Experimental Methods

This Page is continually being added to, as and when new ideas come up.

  1. GESSO

A “ground” is simply a base or starting-point made from paint or primer for your painting. Usually we use a simple plain sheet of watercolour paper (the “substrate”) with no ground on it. By adding a coat or two of gesso as a “ground”, we can change the behaviour of the watercolour and open up different ways of controlling it on the paper surface.

Take any sheet of reasonable-weight watercolour paper. By that I mean at least 140lb/300gsm. Ideally a cold-pressed/NOT sheet will provide the surface required, without ruining a nice rough-texture piece or a smooth botanical one. Next, stretch your paper using your usual method. It will, in any case, need to be held down on all edges in order to apply the gesso.

Allow to dry and ensure the sheet is quite flat and without wrinkles. Next, using a wide brush (2 inches/5cm is ideal; or larger) apply white acrylic gesso straight from the tub or bottle. You can use a damp brush to do this, but don’t add too much water otherwise the coating will be thin. Leave this to dry.

Add a further coat and a third if wished. Ensure that the dimples in the paper are fully filled, but not with thick application (not for this exercise, anyway). Leave to dry fully; several hours is good and if you can, leave till the next day. I have also found that adding a thin gesso coat to the reverse of the paper afterwards sometimes help to keep it flatter.

In the case of the work done here, gesso was applied smoothly, for all layers.

Now we have reached the picture stage. You can paint whatever you want, but in this exercise we will be using the wipe-away technique to create shapes. I am using my sheet for a landscape with clouds.

My guideline was a photo taken locally, which had some good cloud formations. My first step was to mix a suitable blue colour for the sky and apply it to the gessoed paper. In this case it was ultramarine blue. The mix will require a reasonable amount of water, since the gessoed surface tends to “drag” on the brush a little. By using a wide wash brush or a hake brush, the colour can be spread fairly evenly; but it will not be such a smooth application as if it had been done directly onto untreated paper. You may prefer to try it out on a spare piece first; however, if it does go wrong the whole thing can be wiped away….as follows.

If your wash hasn’t gone on as nicely as you wanted, take a soft cotton rag (one that doesn’t shed bits of fluff), wet it and then just wipe away the whole thing. It will lift off and leave a virtually clean white surface. You can use a paper towel as well, but those tend to leave bits which must be removed afterwards. Once done, leave to dry a little and then try again….you could say rinse and repeat. If you prefer it to be completely white to start again with, then paint an extra gesso layer and leave to dry.

Now, let’s go with our new sky blue wash and decide the next stage. I take the fluff-free cloth again and dampen it, then select an area of the blue wash to press it down upon. With several gentle wiping motions I can lift away the blue colour to leave a near-white patch. Repeat again nearby, and again, to create a bank of cumulus clouds. Leave to dry.

While this is drying we can create some kind of simple landscape to go with the clouds. Choose any suitable mixes; blue plus yellow for various greens; or a brown-orange, for example. I used a greenish yellow such as aureolin, on its own for the first “pass”, then added a blue and allowed them to mix on the paper in their own way. Darker colours were added as the first ones dried.

The beauty of painting on gesso is that you can take your damp cloth and touch it on any section of that landscape to create new marks or lift the colour. The water will “creep” on the gesso surface in places and create new shapes; and if you don’t like them then they can be simply wiped off. When applying the watercolour, you can never be too sure what the final effect will be, due to the random nature of the gesso application. Even my smooth application created unexpected effects and marks.

Back to the clouds; and I have added a mauve-grey from a mix of permanent alizarin crimson plus french ultramarine, watering it down to adjust the tone. This colour is added to the white wiped out areas to give shadows. By adjusting the colour, wiping and re-positioning, the shapes of clouds can be built up.

If you try to add a fresh colour wash to the sky, you need to do it with a broad brush and do it quickly; the first layers will react to the water and lift off completely if you press too hard or use too much water.

Overall, it isn’t easy to create strong dark colours with this method; they tend to dull down and dry rather matt. By starting with a good strong colour mix you stand a better chance of laying down a decent-looking colour first go.

