Just Add Gesso: Repurposed Watercolor Painting

I was speaking with a technician at Golden Artist Colors the other day about World Watercolor Month and the various absorbent surfaces Golden produces. At that time, she mentioned that you can always watercolor over gesso as well.

Watercolor painting with gesso mostly covering it
Orig. painting after 1 gesso coat

Hmm. I feel like I’ve heard that before, but really, does that work? I think of acrylic paint as plastic, and water just beads up on plastic, right? Wrong. This painting started out as a watercolor fail on 140 lb. Arches cold-pressed paper (5 x 7″).  I had painted on both sides, and didn’t like either painting, just hadn’t got around to throwing it into my collage pile yet.   I decided to see what gesso could do for me.   I poured some out and started painting.    I blurred some of the watercolor paint in the process, which I liked, so I left it alone.  Then as the gesso started to dry (and I continued fiddling), the drying gesso even lifted away from some of the flower areas in the original watercolor.   I actually thought it looked cool, so I didn’t add another coat of gesso to re-cover those areas.   The first image was what I started with after allowing the gesso to dry for a couple of hours.

Watercolor and acrylic on gesso
Watercolor and acrylic on gesso

Next, I went right in with heavy body acrylic paint in Golden quinacridone magenta and M. Graham viridian.   (Note:   As a Dick Blick affiliate, purchases from these links will help to support my site.)   Then I dove into my watercolor palette and added additional tones for an abstract version of my original “poppies in the field” painting.   This reminds me of a quilt.    I very much prefer creating the painted versions to the sewn ones.   Painting watercolor over gesso does work.   The Golden technician was right.   It actually makes the watercolor paper a much more forgiving surface, easily lifted from and added back to.

I like the dreamy quality in this painting, with a combination of harder edges from the acrylic areas and softer, filmier tones from the watercolor paint.    I made quite a few adjustments to this one, and will probably continue to refine it.   But I kind of like the watery, bloomy areas I left in this, and not sure I’ll lift them all away just yet.   The best part is I’m actually feeling a lot more upbeat about painting in watercolor every day in July now, as I can always gesso over any painting fails and have another try.    It is definitely a different experience than painting on watercolor paper, but I liked it!   I hope you do, too.

Happy weekend to all.    Please take the time to do something that fulfills you, that makes you feel happy, down deep in your gut.   You owe it to yourself.   This world needs more joy, and more art!   Let’s get moving, people.    Shake thy tailfeathers!   Peace.

73 thoughts on “Just Add Gesso: Repurposed Watercolor Painting

  1. I’ve been waiting for this post 🙂 I did a painting yesterday that I am not happy with, so I am going to go get my bottle of gesso and paint right on over it and give this a try! Woohoo! Thanks for the inspiration!

    I adore the colors and patterns in your painting, Loo!

    What I am struggling with – in my painting i just did yesterday – and a bit in this – (but it could surely just be me because I am thinking about it with my failed painting) is what is the focal point? I looked at my painting – and thought – what is wrong with this? and I realized there is no “focal point” to draw the eye to – so my eyes just kept circling and spinning and searching and going crazy looking for it and not finding a place to rest and settle. Am I nuts or am I learning to really appreciate and look at art?? :\

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    1. You’re not nuts at all, I really struggle with this too, especially with non-representational work. When I sit down to do these, I’m really just looking to have a play with color. Anytime I’m using acrylics, and to an extent with WC too I guess……if you think about it, it’s never over. You can always add to the painting. Planning seems to ruin my abstracts, but if I get started and I like where it’s going then I do try to find a focal point and play it up, when I can. Honestly, Jodi, it’s still a work in progress for me, but Debi has been helping me out a lot and I’m learning that the eye will go to the area of greatest contrast. And I believe it will also go to areas of light and areas with more detail. So there’s an area in the upper left-ish section of this painting that started out with more detail due to the gesso lifting and there are some bright acrylics around that area too. More hard edges there. And to me, that is the focal point, but honestly it wasn’t planned, I just tried to play it up a bit as I saw it developing. I don’t know if that makes any sense at all, but that’s how I interpret it. Usually Debi’s analyses are the most helpful comment I ever get on a painting, because she will tell me what I painted, usually before I know one thing about it yay or nay. I have learned more from Debi than I have learned from the countless video lessons and books I surround myself with daily. All of the feedback helps, but I totally understand your question and it’s a question I ask myself. The other thing I try to keep in mind is when you divide the picture plane in thirds horizontally and vertically, where the lines cross, those four areas are a good place to put the focal point, compositionally. Honestly, I’ve covered just about everything I know about composition, and as you can see, it’s not much, but I do need to go back and search Debi’s site, as she’s advised, for focal point, centre of interest, leadins, etc so I can learn more. She has left a ton of breadcrumbs for us out there! I hope this was useful. We are the blind leading the blind, Artistanistasistah!

