Do you need gesso for watercolor? (You might be surprised)

It would only make sense to consider using it for watercolor as well, since it is often used as a primer for acrylic and oil paintings. Would this make sense for watercolor?

If you are painting on watercolor paper, you do not need gesso. However, it could smooth the surface even more than hot pressed paper could. On other surfaces such as canvas, wooden panels, etc., an absorbent ground would make more sense, since it creates a similar effect to watercolor paper.

When does gesso make sense for paper?

Essentially, watercolor paper does not require gesso. Since this type of paper has already been primed and prepared for watercolor painting, gessoing isn’t necessary.

However, there are still some cases where gesso makes sense.

The surface that you can create with Gesso can be customized quite a bit. Hot-pressed watercolor paper already has a smooth surface.

With gesso, you can create one that is even smoother. If you apply a thin coat with a fine brush and let it sit for a few minutes, you can create a surface that is similar to printer paper.

The same principle applies in the other direction as well. For example, you can apply a thicker coat of gesso and disturb it with unprocessed, rough wood or cling film.

Your paper will become very textured, which will, in turn, naturally add depth to your painting.

Sketchbooks are often made from thinner paper that doesn’t absorb water as well, so they can be primed with gesso as well.

Keep in mind that it will make your sketchbook thicker, the more pages you paint on, as gesso practically creates another layer onto the paper.

If you run out of watercolor paper to paint on, you could also try gessoing printer paper, but I would not recommend it.

I’d rather choose watercolor paper over printer paper since it is too thin to absorb gesso properly, so it might tear.

Likewise, some people experience watercolor paper that tears rather quickly, in which case gesso can definitely help, as it creates a strong, non-absorbent surface to paint upon.

You should be fine without gesso if you are using the right paper and not creating puddles of water on it. It is recommended to purchase 300g/sm paper, as it is affordable and can handle thick layers of paint.

If you’d like to find out how many layers of paint watercolor paper can handle, click here.

The benefits of gessoing alternative surfaces when watercoloring

For people that like to paint on wooden panels or canvases, gesso will absolutely be a game changer.

You can’t watercolour on a normal canvas or wood. The canvas won’t be able to soak up the water, and the wood won’t be able to properly show the colors at all.

With thick coats of gesso, you’re basically creating a secondary surface to paint on. This will make the paint stick better and display the colors correctly

If you’d like to paint on an easel with watercolors, you should read this article first.

If you prefer painting on canvas, there are better options, though. For instance, you could purchase a specially designed canvas for watercolor painting. 

Since they are primed with an absorbent ground in the production process, they will be able to absorb the water and its pigments much better than a gessoed canvas ever could.

On the subject of absorbent grounds, let me suggest a better alternative to gesso.


Is there a better substitute for gesso for watercolors?

Gesso is an excellent primer for acrylics and oils, but watercolor requires a different primer due to its unique characteristics.

The problem with gesso is that it’s very bad at absorbing water, which defeats a lot of the purpose of watercolor, which works best on absorbent surfaces like paper.

That’s why there is an alternative of an absorbent ground. It is applied in the same way as gesso, but it delivers watercolor in a completely different way.

Its ability to absorb water will amplify the color pigments in a way that gesso cannot.

While it’s more expensive and doesn’t work with acrylics and oils as well as regular gesso, I think that it would be a better alternative, which I will get to now.

Is laminating an option to protect your watercolor painting? You might be surprised.

watercolor brushes and paints on a table

Watercolor paintings on gesso: how to care of them

It is important to remember that gesso only creates a surface to paint on. It does not protect the painting itself.

There are different ways to do this.

You could frame the painting as you normally would, in order to protect it from dust, humidity, and other types of damage.

However, you have to keep in mind that the painting needs to be spaced off the glass so that mold won’t grow between them.

For more information about framing watercolor paintings, click here.

Another option would be to varnish the painting.

In watercolor art, this method is rather unusual, while acrylic and oil painting use it rather frequently.

However, it can still be useful if you wish to protect something that hangs outside, such as a sign painted on gessoed wood. 

I’ve seen this before and it works pretty well. Paintings are protected from humidity and dust but still retain their true colors thanks to the coating.


Gesso can be useful when you want a rougher or smoother surface than normal watercolor paper can provide. In addition to painting on paper, one can also use it to paint on wood or traditional canvas, while for watercolor, an absorbent ground would be the better choice.

2 thoughts on “Do you need gesso for watercolor? (You might be surprised)”

  1. Pingback: Can you use printer paper for watercolor painting? - What a colour

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