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Gesso

Gesso is a white paint mixture consisting of a binder mixed with chalk, gypsum, pigment, or any combination of these. The term “gesso” stems from the Italian word for “chalk” (gesso is “chalk” in Italian), and it has been employed in the arts for many centuries. Gesso provides a surface preparation or primer for painting, gilding, and other artistic techniques.

In the context of the decorative arts and furniture, particularly during the Queen Anne and early Georgian periods in Britain (early 18th century), gesso was used to create intricate, ornate designs on wooden surfaces. The gesso was applied to a cleaned and smoothed wooden surface, then shaped and manipulated while still wet to create the desired design. Once dried, these designs provided a raised, textured surface that was ideal for further decorative techniques, such as gilding.

Gilding, the application of gold leaf or gold powder, was commonly used over gesso to create a luxurious, golden finish. The textured gesso surface would be smoothed down and coated with a layer of size (an adhesive), then the delicate gold leaf was applied. The gesso beneath allowed for meticulous detailing in the gilded patterns and lent depth and volume to the designs.

In addition to hand-carving, gesso was often applied through a process of stamping or pressing during the Queen Anne and early Georgian periods. Stamps or presses with the desired pattern would be used to imprint the design into the wet gesso. This technique allowed for more uniformity and repeatability in the designs.

Carved gesso was an artistic technique where the gesso was applied more thickly, then carved into the desired design once semi-dry. This technique was employed to create more substantial, three-dimensional decorative elements.

The use of gesso was not limited to furniture but was also a significant technique in the decoration of picture and mirror frames, interior architectural elements, and a range of decorative art objects.

Despite the evolution of new materials and techniques, gesso remains an important material in both the restoration of antique furniture and the creation of new pieces, due to its versatility and the unique, traditional aesthetic it offers.

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