Monday, April 04, 2011

Priming with Gesso - The Answer to Humidity

For those readers who live in the latitudes where winter has not yet relinquished its icy grip, I must warn that you may not like the preamble to this post.  I am preparing to complain about the fact that I live on a beautiful island surrounded by clear tropical waters teeming with wondrous marine life and colorful coral reefs.  I am also going to take issue with the fact that while most of the northern hemisphere was battling one snow storm after another, I had to deal with temperatures that rarely dropped below seventy-five degrees and probably less than eight days of rain since "winter" officially started.  Yep...I am going to complain.

Home sweet home.

Now that  I have so many readers angry with me it might be a good time to explain.  I really do live in paradise but paradise comes with a price (figuratively and literally - but I will deal with the figurative side this post).  You see, when you are surrounded by all this warm Gulf Stream water, it may moderate your winters but it also brings almost constant humidity.  The winter and spring months (our dry season) are a bit better but even then we experience higher than average humidity levels.  And during the wet season (May through November) it can be almost unbearable.  Just walking outside will soak your shirt and create a sheen of water on your skin.

What does this little meteorological and geographical lesson have to do with hobbies?  Well, if you live in such a place and count miniature painting as one of your hobbies then the short answer to the above question is - everything.  We all know that the actual painting of the miniature is only one step to producing a finished product and one of the most important of these steps is priming.  And spray priming in humidity is one sure way to ruin a miniature in the very first stage.

Bring up the subject of priming at a convention or in a hobby forum and a debate will automatically ensue about which method is the best or which product provides the best results.  I certainly do not know enough about the properties of chemicals and I have not tried enough different brands to get involved in such a debate, but what I can offer is a suggestion for those of  you who may need to prime miniatures indoors due to conditions such as mine, or for some other reason.

I started priming with Gesso about a year ago after ruining several miniatures trying to spray primer in humid conditions.  Batch after batch would dry with that dusty gritty look so often caused by priming in high humidity.  The obvious solution was to avoid spray primers on all but the driest of days (a rarity indeed) and work inside instead.  Not having the space for a proper spray booth, the only option was to prime by brush painting.  I tried several brush-on products but all seemed too thin and runny and required several coats to get the job done.  Even then, I felt that the coverage was poor and prone to flaking with minimal handling.  I was at wits end until a fellow gamer (who happened to be an artist) suggested using Gesso.

A few varieties of Gesso.

Gesso is used by artists to prepare their canvases for paints.  It acts both as a sealer and smoother and will keep paints from soaking into the weave of the canvas.  Gesso is traditionally white but grays and blacks are also readily available.  It's composed of a filler and a pigment and depending on the ratio between the two, comes in student and professional grades.  I really can't tell the difference and I am not even sure which type I use.  One fact that users may want to note is that some brands are considered a carcinogen while others are not.  Unfortunately, the brand I prefer is under the former category so I am extra careful to keep it off my skin when using it.  Gesso is available in most art stores and in some larger department stores.

Since switching to Gesso, I have had zero problems with humidity or coverage.  The stuff dries quickly and shrinks down to show even the most minute detail.  Though the painting surface becomes incredibly smooth and silky (I love applying paint to a newly Gesso-primed model) the primer provides more than enough "teeth" for acrylic paints to take.

When I first tried Gesso I was a bit concerned due to the thickness of the particular brand I chose.  However, my fears were soon put to rest.  Though it goes on quite thick, you can almost see the material shrink as it begins to dry.  Any details obscured during the priming process quickly regain shape with no loss.  Chainmaile, hair, and heraldic designs dry perfectly visible.

The one problem I did have in the beginning was lack of coverage but that was due to my concerns about obscuring details.  Gesso looked so thick in the container that I felt the need to thin it down.  Then when painting I was still afraid of loosing detail so I painted on only very thin coats.  When this stuff dries, it really shrinks and I found many spots on the model bare after drying.  I finally decided to give an unthinned coat a try and immediately gained better results.  Eventually I began to paint straight out of the pot and really gob it on knowing that the Gesso would shrink down to give me the proper coverage.

A thick gob on the face will dry skin tight.

Since some of you may be unwilling to believe that it's OK to simply slap it on, I took a few models for test subjects.  You can see below how thick the Gesso was applied and the end results.  The only place I'm a bit more careful is in very deep crevices such as where hoods overshadow a face or hollow spaces such as holes in between arms or on weapons.  Otherwise, I think the process is almost foolproof.... even for an amateur like myself.

My three test subjects.  From left to right:  Strider (from the Three Hunters blister) from Games Workshop, a pirate from Black Scorpion, and Anirion, Wood Elf Wizard from Reaper.

Strider will be the first test model.

 I applied the Gesso quite heavily on Strider's packs without fear of loosing details.

Only a few small areas need touching up.

Next up is the pirate.

Notice how thick the Gesso is on the pistol, cutlass, and chest areas.

Now notice how detailed those same areas are on the miniature.  No loss of detail and only a few areas to re-prime.

Now it's the wizard's turn.

Anirion gets a fairly thick coat...including his face.  It seems counter-intuitive, but sometimes more is better.

Anirion is now dry with only a few areas to touch up.  Either I missed these small areas or I did not apply the Gesso thick enough and when it dried/shrank, parts of the metal was exposed.

I am very happy with the results of priming with Gesso and if you have been considering using it, I do not think you will be disappointed.  It goes on smoothly, provides great adhesion and coverage, is cheaper (overall) than name brand hobby primers (GW, etc...) and allows priming to be completed inside.  The only downside is that priming an entire army would certainly be more time consuming than spraying but then again, I tend not to paint large armies and even if I did, I would only end up repairing all the models after spraying anyhow.  Your mileage may vary but I cannot recommend Gesso enough.

Are there other techniques out there that would solve the problem of priming in high humidity?  I would love to hear your comments and suggestions.



  1. I've heard about Gesso before, but this post really triggered my interest. I sometimes end up with a grainy surface after priming a mini, it would be nice not to have that risk every time.

  2. Hi Corvus. I was a bit skeptical when I first tried it but as I mentioned, my concern was unwarranted. It's quite easy to apply and fairly quick as far as brushing goes because you can just slop it on. And once it dries, Gesso really does provide a silky smooth surface to apply your paints. The brush absolutely glides over the primer. Most importantly, you will never have to deal with the grainy surface again.

    Let me know if you try it and how you like it. Good luck.

  3. one thing to note is that gesso also takes a while to dry, the liquitex one i have says to wait 24 hrs. But otherwise i love to use it during the winter. nice post!

  4. Thanks Monkey. I hope you found the post useful. As for the dry time, the brand I use is mostly dry in a few hours...only the deepest depressions are still damp. I usually prime the night before then begin painting the next day...a span of about 12 - 15 hours. I have not tried Liquitex yet so I will lean on your recommendation. Thanks for the input and thanks for reading!

  5. Hi,
    I am also looking for a different technique to prime my minis and this has got my attention. How resistant is it to handling, dropping or having the mini knocked over?

    Thanks for your inputs,