Painting an Urban Watercolor on Clear Gesso
In a previous post, I mentioned an experiment with an urban building facade, painted in watercolor on clear gesso coated watercolor paper. You asked why, and what, and how, so lemme ‘splain….
What is Gesso?
Gesso is an artist’s painting primer that feels similar to plaster. It’s applied to canvas, wood, Masonite and other artist supports.
The word gesso is derived from Greek (γύψος), meaning Gypsum, or chalk. It’s usually white, and is made from acrylic resin, pigments, chalk, gypsum and a binder. It can be formulated to prohibit absorption, like sizing, or it can encourage it.
Painting Like the Masters
I took a semester on Painting like the Masters many years ago in college.
We used powdered pigments with egg yoke binders (egg tempera). We made gesso in the old-world methods – with rabbit skin glue, chalk, and titanium pigments.
We coated our masonite boards 10-15 times in thin layers of homemade gesso. We sanded the gesso to a satin finish, and then painted very detailed, realistic grisaille version of studio still life arrangements. Then we painted over the grisaille in egg tempera.
It was amazing. And it was a lot of work. Nowadays, you can just buy a jar of gesso.
Clear Gesso as Sizing and Texture
Acrylic gesso is easy to use, dries permanent and washes up with water when it’s still wet. Gesso is available pre-mixed for priming canvas, or sizing paper – in white, black, gray and clear.
You can also tint white gesso with any color you’d like by adding a bit of acrylic pigment to it.
I’ve painted watercolor on acrylic gesso before, and it’s very different, and super fun. Mostly because you can lift the watercolor and get back to white, or close to it.
I’m curious to see if granulation in watercolor behaves different on clear gesso. I won’t be able to answer my own question till I set up a side-by-side gesso strip – one white and one clear. If you beat me to it, leave a comment on your results and let us all know.
For now, I totally enjoyed the way the clear gesso “drank” the paint, bled at the edges, prohibiting my being fussy, and allowed me to lift back to white. The gesso also took many layers of paint, so I could push values towards darker, richer hues.
Using a Grid System of Drawing Under Watercolors
If you grid your paper to lay your drawing down in graphite before you paint – like I do – clear gesso allows you to see your drawing.
Sometimes, I paint on a warmer white paper – not as bright as white gesso. I could tint the gesso to warm it up, but I found it easier to skip that step, and use clear gesso on warmer toned paper.
Painting on gesso can be smooth or rough. If you want it smooth, you’ll have to take your support to a well ventilated area, and sand it.
I used a foam applicator to apply the clear gesso to paper, and intentionally slopped it on willy-nilly. The surface was rough.
Since I was planning to paint a vertical theater facade, I kept my gesso application stripes vertical. The resulting surface was a bit like painting on fine sand paper. The pigments soaked in, spread out and did all sorts of wonderful mingling.
Other Applications for Clear Gesso
I can just imagine what the texture of this clear gesso would do for holding pastels (eye-brow wag – rubbing hands together). Maybe even on top of watercolors?
And I had an idea the other day about tinting it with a small amount of acrylic – so it will relay color but stay transparent. If I roll the tinted, sheer gesso on top of a failed monotype, it would alter the hues, and increase the traction for application of colored pencils. A new type of printmaking repair to try, perhaps?
Since I wasn’t sure if I’d like the clear gesso, I bought a small quantity – 8 oz of Liquitex (<–this stuff). So far, it’s great fun, and I think I’ll keep working with it. What say you? Do you think you’ll give it a try?
Release the Rules
We are accustomed to using rules, instructions, ingredients lists and process directions to learn new things. Thank goodness for the instructions writers in cookbooks, printmaking manuals and painting guides.
I am forever indebted to those rare characters who possess both visual and wordsmithing skills. We artists need a starting place when trying a new thing. But once we get even a smidgeon of experience, we shouldn’t be afraid to throw caution to the wind and expand our range beyond the instructions.
Art rewards a carefree spirit with experimental permission, and new discoveries. Approaching a creative endeavor with rules is meant to just get us started, so we don’t hurt ourselves, or try to paint a watercolor on top of an oil painting, etc. Acquire the basics, and then goof off.
Creativity is playtime, and shouldn’t be fraught with white knuckled brush-work, brow-beating about expected skills, and holding your breath as you work. Looking at it this way makes it hard to paint often. Keep your art-making fun, and remind yourself that it’s supposed to be experimental, and creative, and exploratory. You’re not preparing for a one person show at the Guggenheim – you’re playing with art.
Thanks for visiting the studio with me, and I’ll see you in the next post –
P.S. If you’d like to see my experiments with clear gesso on a failed monotype print, let me know, and I’ll photograph and share how it goes.
At the rate of almost one birth a year, the Vermeers’ had five or six children by 1661, three of four whom survived. The first children who apparently lived into adulthood were all girls – Maria, Elisabeth, Cornelia, Aleydis, and Beatrix. With an eventual eleven living children, Vermeer may well have pondered how to divide his energies; his slow production of paintings meant he completed only some three pictures for every child. The poet Yeats later put the dilemma as which to choose, perfection of the life or of the work? A ruthless genius may plump for the latter. A more difficult task faces the home-loving artist who tries for both.Jonathan Jansen