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Tip: Add Some Gesso for Texture

August 30, 2017
Approximately 5 x 7 inch direct brush watercolor sketch on gessoed bookbinding board. (Daniel Smith White Gesso; Schmincke Horadam Pan Watercolors. I used perylene green, a warm and a cool red, and a little bit of golden green muck on my palette left over from something else.) I worked from a Sktchy App photo for the image in today’s post, but try it with live models as well. I sketch Dick this way all the time when we are in the TV room at night, and this is one of my favorite things to take to life drawing—because you can modify and modify as you go.

Today is a new feature I’m working on—quick tips you can use to shake up your journal practice, or even devote weeks and weeks to developing into a new style. It depends on your taste and your interest.

These will probably all be relatively simple. I encourage you to try them, and then set the pieces away and not judge them for a couple weeks. Then get out your experiments and look at them with your Fresh Eye. Do you like what you see? Do they have enough fun factor? Can you use them in your daily practice?

You might even want to make a list of pros and cons.

1 . Cut a piece of waste board if you want to work outside your journal. I used a scape of bookbinding board. (You can also do this right on your journal page.)

2. Get a large house painting brush—something that is more than 2 inches wide.

3. Get some plain, ordinary Acrylic Gesso. I recommend that you pour a little bit of gesso out of the jar onto a plastic plate or palette. Dip your brush in that when applying gesso. This will keep impurities and dirt from the brush or the air from being introduced into your your jar of gesso. Your gesso will last longer.

4. Place the scrap of board on some waste paper and then brush the gesso across the surface of the board and right off the edges so that you cover the entire board. You can used even, uniform strokes in one direction, or random strokes. It doesn’t matter. You do want to cover the entire surface with gesso.

Tip: If you are working in your journal I recommend that you put waste paper behind the spread you’re painting on so that you can stroke the gesso right off the edge of the pages of the spread. Alternately you might want to use masking tape and make a small framed area on the page to fill with strokes of gesso.

5. Let the gesso completely dry.

6. With a watercolor brush and artist quality watercolors, paint directly with your brush. Don’t worry that you aren’t drawing first. The watercolor will float on the gesso and puddle in the texture of the strokes. While it is still wet, or even after it has dried, you’ll be able to lift the color with a clean, wet brush. This aspect of painting with watercolor on gesso will make it tricky to layer colors, but if you let your layers completely dry before you add the next one and use a light motion with your brush you can do it.

7. Embrace the texture of the gesso by letting go of creating tight rendering throughout your piece. Fix on your focal point. And have fun. 

Look closely at the detail image and you will see my gesso strokes. The watercolor paint sinks down into the gesso, between the ridges of the brush stroke. Look at the horizontal stroke across the nose for instance. Also in this detail you can see that it is possible to layer over earlier layers. Best of all it’s possible to lift out color easily. (Though staining colors will leave a bit of a stain so keep that in mind when planning your palette.)

Tip: You can lift color from gessoed paper or board with any brush, but I recommend that you don’t use your fine watercolor brushes—those that are sable or even your quality synthetics. You’ll put more wear on them. Instead use your worn brushes or use a brush sold particularly for scrubbing. (They will have stiff bristles.) Wet the hairs of the brush. Squeeze the hairs between your thumb and forefinger in a paper towel. Now you have a moist brush that you can lift with. Remember to rinse it as soon as some of the color starts to life up and go into the bristles of your brush or you won’t be lifting color you’ll just be smearing it around.

Tip: If you enjoy using even more texture get out your stencils and lift paint from the background (or the main subject—your choice) by applying that moist brush through the stencil. I didn’t use that effect on today’s piece, but you can see me do that in last week’s piece with Carl. The great thing about doing this on the gessoed surface is that you can be much more cavalier towards your surface because the gesso allows you to life the color quickly and has held the color on its surface so your aren’t tearing up your paper.

I like to use this technique on my large paintings. Readers of the blog might remember this dog portrait from 2015. I had to use gesso on the paper I was using because it was like blotter and absorbed everything. Even so I only gessoed a central area where the main features would be. I changed my painting approach as I left that area and had to deal with the paper surface. I was using gouache for that image. 

Start using up those scraps of board and unlabeled paper you no longer can identify. Have some fun.

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