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Gesso: the memory of being a liquid

Gesso is rabbit skin glue and whiting (effectively chalk) which is made into a thick creamy liquid (soaking of glue + water baths + electric stoves are involved). I squeegee it onto the surface of a sealed wood panel and leave it to dry – repeating this process up to 7 times, often sanding in between each layer – although sometimes choosing not to.

I love gesso because every tiny bump or ridge or flaw responds. It is as though it remembers being a liquid and speaks through ink. I can carve it, sand it, push ink into it and lift it off. I don’t control the image – it evolves through a process of intuition and a willingness to destroy (to ‘kill the little darlings) in order to discover an essence of something else. I don’t know what this is until the painting ceases to irritate me and I no longer need to fight with it.

I first discovered traditional gesso ground not through art history (as perhaps I should have done), but instead, by experiencing the work of artist Rod McIntosh during a visit to his studio. His delicious surfaces, polished smooth with beeswax and milk, held an ink gesture that seemed at once both on the surface and yet embedded into the ‘being-ness’ of the art work.

At the time, I was making figurative sculpture using modelled and carved plaster  and wanted to translate the visceral sense of these works into drawings and paintings. I fell in love with gesso’s ability to hold and reveal the work as though from within itself. That was back in 2011 – ish. I played with indian ink + oil using gesso on board, with drawings, pencil on gesso, dancers, drawings of movement and gesture. Only a few pieces from this period remain unsold.

In  2014, I left London and at this point my practice changed. After 10 years working with the female figure she left (quite literally – danced out of a painting one day) and I was left with the unknown. My dreams were of landscape and sky so I followed them. Gesso became a companion in this continued visceral conversation between memory, lived experience,  and the desire to breathe.