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      1. Yep I totally get it and agree 100%. I have learned a lot from Debi too, but obviously not applying it very well. LOL. Gosh I so hope I didn’t offend in anyway. It is completely my lack of inexperience. I’m feeling quite terrible right now.

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        1. Jodi, seriously, you didn’t offend me. Don’t feel bad for a second! I have the exact same problem, even with my own paintings! Mostly I’m just playing with color and hoping the chips come down in some way that’s pleasing. I struggle with this more than anything else, but I figure it’ll come with time and experience. You could never offend because I know you are where I am, just trying to learn and understand. Honestly, no one offends me with comments ever because I learn from all of them! Someone would have to say the painting looked like a pile of doo doo to even come close to offending, and honestly I would just use that comment to improve the next one too. Please don’t feel bad, as I am glad you spoke up! I’ve not wanted to admit to anyone how little I know about focal point in abstract work! It’s cool we got this cat outta the bag lol!

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    2. I do the same thing when I download my pictures and look at them. If the picture feels cluttered and the subject doesn’t shine then I usually am not quite satisfied with it. We are all growing as artists! And the learning is such fun. 🙂

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    1. Thank you, Debi! I still have so much to learn about them all, I can assure you most everything I did right was accidental, but as I was just saying to Jodi, thanks again for your analysis, that really helps me know what I am doing lol. I still need to get to your site and search on all of those terms so I can learn more. I want to thank you HUGE because I have learned more from you and the other artists here than I have from countless videos and books. You are someone I admire much more than you’ll ever know and your constant wise words, generous analysis, laughter and zaniness. And zen! Are huge not just to me, but to everyone here who feels the warmth from your Sun. Thank you. Truly. Much! Very much. 💜🎨💜💕👯😎🌅

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      1. you are so welcome Laura! I’ve always, set out to inspire, to encourage and set free. thats, the goal. whether it happens all the time – LOL won’t be possible. but with some, it is. so, that is my calling. and I love the twist, the zaniness. it overcomes the ‘seriousness’ of perfection. imo This last painting you have done….. shows the integration of your head knowledge with hand skills, and it has come together beautifully. Great ‘lead ins’ by the way!

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          1. I believe, know, we each have a calling. thats mine. in art.
            I’d love to help children & animals & such…..but, I can’t manage the pain (HSP) that assails in those awful environments. so, this is my, place. 🙂 glad to be where I am. (((((LL)))))

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            1. You are blessed, and so are we, to have you. I tried volunteering with abused children once, couldn’t get through the training. Too emotional. I didn’t know I was HSP then. But I totally feel what you’re saying. (I feel everything! lol) 🙇😘(((((3d)))))

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  2. Ok see…. I suck…. Debi just commented you did all the right things I do see a center of interest in yours. Subtle to me. But then I think I just don’t have the artist “eye”. Dang. I hope I did not offend. 💜

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    1. Jodi, you couldn’t offend me if you tried, no worries at all. I really struggle with this, maybe more than anything else I’m doing with abstract stuff so please don’t apologize! We are, once again, in the same boat! 💜💛💜

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  3. I love your revised painting! That magenta is killing me! ❤ So glad that you discovered that gesso and watercolor could be a pair. 🙂 I discovered that by accident last year when I started using my dylusions spray inks as watercolor in my art journals. Blending and lifting colors is so much easier. 🙂

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  4. Hi Laura, thanks for sharing your learning process. I love gesso, I haven’t used it in a while. Time to do some experimenting. Your finished painting is dynamic.
    If I buy something online from DB, how do I make sure you get credit?