Beach Clouds; 8 x 3.5 inches (20×9 cm approx). Watercolour on gessoed mountboard

This particular picture was done on a gessoed piece of mountboard…the same type that you use for framing paintings. It is acid-free and provides a firm base for painting; it’s a bit cheaper than purpose-made multimedia boards and you don’t have to stretch it!

In this one you can see the brush marks of the gesso application. which adds extra texture to the image.

You can use gesso on surfaces other than watercolour paper. Mountboard has been mentioned. You can try various cards (make sure you don’t add too much water in the process); the thicker the better. You could even be really cheapskates and try gesso on brown cardboard (remember it isn’t acid-free). Some people have used mdf panels (I didn’t get on too well with those, for this watercolour exercise). There are watercolour boards available from art suppliers, they are sturdy but pricey. Use the reverses of old failed watercolour paintings, just paint gesso on the back.

I’ve also occasionally gessoed pieces of pastelmat card after a few failed pastel pictures. Just brush off the pastel, or wash it off in water and leave to dry; then paint with gesso. Some colour may get into the gesso; you either leave it or paint gesso over it again when dry. However, don’t soak the pastelmat card too heavily or submerge it; the card can begin to delaminate. Colorfix is also ok for this treatment; but not Sennelier card; it definitely does NOT like getting wet!

So far we’ve applied gesso smoothly. But you don’t have to. You can apply a thicker layer and create textures. It’s advisable to try this first of all on something firmer than watercolour paper, such as mountboard. Once dry, watercolour can be brushed over it. It will collect in the various dimples and grooves but can still be wiped off if required.

You can use fluid acrylics and inks also, but these cannot be lifted from the gesso surface once dry. In addition, gesso should not be applied too thickly or else it may crack.


Designed for use with pastels, but in fact PastelMat card can take wet media. Similarly so can Art Spectrum Colorfix. These surfaces will be a challenge for watercolour washes because the water spreads rapidly and almost uncontrollably. The finely grained surface of the papers encourages quick diffusion.

Select white or a very pale colour in these ranges. Being designed for pastel work, the cards will handle pencils, coloured pencil and pastel-pencil very well, thus allowing for a variety of combinations with watermedia. You can draw first and place washes afterwards, or do both at the same time. Remember that any wash-work may creep over your pencil-lines and diffuse them away; how can it be controlled?

A damp cloth will lift away most coloured wash that may be invading areas where you don’t want it; however, even after doing so, those washes will continue creeping….be alert and don’t relax until the thing is dry.

Wash diffusion on these surfaces behaves rather differently than when on watercolour paper and the final effect is like fine coloured grains.

“Bottle and Apple” was firstly drawn in Conte pastel pencil on white PastelMat. I had not planned to add watercolour, but partway through the work decided to try it. It seems to work very nicely for glass objects.

Polyanthus (below) was also started in Conte pastel pencil on white pastelMat. It accepted a strong wash of dark crimson with purple very well and permitted extra markings to be made on top in pastel-pencil, for the floral centres. The colour does tend to dry back a little matt.

I wouldn’t suggest trying PastelMat/Colourfix for watercolour work unless you’ve had a little experience with the medium on ordinary watercolour paper. It really is quite difficult to control, although not too onerous to remove unwanted “bleeds”.

This daffodil picture was firstly drawn in lightly with Conte pastel pencil. I should have really laid in the background colours first, but didn’t; subsequently suffered from dark colour bleeding across lines into the pale yellow petals. Much of it was tidied up using a damp brush and tiny piece of kitchen towel.

Aureolin and Gamboge were employed for the daffodil yellows, with light overwashes of green created from both yellows plus cerulean blue or cobalt. The plant stems were painted with the same greens and darkened with a blue such as ultramarine. However, once the deep mauve mixes were added in for background, some of this bled into and over the stem lines, creating extra small patterns.

A little extra shading was applied with Polychromos coloured pencil, to the daffodil trumpets and petal bases; and watersoluble NeoColor 2 was stroked over the daffodil petals (Lemon Yellow). A pale green neoColor was employed in a few of the petals’ shadowy areas and the central trumpet….and that was it. Leave it well alone and call it finished.

Note that all the media mentioned here—watercolour, coloured pencils, Conte pastel pencil and Neocolor 2—are compatible with the Pastelmat surface.

More to come as “playtime” permits.

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