Gesso Panel Part 1: Gluing Fabric to a Panel

February 27, 2011

A traditional gesso panel is a wonderful surface to paint on. For egg tempera painters it’s ideal, but it also works well for other water-based paints, like casein or gouache, and for oils it’s perfect. There are several decent online suppliers of them, but it’s not difficult to build your own.

Although gesso can be applied directly to a wood panel, it’s often recommended to reinforce it with a piece of fabric first. Here I’m using a 1/8th inch sheet of untempered hardboard and polyester fabric.

This batch of rabbit skin glue is made at a ratio of 1:11, or 2 tablespoons of powder to 1.25 cups of water. I let the powder soak overnight at room temperature in a covered container so no water will evaporate. If your climate is dry and cool you might want stronger glue (slightly less water,) or weaker if it’s hot and humid.

Before using the glue, it has to be heated to about 130°F. I pour the liquid into a large tin can and place it on an oven burner at low heat and monitor the temperature with an immersion thermometer, occasionally stirring the glue and gradually raising the temperature. Close by I have a large glass bowl of hot water. When the glue reaches 130°, I set the can of glue in the bowl of water to keep it hot. A coffee warmer under the glass bowl can also help keep it hot. Keep the temperature around 120° – 130°.

I first apply a coat of glue to the board with overlapping strokes and dry off the brush. I then drag the brush across the coat of glue in a perpendicular angle to how it was applied, wiping off the brush after each stroke to get a good even coating. I let that dry for a few minutes before continuing.

Next, the fabric is soaked in glue by dipping it completely in the can and squeezing off the excess. I square up the fabric to the board and drop it down. With a plastic scraper I press the fabric from the center of the board to the edges to get out any bubbles, and then apply another coat of glue to the top of the fabric. Invariably the fabric tends to come loose at the edges when it dries, but I’m not too concerned about that. I can pull it tight later when I glue the edges to the back. (My appologies for not taking pictures of this part.)

Once the board and fabric have dried for a few minutes, I place it face-down on sheets of wax paper and put some heavy books on top to press it flat for a few more hours of drying time.

The back edges are glued down with an acrylic gel (this is Liquitex Heavy Gel.) I cut notches in the corners before folding it over, and then apply the gel to both the board edge and the fabric, pulling the edges tight on the front. The gel will set in about 15 minutes. To clean up the back I’ll glue down a sheet of paper or mat board, which also helps hold down the fabric.

The next step will be to make some gesso.


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