Can You Paint With Watercolor Over Gesso?

Watercolor is a unique style of art that relies on a mixture of water and ground pigment to create a light and transparent-looking painting. Since these paints are water-based, you may wonder whether you can paint with them over a layer of gesso, a typical canvas-paint primer. 

You can paint with watercolor over gesso. Doing so will give your watercolor painting a textured look, which can add a whole new visual layer to the art. Gesso comes in an assortment of shades (white, black, and transparent) and will soak the watercolor pigments to set them on the paper.

The remainder of this article will discuss how to use gesso, its benefits, and the various alternatives you can use. Let’s get to it: Can You Paint With Watercolor Over Gesso?

The Hows and Whys of Gesso

Gesso is a paint primer that you can apply to the surface you’re painting on. It works best on canvases, but artists can also use it on watercolor paper– it creates another layer to absorb the pigment from the paint. Gesso can be used as a primer for all paint mediums and is especially useful with oil-based paints. 

How Do I Use Gesso?

Using gesso is a lot like painting with acrylics– you need a short, wide paintbrush (the one I like to use is the Pro Grade PaintbrushOpens in a new tab. from, which is heavy duty and comfortable to handle). 

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You’ll also need a tube or jar of primer and a painting surface. You can also buy these items at your local art supply store or online. Before using gesso, you should prepare your art supplies, which should include the following: 

  • Palette
  • Palette knife
  • Tape 
  • Other tools you need 

Here’s how to use the gesso:

  1. Lie your watercolor paper flat or prop up your canvas. 
  2. Pour the gesso right onto the painting surface and use your flat paint brush to smooth it across. You could also pour some primer into your palette or directly onto the brush, but you will get the most use by putting it directly onto the painting surface.
  3. Apply at least two layers to ensure the entire paper is covered. 
  4. Allow the gesso to dry before paintingOpens in a new tab.

Why Should I Use Gesso?

There are numerous benefits to using gesso before you paint. Many store-bought canvases are pre-primed before selling, but watercolor paper isn’t. This means that adding a layer of primer onto your surface will give the watercolor pigment more to soak into. 

Another great benefit of gesso is that it can create a three-dimensional look to your painting or, at the very least, it will add texture. 

You can even sculpt the primer to be thicker in some areas of the paper and thinner in others. For that, a palette knife is a great tool; however, you can also use objects you have around the home, like toothpicks, fork handles, or even a pencil to create patterns and shapes in the primer.

Gesso is water-soluble, meaning it dissolves in water. This means that you can thin your gesso with small amounts of water to create a shinier layer for painting. Not only that, but watercolor takes a little bit longer to bind to gesso, so this means that you can wipe away mistakes a few times before the pigment begins to really stain. 

Gesso Alternatives

If you don’t have gesso, have no fear– there are a few alternatives. 

The most recommended alternatives to this primer are regular acrylic primers or rabbit skin glue. Acrylic primer is easy to use, but it doesn’t have quite the same effect as gesso does; it simply acts as a layer between the surface and the paint. 

If you are not a vegan and would be happy to use materials made popular during the Reinnasance, keep on reading. Rabbit skin glue (RSG) takes a little preparation since it needs to be warmed to use. It comes in granules that turn to liquid when heated.

To use it, you need to place a durable container of RSG into boiling water until the granules melt, and then use a brush to apply. Some craft stores may sell rabbit skin glue, but it can be hard to come by. Williamsburg 16oz Rabbit Skin GlueOpens in a new tab. (available on It comes in a recyclable brown bag and is easy to prepare. 

However, you can also make gesso with a few simple ingredients from home if you don’t have access to RSG or acrylic primer.

The ingredients you’ll need to make your gesso are:

  • Talcum powder
  • Water 
  • White acrylic paint
  • Elmer’s glue

Here’s how to make gesso: 

  1. Mix ¼ cup of talcum powder with one tablespoon of paint and one glue. The amount of water you need to use depends on how thick you want your gesso to be.
  2. Mix the water into the other ingredients in small increments. Once you’ve achieved the desired consistency, you can use a paintbrush to apply the homemade gesso onto your paper.
  3. You can use matte gels and mediums instead of primer. Like the other options, they won’t have quite the same effect as traditional gesso but will provide that extra layer of protection between the canvas and the paint. Liquitex Matte MediumOpens in a new tab. (available on will create a more solid, matte finish, while Liquitex Basic Gel MediumOpens in a new tab. (also available on gives a much glossier finish.
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Another similar and practical primer that can be added to (or used instead of) gesso is watercolor ground. The watercolor ground is composed of various acrylic primers and absorbs the pigmentation from watercolor paints just as effectively as regular gesso does. 

Apply watercolor ground to your painting surface in a similar fashion to gesso, using a wide paintbrush. Additionally, you can gently sand watercolor ground to achieve a smoother texture.

Final Words

You can easily use watercolor paints over a gessoed surface. The primer can add details to your painting that may not have been achieved without the appropriate texturization. Using different tools when applying gesso is an excellent way to practice sculpting the liquid, and a number of alternatives exist in case you can’t get your hands on standard gesso. 

With all these helpful tips in mind, you should have no problem with watercolor painting over gesso! 

Karlyn Yellowbird GalleryOpens in a new tab.
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Caraca's self-taught artist based in the UK, Ines explores unconventional materials and sustainability.

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