Saturday, June 16, 2012

Priming Miniatures: Gesso

Gesso used to prime a resin building.
Probably one of the most important questions miniature gamers have after they purchase their miniatures is "What primer do I use?" Several years ago, I heard some fellows on the Warmaster email list singing the praises of gesso, so I decided to try it for myself.

What is Gesso?
For those who don't know, artists for centuries have been making and using gesso to prime and seal their canvases. Today, many manufacturers make acrylic gesso sold in tall bottles or wide-mouth jars. Gesso commonly comes in white, black, gray, and clear. I would imagine one could make other colors by adding dies to the white gesso, though I haven't found a need to try it. I have used only black and gray.

Why Should I Use Gesso?
A quick search on model and miniature painting forums quickly reveals the many reasons for using gesso.

First, you apply gesso using a simple paint brush. This means that you can prime your miniatures at your painting station instead of carting everything outside to spray paint or investing in an expensive spray booth. This is a nice plus for those of use living in Florida during the hot and humid summers.

Since gesso is orderless, this makes painting indoors that much more convenient, especially if you live in an apartment or have a family member who is sensitive to paint fumes.

Since most gesso today seems to be acrylic, it's non-toxic and cleans up easily with water and soap like any acrylic paint.

Gesso is also quite flexible, especially since it's made to seal painting canvases, which are themselves flexible. I accidentally have bent backwards rifles of gesso-primed soft plastic figures without the gesso showing any signs of cracking.

Gesso is very durable, assuming you follow the instructions on the bottle. This means letting the gesso dry at least 24 hours before touching or painting it, even if the figure looks dry. Now, I will be honest here. I've had some problems with gesso. Gesso doesn't like pointy tips, so I tend to apply a second coat to those spots as well as any spots, like hats and rifles, that might get handled or bumped a lot when painting them. Also, gesso can rub off when applied too thinly because there is little gesso between the rubbing finger and the metal figure. I've also had some problems with certain brands of gesso and have gotten confirmation from a certain popular brand about how they changed their formula, causing problems. (More on that below.) Overall, though, gesso can be very durable and rock hard, requiring sharp fingernails or blades to remove.

Gesso doesn't obstruct details because it shrinks as it dries, making it fine for small-scale as well as large-scale figures. Yes, it looks super-thick when it goes on but dries snugly to the model. Below is the now-classic time-lapse of gesso drying on a miniature.

How is Gesso Applied?
Artists use wide, stiff brushes to paint gesso onto a canvas and then work it into the material, filling and sealing the porous holes. They usually apply two or three coats in a cross-hatch pattern. Decades ago, I used to help my sister do this when she was an art major in college. Little did I know back then that one day I would use gesso to prime models! Below is a short video from Dick Blick showing how to prime a canvas using gesso, in case you were wondering how it was done.

While it's nice knowing how to apply gesso to a canvas, knowing how to apply it to a miniature is more important. Ironically, the technique is basically the same! However, I use a large, standard, cheap paint brush to paint on the gesso. Though some manufacturers say their gesso could be diluted slightly, while others on modeling forums insist on thinning everything brushable, I have never thinned gesso, achieving fine results.

Too many people paint gesso like it was a regular acrylic paint, putting on a thin layer. They are dismayed and upset when they find that their figure has many bare and thin spots, resulting from the gesso shrinking while drying. So then on the next miniature they decide to slather the figure in gesso so that the figure looks like a mound of gooey gesso more than a figure. Now they discover a new set of problems: there is so much gesso on the figure that it's beginning to run down the figure and pool into large puddles where it shouldn't be.

The key to painting on gesso is what I like to call "glopping." Not too thin and not too thick. You just have to experiment a bit. Plus, I like to work the gesso into all the nooks and crannies kind of like they do in the Dick Blick video, jabbing my brush as I glop on the paint and working into into the figure. Remember, the gesso will shrink as it dries.

