Why gesso?

A fellow watercolorist recently contacted me through my website to ask why I use gesso under about half my work. Others may be interested in my rationale:

I don’t put gesso on watercolor paper but on something smoother and cheaper, like BFK Rives printmaking paper. In fact I often buy damaged paper on sale, because it won’t matter by the time I’m done, so long as it’s of archival quality. I usually put 2-3 coats on the side to be painted and 1-2 on the other side, so it doesn’t curl. I just slop it on with a big wet house painting brush, though I’ve tried rolling, scraping, small brush, large brush – and I saw an article in the one of the recent magazines about stamping patterns into it while it’s still wet. I’m certainly not the only person experimenting with it, and I met someone who did a thesis project on it in the late 50s!

Here are some pros and cons:

  • Deep, intense color – the water evaporates and the pigments are sitting on a polymer coating instead of soaking into paper
  • For pictures like The Numbers series, really wet paint slides and intermixes in unpredictable ways
  • More tooth than YUPO, not ridiculously slippery
  • Easy to lift or alter (though staining pigments will never go back to white)
  • Easier to handle very large areas since they don’t have to be done in one quick pass, and the surface stays flatter. I wrapped some 76 x 51-inch pieces around live trees. They’re gesso’d and varnished – I’d never do that with watercolor on traditional paper; too big a risk they’d be ruined by moisture.
  • Possible to layer with interesting effects, e.g. a thinner layer on top of a thicker layer of paint will crawl with useful textures (see the sky in Iterated Cranes)
  • Possible to rub back in with a damp rag for an almost fresco surface (and why I like to brush rather than roller the gesso). See the sky in The Joints of Cranes or Across the Water.
  • Makes a strong presentation when mounted on panel and spray varnished, rather than traditional matting and glazing. Equal in presence to an oil painted canvas on the wall.

On the other hand:

  • it’s harder to get soft edges and transitions
  • it’s hard to impossible to get smooth washes
  • the pieces are more fragile until varnished
  • the process wears down brushes faster. I keep 2 sets, one for gesso and one for watercolor paper.
  • it takes more prep time, so it’s a little less spontaneous.
  • I’ve experimented with partial gesso, but haven’t found it to be very noticeable.
"Industrial Midway" at Centennial Gallery, Kent WA

"Industrial Midway" three 40 x 26 gesso'd panels mounted on wood cradles and varnished.


2 comments on “Why gesso?

  1. Kate Dougherty says:

    Quite an impressive piece Suze; love those night paintings. Curious as to what kind of adhesive you use to mount the paper to the panel? Also, do you varnish before or after
    you mount them?

    • Suze Woolf says:

      Thanks for the compliment!
      I haven’t been doing the mounting myself, I’ve been taking them to Plasteel Frames in Seattle. They have someone with a “secret sauce” adhesive they swear by. I will occasionally varnish myself, but only a very small piece and outdoors, I don’t have a great studio environment for spraying anything. I am almost certain they are varnished before they are mounted. You wouldn’t want overspray to hit the painted sides of the panel unevenly.

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