      You’d think all the people on Earth might weigh the planet down enough to slow it a bit and increase the length of a day. Stupid physics, why do you never work in our favor!? I’m mystified by the tubes as well – I mean, unless it is a pretty color, why would I buy it, right? – but a few art books and the Blick catalog have tempted me just a little bit out of my comfort zone hidden hole.

      • crawcraftsbeasties says:

        That’s half the fun of learning a new skill, or developing an existing one – all the new toys you get to have! As far as I’m concerned, arts and crafts​ shopping is the only kind that actually warrants enthusiasm!

      • crawcraftsbeasties says:

        Well if that’s your shopping list, I’m not surprised! OK, I’ll allow groceries, and maybe the wondrous time that rolls around every 4-5 years when I realise that I have worn ANOTHER pair of Dr Martens boots to death, and it’s time to pick out a new one. But any further shopping is an unnecessary chore, to be despatched as quickly as possible so that real life can resume!

  2. BarbSotiArt says:

    Great review! I’ve just started experimenting with gel medium but haven’t got too into it yet. As for gesso I think the brand I have is Liquitex but it’s the higher end version. I’ve had no issues with it. Also I quite like the Bob Ross Black gesso though I’m not sure if it’s available anymore.

    • painterwrite says:

      I do love the gel medium. If I end up finding more uses for the gesso I’ll definitely buy the better quality next time (although it’s going to take me a while to get through what I have now). I’m not sure about the Bob Ross brand, but I do think Golden has a black gesso, and Holbein has and array of colored gesso…just in case you need a whole rainbow of gesso-y goodness!

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