What are the Downsides of Gesso?
While all of the above sounds like I absolutely love gesso and will never consider using anything else, gesso has some serious downsides.

What I have been calling "webbing" is a serious complaint I have about gesso. While brushing gesso onto your miniature, you might notice that a thin web of gesso suddenly forms across a narrow opening. Perhaps this could be an area between the gun and the body, or between the legs of a 10mm figure. I usually blow a bit on that area to open it up, and then try to reapply some gesso where my breath thinned it out too much.

I've also experienced bubbles in my gesso after the figure has dried, leaving all sorts of pock marks on the figures. These marks are impossible to remove or disguise, leading to the only possible solution: stripping the figures in a bucket of Simple Green. I had this happen to me because I shook my bottle of gesso. Sure, I mixed the pigment into the solution really well but added a bazillion little bubbles into the gesso at the same time. So, do as James Bond would not do: "Gesso. Stirred, not shaken." (Good advice when mixing brush-on varnish as well!)

Are All Gesso Brands and Colors Created Equally?
The simple answer is: No. They are not all equal, and people will tell you that, often with a sports fan's fanaticism for their favorite brand. But it just makes sense that, like everything in life, some brands would be better than others. Though I'm far from being a gesso expert, I will pass along some of my own experiences.

When I began using gesso years ago, it seemed that people leaned toward Liquitex being among the best brands. While nominating anything as "the best" can cause a cat fight among even the stoutest and most reserved of men when it comes to hobby related issues, I found Liquitex to be good and reasonably priced. The black applied quite well, once I learned to handle it. Sure, some webbing occurred when I was sloppy but the finish was solid, no rubbing off.

Then I tied their gray gesso, but found their gray to be too thin and runny, causing it to pool too easily, and too shiny, creating less tooth for the paint than black gesso. Plus, Reaper paints can have problems "cracking" when painted on surfaces that are too smooth--I learned this the hard way and even got official confirmation from Reaper, though they can't quite figure out why this happens. So the bottle of gray gesso went in the trash.

Recently, I began having problems with Liquitex black gesso. The gesso seemed to rub off easily and not apply as well as before. I chalked this up to my gesso being a bit old, though it was in their newer label bottle. I was no longer a Liquitex fanboy, and for a while even left gesso for spray primers (which I might write about later).

But a few weeks ago I decided to give gesso another chance. Setting out to discover what "real" artists thought was the best brand of gesso opposed to what gamers thought of gesso, I read that Liquitex has changed their gesso formula, making it weaker. If what people are saying is true, I had one of the newer, weaker bottles. The company assured people that though they are using less pigments or whatever the gesso is still perfectly fine. Many disagree.

So what gesso should I use? Artists kept recommending Golden acrylic gesso as their favorite brand, being much better than the new formula Liquitex is using. A few weeks ago at our local art store, I decided to pick up a jar of Golden black gesso. Ironically, I had little choice because black Liquitex gesso was no where to be found at the local craft and art stores. We'll see how this Golden gesso goes, and I'll report my findings.

So What Do You Think?
Regardless, if you have any experiences--good or bad--or recommendations about gesso or priming miniatures in general, feel free leave a comment. And a big thanks and welcome to the blog's new followers. I hope you enjoy what you see.


  1. Thanks for the tips and pitfalls, Its worth knowing! Might even get some and have a go

  2. Thanks for the tip about Liquitex. I have been using gesso (I mix black acrylic paint with white gesso because there was no black gesso at the store) for almost 2 years now, and I'm not going back to spray cans!!

  3. I have been a confirmed Gesso fan for about ten years now. Thanks for the tip on Liquitex, I have been having trouble with my latest bottle. Now I know why. Not sure if the local craft store carries anything else tho.

  4. Make sure to check the local art supply stores. I've found that since the recession began the chain craft stores have really cut back on what they offer. I still haven't had any time to try the Golden gesso yet.


Sadly, I have to approve all comments to weed out nasty spammers.