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prepare you paper before painting with watercolor or oil pastels

Preparing your paper for oil pastels, watercolor and mixed media. A comparison between clear gesso and gel medium

I am working on a series of life drawings that I made in our weekly life drawing class ( You can visit our North Vancouver life drawing class website here). I like to keep the original drawings and then paint over them or use pastels.


I also want the product I am using to prep my paper to be somewhat translucent so I can see the drawing underneath.

You might also be interested in: An alternative to Yupo paper: Gel medium on regular paper.

I tried two ways of prepping the paper:

  • Gel medium
  • Transparent Gesso

Here are some discoveries I made along the way.

Prepping the paper:


Both gesso and gel medium are white but will dry clear.



I used a soft brush to spread the medium on  paper. Some of the brushstrokes were visible once dry, and I like this effect.


For the clear gesso, I used a stiffer brush so the brush strokes would be even more visible.


Oil pastels on paper covered in gel medium or gesso:


Sometimes, before starting to work with oil pastels, I like to outline my figures with a marker.


If you try doing that, you will notice that you can still see details like the features of the face or fingers under a light layer of light colored pastel. You could add this outline before treating the paper with gesso or gel medium, or after. Before is easier because the gritty surface of gesso makes it a bit hard to use the marker, but it is still feasible.


Pastels are thick so details like fingers would be lost otherwise.


Paper texture

Using clear gesso on the paper will give a grittier texture than gel medium. That makes it easier to use with oil pastels, although you could still use oil pastels on top of the medium painted paper.


Medium will dry with a smoother texture but you can still use oil pastels over it, but they somewhat “slide” on the medium.


Gesso has a grittier texture that is more suited to dry pastels and oil pastels. The oil pastels might make some little aggregates on the gesso, but you can brush them away easily.


What I like with oil pastels is how you get interesting rich fields of broken colors when mixing colors.


Most of the outlines will be still visible, even if lightly covered in light colored pastel.



In that example, I applied  different colors of pastels but it is difficult to get a blended color with the pastels only.


By applying baby oil with a cloth, you can blend color more easily.

Watercolor on paper covered with gel medium or gesso:

Gel medium on paper makes it more water-resistant than gesso, so the watercolor paint will dry and react a bit as it would on yupo paper, as paper painted over with gesso is more reminiscent of hot press paper.


Paint on paper painted over with gel medium will react a bit like yupo paper, the colors are mixing wet into wet and the paint will dry with lots of textures.


On paper painted with gel medium, most edges will dry very defined as you can see on the face here.


Paint on gessoed paper will have a “softer” look as it is possible to soften edges and the paper is still a bit absorbant.

Chieh 2 small

Paintings done on gessoed paper with watercolor will have a softer look, because most edges can be soften.

Anita 2-1000 px

Paintings on paper painted over with gel medium, are more textured and will show more hard edges.


Lifting off paint:

When paper is painted over with medium, you can very easily life off any watercolor paint with a wet tissue paper and start over as many times as you want to.



With gel medium, some colors will stain the paper and you cannot always go back to the initial white of the paper.

You can also lift color of paper painted over with gesso, but the paint will stain more, a bit like it would on paper.

Ideas to try:

You can try to draw edges of an area with watercolor pencils and then spray your paper with water.


If you over painted over gessoed or gel medium paper, you can try rinsing off the paint under the tap in the sink to remove most of the paint. You will be left with  a “ghost image” that you can rework later.


Chieh 3 small

This painting was starting to look overworked, so I rinsed most of the paint away in the sink and started fresh from a ghost image.

How do you like to prepare your paper before painting with watercolors or pastels?


