Get to Know Gesso

American Watercolor Advisor Bev Jozwiak shows you how to incorporate gesso into your watercolor paintings for a textured, muted effect.

For some of my watercolor paintings, I have been adding white gesso to my watercolor paints. The effect looks like gouache, giving the paintings a dulled down, muted effect. You can see the results in Red Ribbon, Pink Roses.

watermedia painting, figure painting
“Red Ribbon, Pink Roses” (watercolor and gesso on paper, 22 x 17 in.)
What Is Gesso?

Gesso is an acrylic-based white paint, which can be used as a traditional primer on many painting surfaces, including paper. Combined with watercolor, it can be used to create a toned underpainting, and to add a bit of texture to your watercolor painting.

How Is Gesso Different From Gouache?

Gouache is a water-based, water-soluble, opaque white paint. The difference between gouache and gesso is that gesso, once dry, can be worked over, whereas gouache remains forever soluble so, once dry, it has to be left as is. For that reason, it’s best to add gouache at the end of the painting, while gesso can be added at any time during your process.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. How do you seal a watercolor painting that has gesso as its base? I painted gesso on a canvas and then used watercolor over it.

  2. Hi Bev, I love the spontaneous approach, composition and color. Uncertain about your use of gesso , are you meaning using it prior to painting with watercolor? Like the blue will give it a shot, I am returning to w.c. after working with cold wax and oil, goal being painting in your style so thanks for sharing. Dottie

    • Sorry it took me so long to answer. I never saw this till now. No I don’t use the gesso as a primer before hand. I just dip my brush (make sure and use an old one) into a container of gesso, and apply it straight, sometimes very thickly, and sometimes mixed into a wet puddle. Both are interesting. You can paint back over the gesso once dried if you want. If you don’t like what you just did, you can scrap back out to the original white gesso. Have fun.

  3. I tried this recently and really really like it. To Dottie: mix color with the gesso. It also works well for doing an underpainting with pastels, since the gesso has some texture. “Clear gesso” has even more texture, and dries almost clear.

    I wonder if using gesso disqualifies a painting as “watercolor.”

    • Hi Chris,

      It can still qualify as a watercolor, as long as it is still predominately watercolor. There are a couple big shows that don’t let you use any other mediums, so if you are entering shows, really read the prospectus. Watercolor West, and Transparent Watercolor Society of America come to mind, for two that do NOT let you use other mediums.

  4. To clarify…
    How Is Gesso Different From Gouache?

    Gouache is a water-based, water-soluble, opaque white paint. Whereas Gesso is an acrylic base.
    The difference between gouache and gesso is that gesso, once dry, can NOT be worked over, whereas gouache remains forever soluble so, once dry, it can be reworked. For that reason, it’s best to add gesso at the end of the painting, while gouache can be added at any time during your process.

  5. Interesting ‘out of the box’ technique! I’m not watercolor ‘purist’ either and it’s nice to see some imagination in use of materials to achieve various effects! Bravo! I love your composition & color here too, very nice.

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