How to use gesso with your drawings

Mixed media drawing is a fun approach to experiment with in your sketchbook.

If your work feels a little neutral or you just aren’t interested in your current process of sketching – then increased experimentation with what you’re sketching on and what you’re sketching with will help you take your work into a more enjoyable direction.

Embracing moments of unpredictability and thinking unconventionally will help.

Sketching and painting don’t have to be separate worlds from each other.

In other words: Paint like your sketch and sketch-like you paint. Treat a brush loaded with paint the same way as you would a sharpened pencil.

In this lesson, I’m not going to tell you how to use mediums in the right “academic” way.

Why?

Because it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you sketch with blue paint right out of the tube on top of a pre-existing sketch done in charcoal. It doesn’t matter if you use both graphite and pen in one sketch.

You make the rules.

You don’t have to label your work or define yourself by your medium. Just sketch with whatever medium you want and sketch on any creative surface you want.

SKETCH ON COLORED PAPER

To break through any sketching ruts or change your sketching approach it helps to stay away from white paper. Dark colors can be great for sketching on with lighter sketching mediums. Also, medium-toned paper can help too. Grays and tans are also great because they’re not too dark and not too light.

They’ll tell your mind that you don’t have to “fill-in” the paper. Rather, pull out a sketch.

EMBRACE TEXTURED PAPER

You’ll discover all kinds of textured paper in art stores. Some are meshy, some are smooth on one side with bumps on the other; some are fibrous and handmade with thread and tissue intertwined within the paper pulp.

But the most interesting kinds of textured paper are the kind you make on your own.

This is a sketching surface I created by laying gesso on top of old oil pastel sketches (which is where most of the color is coming from). Lightly sanding creates a smooth surface. I also added a purple watercolor wash to the top of the paper for added interest. This makes your final sketches more interesting, rather than starting with a completely white page every time you sit down to sketch. Sometimes I'll spend a few days just creating these surfaces so I have many to choose from later.

As we get into the realm of making your own sketching surfaces, we’re going to keep the mindset we had in the multiple imaging lesson. Which is to stay with a sketch no matter how much we sketch on it.

Typically, when you sketch, you sketch in bursts or sessions. Sometimes your multiple image sketches will be a product of dozens of sketching sessions over the course of a few days – recording all your sketches on just a few sheets of paper.

In other words, you could have 12 surfaces that you keep sketching on for an extended period of time. This way you’re re-visiting a sketch with different mindsets and moods. Giving each piece a history.

The process of creating interesting sketching surfaces starts with any kind of thicker paper or surface. Think cardboard, Canson or Strathmore papers, or thick framing matte boards.

NOTE: It’s up to you, but you can do this AS you’re sketching or BEFORE. By simply gessoing over sketches you feel aren’t working and continuing to sketch.

I'm creating a textured sketching surface as I'm sketching on this thick black paper. Adding gesso to this sketching as I'm creating it. Rather than creating a full textured surface before sketching on it.

There is a joy – a wonderful visual discovery and exploration – that takes place when you sketch on something that starts to develop different layers. Creating depth with colors, textures, marks, and irregularities of its own.

You can fully embrace this technique by gessoing thicker surfaces and adding watercolor or ink washes to the gesso.

You’ll also notice that when you add gesso on top of an old sketch where you used color pastels, the color will bleed through to create an even more interesting surface.

Old sketches will peak through the gesso or be partially covered up. Adding depth to your sketches.

The three sketches above are by Corny Cole. Notice how he creates mixed media layers as he creates these life sketches over the span of days and weeks.

I created this sketch in a black sketchbook. Adding gesso and watercolor washes to create an interesting surface over an older sketch.

KEY POINTS

  • Creating an interesting sketching surface before or during your sketching process can take the pressure off creating a “perfect” sketch.
  • Mixing different sketching surfaces and mediums as you sketch can take your sketches in a totally new direction.
  • You don’t have to ONLY sketch or ONLY paint, you can mix them together.

ACTION STEPS

  1. Create multiple image sketches on gray or black paper. Gradually adding gesso or sketching with at least three different mediums.
  2. Gesso, sand, and use watercolor or ink washes to create a textured sketching surface before you even sketch on it.