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