Encaustic Technique #8: Gesso

A small holiday gift for you all: a new tutorial. This one is a little different. It’s not about the wax, but what we put under the wax.

I’ve written here before about using paper or claybord as a base for painting. About a year or so ago, R&F came out with an encaustic gesso. It doesn’t smell and isn’t labor-intensive like rabbit skin gesso, and, unlike regular acrylic gesso, it is absorbent enough to be used under wax. Until recently, I’ve just used it as it comes: bright white.

Recently, though, I started experimenting with tinting it with powdered pigment before applying it. My aim was to create an aged looking, darker background for painting.

In the above example, I started off with a layer of white gesso. I let that dry completely. Then, I mixed a portion of gesso with my powdered pigment and applied it in large, sweeping strokes to most of the canvas.

After letting this dry slightly, I sprayed the panel randomly with water and scumbled the surface with rags, creating a textured looking surface. When the gesso was completely dry, I sanded portions of it where I wanted more light to come through.

The point here is how flexible this could be- try using different colors, layering colors, or painting into the dry gesso with water based paints, such as guache. The surface could also be stamped with homemade stamps before applying your first coat of wax.

My one critique of the gesso is that it pinholes like crazy (similar to claybord). I remedied this with a lot of fusing and additional layers of wax. I’m not sure what causes the pinholes- If any of you know why it does this, please leave a comment! I’d love to know how to control it.

39 thoughts on “Encaustic Technique #8: Gesso

  1. AJ Grossman

    I love the distressed look that you have achieved. Is the encaustic gesso applied on a canvas or on a board. I have the gesso from R&F but I use it on my boards for a white ground and have not tried in on a canvas.

    1. LisaK Post author

      Thanks! The encaustic gesso is applied to a birch panel. I never put wax on anything flexible like canvas. It’ll crack sooner or later. Some people work on paper, but they work extremely thinly… happy experimenting! L.

  2. Tina

    I have a sneaky insight into the gesso. When I first tried it, it seemed so familiar to me, even the smell. I showed it to my husband who recognized it at once as basically milk paint! The stuff from R&F is wonderful but very expensive. I won’t argue with R&F, certainly they are the leading experts in our chosen medium, but I have tested and been working with milk paint and find that it does just as good a job as far as I can tell. R&F’s has a small bit of (acrylic type?) additive in it as well, so it will stick on a variety of surfaces, but you can order milk paint in powdered form as well as an additive also that will allow you to paint onto a sealed surface for way less than the price of the premixed gesso. Try “The Old Fashioned Milk Paint Company” online- comes in many colors too! Only mix what you need- it does not store very long once mixed, and use 2 coats. I have meant to put this information on my art blog, so look for that information to show up there sometime soon when I prime some more panels and shoot a few pictures.

    1. Jac Howard

      That’s so useful to know, Tina. Thank you so much for sharing. Here in the uk we also have to pay import duty and vat on R&F products – you can imagine what that does to the prices. I have made lots of online enquiries about acrylic free gesso and the only hint of hope I have came in the form of a casein based one – I wonder if this is your milk based one?
      I am only three weeks into my encaustic journey so I could be talking a load of twaddle πŸ™‚

    2. Dr Bert van Dijk

      Does anyone know if you can get milk paint in New Zealand? My google search did not come up with anything…

  3. kate estrella

    As you can tell from my website, I am a painter who has little encaustic experience a brief wonderful workshop at the Tucson Drawing Studio with Pat Dolin. I love your work, Lisa, and am also encouraged by this info about Milk Paint by Tina, as I am a bit phobic about a whole new itinerary & prices….do let me know as more developes! I have no idea how I will adapt to this new media but I am looking to get out of my usual realism and into something more abstact

  4. mogodbeer

    Hi Lisa
    I like the way you are suing the gesso. Unfortunatley over here in Australia(the back of beyond)we cannot get this so I am stuck to making the rabbit skin glue gesso. Have you ever made that and if so how does it compare. I wonder about the milk paint and how that works with encaustic. I might get some and give it a try.
    Love your work, you have a very delicate touch.

    1. Margaret

      In Western Australia we have a good shop that’s also a picture framing business that supplies all the equipment needed for encaustic art. The only supplier in WA

  5. libby

    i’ve been making ultramarine blue, titanium white and bright red encaustic paint with dry milk paint pigment, and it does work.

    the paint texture has more grain than other dry pigments i’ve used, probably because of the lime that’s added to the milk paint pigment, and the ultramarine blue is not as transparent as other dry pigments i’ve used.

    but if you’re on a budget, milk paint pigment is far cheaper for basics like white and black encaustic paints and gessos.

  6. Paula Blackwell

    I have a reply to your pin hole query. I believe that the moisture in the wood is the cause. I have tried milk paint, pva drywall primer, and joint compound and the best,by far is the joint compound. It can also be tinted with universal tints. (found at any paint store) Also, I find it very helpful if I lay the first coat of wax down very slowly with a very light touch.

  7. nancy pollock

    i have used R & F gesso; milk paint; rabbitskin glue; spackle joint compound; used various oils on birch supports & sanded all to get the richest panel. What i’ve learned is finer thin layers work best over fat; lean over fat like cooking lasts longer & looks “prettier”.

