Painting Project: Sea Texture in Gesso

The challenge of this project is to use gesso to create texture in a seascape, to add an extra layer of mark making to the painting. The texture is used to enhance the sense of movement in the sea, of waves rippling, breaking or crashing on the shore.

Using white gesso gives the potential of letting paint flow into the depths of the texture and leaving the ridges white like sea foam. Also to wipe the ridges clear of paint, or drybrush over just the tips of the texture.

I used a silicone tool to create the stripes in the gesso, which is why there’re so uniformly spaced.

Because gesso is hard to remove once it’s dry (short of taking sandpaper to it), this technique requires a bit of planning of your composition so you don’t end up with texture in an undesired spot, or texture that contradicts what the colour is doing (the subject). You can, of course, add more, but because white gesso is opaque* it will hide what you’ve already painted. (*Transparent gesso does exist.)

Reference Photos for this Painting Project:
I’ve chosen three photos, and encourage you to create a composition that takes elements from all rather than work from one photo only. They’re photos I think have interesting wave patterns and shapes, strong lights and darks, with a sense of waves marching to shore but also a lot of interest in the shallow water. All three photos were taken on the coast nearest to me in Aberdeenshire, at Gardenstown and the rocky bay a bit further east.

• Acrylic gesso or primer (i.e. water-based gesso not oil-based primer). Acrylic texture pastes will also work, but may not dry to a surface absorbent enough for watercolour to stick
• A coarse-haired brush or similar to apply the gesso, something that will leave brushmarks in the gesso
• A sheet of watercolour or acrylic painting paper
• Watercolours and/or acrylic paint/ink
• Water in a spray bottle to encourage paint to spread (optional)
• Paper towel to wipe unwanted paint from the ridges of the texture

Start by doing a loose sketch in pencil or pen of your composition, where the shore is, where the waves are. Think about the direction of movement of the water, and how you’ll convey this through marks in the gesso. Maybe sketch the directions in with a pencil before you apply the gesso so the decisions have been made before you start applying it. Gesso doesn’t dry instantly, so you’ve a little time to rework it, but don’t take too long. A coarse-haired brush works well, but don’t use a good one as gesso is hard on brushes. What kind of marks will you make on the shore, whether it’s sand or pebbles? Might you leave some of this area without gesso?

Leave the gesso to dry, because you don’t want to flatten any of the texture by painting over it before it’s dry. It can be hard to see what’s where when using white gesso on white paper, but if you hold it at an angle to the light you’ll see it better. A workaround is to first paint the paper a colour, leave this to dry and then apply the white gesso, which will then show clearly. (I prefer not to do this because the degree of uncertainty in not quite being able to make out where I applied the gesso adds a sense of discovery and energy as I respond to what’s revealed and where the paint goes.)

Start with fluid or watery paint, not thick, so it spreads out into the crevices and dips in the gesso texture. While this paint is still wet, flick in some darker and/or lighter colours; the splatter will spread slightly where it hits damp areas and remain as hard edges dots of paint on dry areas. Tilt the sheet of paper to encourage drips to run in various directions. Use paper towel to remove paint from the tops of texture ridges and soak up excessive puddles of paint.

Consider the lights and darks in the sea, which bits of water are darker and which lighter (use the reference photos for this information). Watch out for every area being the same colour and/or tone.

When you get to a point you think you’re happy, or get frustrated, lie the sheet of paper flat and let the paint dry. This will encourage any still-wet paint to settle into the grooves. When it’s dry, take a look at the ridges of the texture and consider whether you want to try to remove any paint from these (a bit of aggressive rubbing with a damp piece of paper towel usually does the job for me, but be careful!) or use a dry brush to apply paint to the ridges only (that is a brush with only a little stiff paint on it, held quite horizontal to the surface and pulled across so it just touches or tickles the ridges).

REMEMBER: If you’d like personal help with creating your project painting and/or a critique on your finished painting, this is available to all my project subscribers via my Patreon site. Have fun, and remember to send me a photo of your painting for inclusion in the project gallery for us all to enjoy or share it in the Community Section of my Patreon site.

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