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  • Pingback: How to use oil pastels and what you can do with this underestimated media()

  • jim

    years ago attending art school.i wet water-color in bathtub and stapled the back of paper in strectcher-bares while wet/when it dried it was taught/would thump it/it sounded like a drum…p.s. dont stretch wet paper on strecher bars as in tight…it will tighten as it drys…could use modeling paste for texture…im presently experminting with resin coating painting after painting is dry/view art-resin tutorials on internet/its clear and drys to a glass finsh/self-leveling and adds depth to your work…do your homework and watch all tutorials and make less mistakes/it will enhance your work

  • Lucie Bergeron

    Bonjour Sandrine,
    Encore une fois je viens sur votre site pour trouver une réponse à une problématique rencontrée!
    Je viens de terminer un fond à l’acrylique sur une toile de canevas régulier. Comme j’aime peindre spontanément, avant de peindre les détails, j’ai eu l’idée de mettre du gesso transparent pour travailler à la gouache par-dessus.La gouache me permettant de corriger
    ce que je n’aime pas avec de l’eau tout simplement.
    J’utilise le gesso Liquitex transparent. Il est assez “clair” mais je me demandais si vous pouviez me conseiller un gesso encore plus clair? Est-il nécessaire d’appliquer 2 couches?
    Je commence cette expérimentation et j’adore ça, mais on ne réinvente pas la roue et je suis certaine que vous avez un peu d’expérience à ce sujet!
    Quand vous aurez un p’tit deux minutes, j’apprécierais avoir votre idee à ce sujet.
    Un gros merci pour toutes les informations que vous partagez avec “la terre entière”!

    Lucie Bergeron
    Montréal, Province de québec

    • Bonjour Lucie,
      Merci pour votre message 🙂
      J’utilise le gesso transparent de la marque Liquitex. Il est de couleur laiteuse dans la bouteille mais sèche transparent. Je pense que une seule couche suffit en général.
      Pour peindre avec de la gouache au dessus de l’acrylique, vous pouvez aussi le faire directement, l’acrylique est comme une couche de plastique imperméable, un peu comme peindre sur du papier Yupo. J’imagine que le gesso rend cette surface un peu plus poreuse.

  • Bonnie

    Could u tell me specifically what u use to seal an oil pastel?

    • I am not sealing them, just preparing the paper to use them on. I would display them under glass.

  • Nancy

    When putting gel on watercolor paper to mimic Yupo paper, will one coat of gel be enough?

    • Yes, one coat of gel is enough. I paint it without diluting the gel in water so it is on the thick side.

  • Linda

    Such a timely post…I wanted to introduce some texture techniques to my beginner watercolour class. In preparing a lesson on depicting medieval architecture, I decided to apply clear gesso to the Arches 140 lb. cold press paper before adding some colour. It did the trick…looks like old stone and plaster after adding a light wash of quin. gold and raw sienna to the dried gesso. Now we will add other techniques such as colour sanding, splashing, sponging etc. until we get the antique look we want.

    • Excellent! It must be fun to be in your watercolor class 🙂

    • sharron arnold

      Glueing torn crumpled tissue to a surface before painting is my favourite technique for texture!

  • Nadine

    What a great idea! I’m definitely going to try these two mediums out with watercolour! Thanks a lot for sharing.

  • You make me want to put the “serious” stuff away and play!

  • Diane

    Oh, I love these effects! So, applying these gessoes will buckle the paper and give it a wavy look, correct? Can any drawing paper be used?

    • Sometimes the paper will buckle but what I do is I either use a press by getting the over side of the paper moist and applying weight on top, or you can also use an iron at the lowest setting.

  • Maureen

    I like clear gesso with a small amount (less than 1/4 c in 2 cups gesso) then using soft pastel and / or nupastels over it. I find the “never dry” quality of oil pastel more challenging. Blending is easy and continuous. If you painting high key you can use an acrylic spray to seal without it darkening too much. You can use the extra fine pumice in more concentration and even tint it with other acrylic paints to create texture. I use solid supports when doing this though since canvas or paper sags. Just seal your Mds or birch boards first with GAC 100. Grafix makes a cool double tack for mounting paper onto board when you don’t want to get it too wet. U art sand paper 400-600 works well with light washes of watercolor, oil or very thin acrylic/ink. Just a few things I learned from having rumpled looking art! Cheers.

    • Thanks Maureen! Very interesting, I never tried mixing clear gesso and regular gesso.