  8. Trace

    I make my own milk paint and use under encaustic all the time.
    I make it with skim milk powder or soy milk powder and mix in a litte earth pigment and water to get the consistency I like and voila, paint. I make my own encaustic and cold wax colours as well all using the same pigment so everything goes together. And I even get into a bit of egg!!! I love kitchen art!!!

  9. Maria

    pinholes… are generally caused by air bubbles. If your base is wood, that’s most certainly the cause. Heating wood will cause the air to be released, the more you fuse the more pinholes you get, Remedy is to let it all cool down completely before proceding with the job.

  10. Nicki

    I have had pinhole trouble too … I also find joint compound to be the best base on hardboard or plywood ( I’m in New Zealand), which can be tinted in any manner of ways … but was also getting pinholes. I eventually found that if I heat the panel up before I apply the first layer of wax, I don’t get them at all. You have to be careful not to heat the panels up too much though or else the wax absorbs straight into the compound thus darkening it.

  11. Chris Craft

    I know this is coming to you kind of late in the conversation. I have tried R&F Encaustic gesso on wooden panels and both times my wax separated from the ground after a couple of weeks. I used it to get a white surface to paint on in order to save wax but since I’ve just gone back to the raw wood surface.

  12. Monique Wales

    I’m fairly new to encaustics, but have loved using Evans Encaustics ‘Holy Grail’ gesso made specifically for encaustics. It comes in a variety of colors and contains no acrylic. I’ve been using it over plywood & sometimes have pinholes, sometimes not. After reading above, I realized that the cheaper the plywood, the more pinholes. I have no pinholes on any of the works I made using shina carving plywood. Hmmm… Better quality? Dryer? Tighter grain? I’m going to try warming / drying out the hardware store stuff to see if that helps!

  13. Becky

    Sadhanayabe, I have found that nothing is needed under milk paint on MDF. Quite often I don’t even use milk paint! But if this is the case I always crisp the MDF with my torch. It gives a yummy cooked marshmallow effect.

    1. Raemon

      Thank you for the ‘cooking’ tip, I’ve just used rabbit skin gesso on my MDF boards but am keen to try scorching my next one!


  14. mary robin adamiak

    I don’t know if you’ve solved your pinhole problem already, but I write icons and I make and gesso my own boards. I started making them myself because they were so blasted expensive and most of the time I still ended up with pinholes. I believe the gesso is similar, made with rabbitskin glue, pigment and chalk. Before I put the gesso on the board, I seal the board first with a coating of diluted glue: 1 part glue to 15 parts water. Then, when I apply the gesso, I use a putty knife to press it into the surface as I spread it. This keeps air bubbles to a minimum. It is usually trapped air inside the gesso that comes to the surface that causes the pinholes. Putting the gesso on with a brush without any trapped air is quite difficult. You may have to put on a few more layers of gesso, but if you want to avoid the bubbles, it is worth it. I have yet to encounter any pinhole problems with the boards I make. I hope this was helpful.

  15. futuredreamtransmissions

    hi, i love your work! and the gesso/pigment technique.. I also started having pinhole problems with the r&f gesso, but never had it before, and now i am thinking it is because before i would dilute it with a little water ( to save expenses:)) and put an extra layer. Theses last boards I put it on straight and all of them are having that problem. Maybe the thinness of the water dilution filled in the air holes more…

  16. CJ

    All good stuff to know for the newbie such as me!! I am about to try for my own experiment…using 2 coats R&F Encaustuc Gesso on a solid canvas PANEL. I wanted to do something larger than just using the gloss cards I started out with πŸ™‚ Encaustic is an AWESOME medium but pretty $$$$ .

  17. deb

    Has anyone used Kilz. It is a primer used as an inhibitor over stains or rust. It is latex base. I am trying it on Masonite and then applying encaystic medium and layers of silk paper.

    1. Paula

      I have not but, I’m curious why you wish to use it? If your trying to get a cheep but effective white background for ebcaustic try pre -mixed white Tempera in the bottle from Michaels craft store. It works great as a ground and has a nice tooth that the wax adheres to very well.

  18. Sandy

    I glue 140 pound watercolour paper to my wood supports. It is a perfect ground for applying encaustic paint. I don’t get a lot of pinpoints, but if. I do, I just move my heat gun in a circular motion and they disappear.

  19. Margaret

    What kind of Gesso were you using because there is one made to use with encaustic wax made up
    Of a different ratio of medium

  20. Deborah Kristoff

    I do get pinholes. They come usually if I overheat. I must then reheat at a lesser temperature allowing the wax to merge more gently together. Sometimes I want a hotter application to allow the surfaces to come more together changing colors between the base colors. It works but then I have to take the time to reduce the pinholes. By the way I don’t use gesso. The pinholes will happen without it. Try lowering the heat. I have also had pinholes occur if I have too much beeswax mixed into the paints. Lower heat.

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  22. Christina

    I dry the encaustic gesso with my heat gun on low. When it is just dry I pat my wood panel with the palm of my hand very lightly. Then I quickly smooth it out with my fingers. I have found this removes the bubbles and I don’t have to sand it! It may take some practice but I have found it to be the best way to get a perfectly flat surface and it only takes a few minutes! Good luck!


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