This section is from the book "Ideals In Art: Papers Theoretical Practical Critical", by Walter Crane . Also available from Amazon: Ideals in Art: Papers Theoretical, Practical, Critical.
Decorative design in gesso stands, it may be said, midway between painting and sculpture, partaking in its variations of the characters of each in turn - the child or younger sister of both, holding, as it were, the hands of each, playful, light-hearted, familiar, associated in its time with all kinds of domestic furniture and adornment.
With an origin perhaps as ancient as the other arts, its true home is in Italy. We find it at Pompefi, with its relatives, stucco and plaster-work, in association with architecture, which also are seen in such choice forms in the decoration of the ceilings and walls of Roman tombs, such as the famous examples of the Via Latina. We find gesso work also in direct association with painting in the devotional pictures of the early Italian schools, used for the diapered backgrounds and nimbi of saints, and raised emblems and ornaments. It reappears in our own country in the painted rood-screens of Norfolk and Suffolk. At South-wold, for instance, there is a notable screen with panels, painted with figures of the apostles, the backgrounds consisting of diapers in raised gesso.
The revival of classical taste and love of classical lore and ornamental detail at the time of the renascence in Italy led to later and highly ornate development of gesso and stucco, of which we may see elaborate examples in the ceilings of the Doria palace at Genoa, for instance; and in the fine decorative scheme of Pinturicchio in the Appartamenti Borgia in the Vatican, gilded gesso is used for caskets, weapons, and other details in the frescoes painted on the walls, gilded relief work and blue grounds being carried out on the vaulted ceilings above, in arabesques and medallions.
A beautiful model of part of the Apparta-menti, by Signor Mariani, may be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum, where also choice examples of gesso work may be found in picture and mirror frames, and gilded coffers or cassones. There are several of these from Florence with figures in relief on flat backgrounds, punctured or stamped with patterns on the paste, and afterwards gilded with rich ornamental effect.
Then again we find gesso used underneath the burnished gold letters and leaf work of the mediaeval illuminators.
The Italian craftsman's skill in gesso seems to survive in the Italian confectioner with his free-hand decorations squeezed out in the form of raised ornaments of plaster and sugar on birthday cakes and such like; and Italian workmen are still the masters of the craft and mystery of all manner of plaster-work, including moulding and casting.
Now there are various kinds of gesso and recipes for making it, and it can be worked in different ways, and on different scales, and in different degrees of relief.
For fine work on a small scale, such as might be used for caskets or small panels in cabinets,
Method of Working with the Brush in Gesso and the decoration of furniture generally, Gesso Duro is the best.
It is a mixture of whitening soaked in cold water till quite soft, glue or gelatine, boiled linseed oil, and a little resin, mixed well together to the consistency of cream. There is also a gesso used by frame-makers composed of whitening and parchment size.
Supposing it is desired to work a design on a panel of wood, the wood had best have a coat of shellac or varnish first. Then having determined your design lay on the paste with the point of a long-pointed sable brush - the kind known as a "rig-ger," or small water-colour brush will answer - lightly dropping the gesso from the point of the brush or slowly-dragging it, so that the gesso may flow from its point, as the design may require, and adding more of the paste where greater relief is required.
Filling for Picture-frame, in Gesso Duro
Designed by Walter Crane
Gesso Duro takes some days to dry, but dries, as its name implies, very hard. It can then be scraped down if necessary, and worked on again or touched on to any extent; and the peculiar quality of the relief given by brush work is, perhaps, best left untouched, or at least only added to, and not taken away from by scraping down, although a very fine finish could be obtained in this way, giving the work almost the look of ivory, though, I think, in that case, departing from its true character.
The frame margin given was worked in Gesso Duro, from a design of mine, by Harold Weeks. 250
The design for a bell-pull was modelled in gesso by Osmund Weeks, for reproduction in electro silver, the sea-horse being in copper.
I have also used for work of about this scale simply a mixture of plaster of pans or thin glue, which answered fairly well if done with directness, as the mixture dries very quickly, and is apt to crack off the ground when dry.
Design for a Bell-pull, Modelled in Gesso
By Walter Crane
The device for the Art Workers' Guild is an example of this method, also worked with a brush, and afterwards tinted with lacquers reduced to pale tints by methylated spirit. The lacquer, of course, hardens the surface.
For bolder work and higher relief I have used plaster of paris with thin glue or gelatine. In this, in proceeding to model the design, you dip small pieces of cotton-wool pulled out finely, and having saturated them in the mixture, you build up your design on the panel, which may be of fibrous plaster, and suited for insertion in wall, frieze, or ceiling, or fireplace. It is important to wet the ground or shellac it to stop the suction, before laying on the gesso. It will dry slowly enough to be modelled with the fingers or tools, and added to when dry, or finished with brush work. It dries very fast, and the fibre of the cotton-wool makes it cling to the panel.