Video Demonstration: How to Gesso Paper

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July Cottonwood, oil on gessoed paper, 5 x 7.

Paper is one of my favorite types of surfaces to paint on. It’s inexpensive, it’s lightweight and portable — which is great for plein air painting — and it comes in different textures. But before any paper is ready for oil paint, it must be gessoed first. I’ll discuss the requirements for the weight of the paper and details about paper texture. Then I’ll demonstrate the actual gessoing in a short video.

Note: As with any studio method, it’s always advisable to do some preliminary experiments. Although I’ve gone into great detail, there are many variables that you may need to become familiar with. Please don’t try this for the first time the day before your plein air adventure!

Also, many readers have questions about how to frame works on paper. That topic is covered in this post: Framing Options for Paintings on Unstretched Canvas or Paper.

Paper weight

When you apply gesso to paper, it will wrinkle and warp as the paper’s fibers expand. If you use a heavy enough paper, it will flatten out nicely as it dries. But if the paper is too light, it will never dry completely flat. For this reason I recommend at least 140 lb. paper. I like watercolor paper because it is acid-free and archival and it comes in this convenient 140 lb. weight. It also comes in blocks. You can gesso individual sheets while they are still attached to the block (see video), or you can peel off sheets as you need them. Paper heavier than 140 lb. is also good, but will likely cost more. Note:  When gessoed, sheets that are 8″ x 10″ or smaller will usually dry entirely flat. With pieces larger than that, there is a greater chance that they will not dry completely flat.

Paper Texture

Different textures of paper will feel different under your brush. Think of the difference between painting on canvas versus painting on a panel, for example. So it’s worth experimenting with smooth and textured papers to see which one you prefer. Watercolor paper comes in hot press (smooth) or cold press (textured). Personally, I prefer a paper that has some texture or tooth. I like it when my painting surface “speaks back to me” as I apply my strokes.

Brands of paper: Arches watercolor paper is a very high quality, well known brand, but very expensive. You can find much more affordable brands of watercolor blocks at any good art supply store or at online retailers.

Although I’ve mentioned watercolor paper several times, you don’t have to use watercolor paper. Any archival paper that is heavy enough — and has a texture you like — will work fine.

Sizing the paper

When it comes to choosing the size of your paper, you have two options.

  1. Trim out specific sized pieces from a larger sheet of paper. This is more work because it requires lots of measuring, squaring, and trimming with a matte knife. Plus, you’ll need to tape each piece down to a panel for gessoing. (See video.)
  2. Use pre-sized sheets from a pad or watercolor block. This is the easier option. Watercolor paper comes in blocks. The edges are sealed all around, so you can gesso the sheets while they are still attached to the block, and then slice the sheet off the block when it is fully dry. The blocks come in standard sizes like 6″ x 8″, 8″ x 10″, and 9″ x 12″. You can also cut the 9″ x 12″ sheets in half for a  9″ x 6″ surface.

Video: How to gesso paper

Runtime: 6:16

If you are having trouble seeing it here, watch it at YouTube.

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About Author

Mitchell Albala is a Seattle-based painter known for his semi-abstract and atmospheric landscapes. His book, "Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice," is a national bestseller with nearly 37,000 copies in print. Mitchell is also a popular workshop instructor at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Pacific Northwest Art School, Winslow Art Center, Daniel Smith Artist’s Materials, and Arte Umbria in Italy. He has lectured on Impressionism and landscape painting at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines. His popular painting blog, which serves as a companion to his book, was awarded #12 on feedspot.com’s Top 75 Painting Blogs.

9 Comments

  1. Charlotte Thibault on

    How do you attach the paper to your easel? Tape it to another panel? Thanks. Charlotte

  2. Yvonne kimbrough on

    When framing these, don’t the paintings then have to have glass over them?

  3. Mitchell thank you for the tutorial about gessoed paper usable for oil painters. My question is how does one frame the finished paper and are you worried about framing with some frames having only 1/4″ rabbit (if the paper uses the corresponding standard size frame?).
    Do you mount it to a hard board and if so can you also describe the product and process for doing so that ensures appropriate archival results? Love your work and your generous teaching moments.

  4. Mitchell Albala on

    Thanks Susan. I address most of these questions in another blog post, Framing Options for Paintings on Unstretched Canvas or Paper. This method of taping down individual pieces isn’t great if you are looking to produce precisely sized surfaces that fit just right into a standard sized frame. I’m not a big fan of frames that overlap the edges of the art anyway. I recommending matting, which looks great and makes a small work look more substantial.

  5. Mitchell Albala on

    I’ve never used oil-based gesso, so I can’t advise. But this method, which accounts for the buckling wand wrinkling of the paper because of the water-based gesso, is definitely applicable to water-based gesso.

  6. Mitchell Albala on

    Yes. In the field, I re-tape the gessoed paper to a larger canvas panel, or one of those plasticized foam core panels. I call that a “backboard”, which is also good for blocking excess sun and glare directly behind your painting. A backboard of About 11″ x 14″ or 16″ 20.”

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