A Watercolorist’s Use for Gesso

Q. I heard that the white gesso commonly used to prepare stretched canvases comes in many colors. Is this true and if so, what could a watermedia artist use gesso for? Can you mix gesso and watercolor?

A. Yes, you can mix gesso with watercolor; anything watersoluble will mix with watercolors. And let me tell you how exciting these new gesso colors are! I ordered a sample kit from Holbein with around 12 assorted colors and decided to try them out in the background of a painting. My goal was a background very dark in value. The result is Magic of the Night (pictured). Here’s the process I went through.

After completing a preliminary sketch, I painted Pebeo masking fluid all over the leaves on the grapevine and wires to protect the white of the paper. Knowing these areas were protected with the masking fluid, I could then concentrate on my background only.

I painted my background with the gesso colors, painting the gesso right over the masked out leaves. When the gesso was dry, I peeled off the masking fluid and painted the leaves with my watercolors. The gesso is very thick and while painting it over the leaves, I hadn’t noticed that it accidentally took off some of the masking. What a happy accident that was! I hadn’t planned any of the texture that you see in the leaves. Nor did I have any of the background sketched out; as I began to use more gesso with different brushstrokes, leaves began appearing in the background! It was so much fun! Try it.

While maintaining a career as an architect, Ratindra Das has quietly developed a niche in art. Primarily self-taught, he took classes at Chicago’s Academy of American Art, then studied with many nationally known artists, such as Irving Shapiro, Frank Webb, Robert E. Wood, Cheng-Khee Chee, Serge Hollerbach and Phil Austin. He’s on the faculties of Penenisula Art Door in Door County, Wisconsin, and LaGrange Art League, LaGrange, Illinois. Das is a signature member of several watercolor societies, including the American Watercolor Society and the National Watercolor Society. His work has appeared in numerous competitive exhibitions and can be found in numerous corporate and private collections. Now based in Wheaton, Illinois, he’s represented by the Blue Dolphin House and Gallery (Ephraim, Wisconsin) and the Proud Fox (St. Charles, Illinois).

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