Gesso, noun


Gesso is a word that’s been around for hundreds of years. In Latin it means chalk; in Greek, gypsum. In today’s parlance, gesso is a white paint mixture, consisting of a binder mixed with chalk, gypsum, pigment or any combination thereof. The substance – a hard compound of plaster of Paris or whiting in glue – is commonly used by artists in sculpture or as a base for gilding or painting on wood (although one of the beauties of gesso is that it can be applied to nearly any surface). Artists can then confidently paint on that surface with acrylic paint.

Gesso dries hard, making the surface stiffer than it would normally be. It prepares (or primes) the surface for painting, thus making the surface a little more textured and ready to accept acrylic paint. Without gesso, the paint would simply soak into the weave of the canvas. The item shown here is an American Aesthetic gilt and gesso pier mirror and marble-top console table, produced around 1880, possibly in New Orleans. It was a lot in Crescent City Auction Gallery’s recent June auction in New Orleans, where it sold for a very reasonable $2,583.