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    1. Sharon, so nice to see you! Glad you liked the painting. You’ll see more, as I try to cover all the painting fails. If you order from my black Blick button on my home page, I should get credit, but sometimes I don’t for various reasons. I can keep a lookout if I know someone’s placed an order. I appreciate you asking! Sending love out your way, really glad to see you, Sharon. ❤️

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  5. Nice, Laura. Love your curiosity. You are fearless. May be in the minority here, but really like the watercolor with one coat of gesso. The placement on the paper, the soft watercolor washes of blue, magenta and green, the illusion of flower petals at different heights – this painting draws me into it. It is subtle and serene. – Tom

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    1. Thanks so much, Tom. I actually like the “before” painting too. It is plain and simple. I may try a more complex watercolor and play a little more with the gesso and blurring the colors underneath….and just leave it at that! Thanks for your encouragement. Would be a nice experiment, and who knows where it goes? I do love the idea of not wasting good watercolor paper. :)))

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  6. I agree with Tom…the gesso covered watercolor is very appealing. On the other hand, I love the (once again) Klee-like result too.
    It’s true the digital version can help you see things you might have missed. Especially when comparing different versions. Also, I like to hold things up to the mirror.
    On the other hand, it’s really easy to over-analyze everything. Instinct is often the best guide. (K)

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    1. Thanks so much, Kerfe. Wise words. And thanks again for the Klee reference! I have flipped through a book about his work, but I’m wanting to actually try to copy one of his compositions. Thanks for the reminder. Would be a great learning experience, I’m sure.

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  7. I love how the flowers show through – this is a beautiful painting! And to think it was almost a fail! I’ve used gesso with watercolours before but its always been kind of experimental – your writing about your process has made it that much clearer to me. Perhaps I’ll use it more boldly in future! Thanks Laura!

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  8. I agree you are fearless while having so much fun! Way to go. Your colors are always interesting and vibrant. I have heard you can apply gesso to smooth paper in a sketchbook that will not take watercolor too well. I have not tried it but I have some gesso in my supplies..I just need to try doing it!

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    1. I hope you do, Carmel, and let us know what happens. I’m tempted to do this too now you’ve suggested it. I have a light-duty sketchbook that can take a light watercolor wash but it buckles a little. Would be interesting to see what would happen if I gessoed one of those pages. If I do this, I’ll let you know!

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    1. Thanks, C! I have never tried covering a wc painting with gesso and re-trying – have you done this? I know you like to use gesso in your paintings, and they’re beautiful, but I’d never tried actually covering an old painting and having another go before.

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  9. I love your experimentation Laura and you must like to live on the edge because a lot of people stay stuck on the familiar road. 🙂 Your painting reminds me of a trellis in a garden with flowers popping through and I thought of church, of all things! so funny, gives me a sense of happiness and warmth. Keep them coming!

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    1. Teresa, I’m glad to hear you say that because no one is ever going to get “perfect lessons” here, no sirree! I had no idea one could paint watercolor over gesso. Did you know this? It is probably common knowledge to most artists. I don’t think of water and plastic being able to mix. Glad you enjoyed it!

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    1. Jean, I’m so glad you do! I know abstracts aren’t really your thing, but they’re a great way to learn a new medium. Experiments have taught me more than trying to paint something specific ever has. With a lot less frustration! 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Jill! Did you know you can paint over gesso, and save a watercolor fail from the trash can? I never knew this. Which is why I shared. Hoping to spread some info around for next month, as I’m quite sure I’ll have more than enough watercolor fails to use this technique (and I already have a whole bunch). I really don’t like to waste good watercolor paper. I hope you’re having a nice weekend!

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      1. I’ve used gesso on watercolor paper as texture and painted watercolor on top and then buffed it with a soft cloth. But I haven’t used it as a start over base. Sounds interesting. Does it change the absorbency of the watercolor? 😄

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        1. It’s much easier to lift and correct. I guess if you wanted it to be permanent you’d need to seal it because I bet I could remove most of this painting right now if I wanted. For me, was cool to find out! I’m enjoying mixing AC and WC when I can or it makes sense. It’s helping me enjoy WC more.

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