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Gesso vs Absorbent ground? Which one would you reach for if you're in the mood to do a little watercoloring in your mixed media art journal and feel the need to prep the surface first? Today I'm doing a little experiment in my own art journal so you don't have to! We'll compare how watercolor on gesso looks vs. how watercolor looks on a page prepped with golden absorbent ground!
Before we continue, super quick announcement: If you're in the market for new art supplies, or curious what I'm using, supply links are included below. All product links are Affiliate. I may earn a small commission if you choose to order through these links but by law there is never any additional cost to the consumer for doing so. I thank you for your support!
I love Liquitex gesso for my mixed media work, so that is what I'll be using for today's little experiment. Because gesso is specifically MADE for acrylic paints, it preps any surface you want to work on for acrylic paints.
I also love to use white gesso as a replacement for white acrylic paint when I'm creating my mixed media portraits because it's more transparent than your typical white acrylic paint, and I love the way that looks when I'm doing mixed media art - especially if there is a collage in the background!
For the purpose of today's demo, I'm testing how gesso works with watercolor so you don't have to!!
I've decided to start these art journal pages off with a bit of simple collage in the background. Colorful, patterned napkins are one of my go-tos for collage art. I find they're easier to work with if you pull the layers apart so you're only working with one ply. If you're curious about how to do wrinkle free mixed media collage backgrounds with paper napkins, I recently did a YouTube tutorial on that- so be sure to check it out if you missed it and simply hate those wrinkles!!
I almost always use matte medium as my collage adhesive whether I'm working in my mixed media art journal or on canvas. If you'd like to know more about WHY matte medium is typically what I reach for, check out this mixed media art tutorial on my YouTube channel for the side by side comparison of matte medium vs mod podge.
Today I'm working in one of my Strathmore watercolor art journal because I absolutely LOVE this for mixed media art journaling. I also love to work big, so I buy the 11" x 14" version. It's filled with 140 pound cold press (cold press paper has texture to it - it's not smooth) watercolor paper.
If you're art-ing along with me (and I hope you do!!!)- be sure to take care when selecting your paper, journals, or whatever substrate you choose to work on. It's EQUALLY important as the art supplies you are using.
I felt like these collage pages needed some bright color so added some hot pink washi tape then got right to it - covering the middle of my left side journal page with gesso, and the right side with absorbent ground.
I feel like a lot of mixed media artists skip over absorbent ground all together, so I want to make sure you know what it does and how to use it if you enjoy watersoluble art supplies.
Golden's absorbent ground has basically the same consistency as Liquitex Gesso, and has the same level of transparency to it - which I love, because I enjoy a little collage art peaking through the face of whatever mixed media girl I'm painting into the foreground of my art journal pages!
Just so you know, absorbent ground can be added to basically ANY surface that normally wouldn't "play nicely" with watersoluble supplies (even wood!). It's especially awesome if you like to upcycle old books into altered book art journals and enjoy watercoloring!
Typically I will do two coats of absorbent ground to keep the coverage fairly light and transparent. When I'm using gesso, I typically do one coat for the same reason. Acrylic paint dries itself into a plastic so it doesn't need heavy priming. Watercolors need a little more baby-ing.
I hit both pages with my hair dryer to dry them. Once dry, I can feel right away with my hands how much smoother the right side page of my paper is because of the Absorbent Ground. The gesso on the left side really kind of preserves the original texture of my cold press paper, while the absorbent ground minimizes the texture and makes it feel more like hot press watercolor paper.
I sketched a simple face on both pages in pencil, and doodled on top of that with my watercolor markers.
When I start brushing some water onto the gesso side of my paper to activate the watercolor marker lines (see below - it's the side in blue), I can still see some of the texture from the paper poking through underneath it. Both the paint and any water I add stay very much on the surface due to the gesso. It blocks the paper from absorbing the color or the water, so the paint just pools on top. My brush can move the pools around, but the paper can't absorb it, which isn't a desirable effect to me.
It's not "wrong" in any way- it's just not how I prefer to work with these supplies, so let's test out the absorbent ground page to see how things go over there...
On the absorbent ground side (in green, below), when I activate my lines with water, there is definitely less pooling of paint and water. You can see this for sure when I attempt to soften a "hard edge" by reactivating a line that had started to dry. The surface feels a bit more predictable to work on with watercolor and is much easier to blend on - both of which, I really like and prefer.
These effects may not matter to you, but if you are someone who likes to go back in and blend lines out, touch things up, etc., absorbent ground is really gonna be your friend. It allows watersoluble mediums (any art supply you can activate with water) to really behave as they typically would on watercolor paper.
It's funny - I posted a sneak peek of this project early over on Instagram and a ton of followers - even my professional artist friends - actually asked me about the markers I was using! In case you're interested too - they're watercolor markers by Faber Castell, and I just love them! They are a bit more expensive because they are a fine art product, but they're worth it in my book, and they won't fade over time because they're light fast.
These two are in what I lovingly refer to as "the ugly phase" (above!), which means they're about half way done, and not looking nearly as beautiful as they will if I keep on layering my supplies and pushing through till the end!
After a few more layers with the watercolor markers, I decide to go in and doodle on top of my girls with pen because I LOVE the way pen looks on top of watercolor!
Make sure you actually watch the video for today's demo to see for yourself what I experienced. I'm a big fan of learning about how an art supply behaves and using it in that way so I don't just make a mess!
If you've never started an art journal on your own before (GASP!!!) You're missing out on SO MUCH FUN!!
Don't worry, you're NOT alone here. SO many people think about trying something like art journaling and never follow through with it. A lot of them get intimidated by that big empty white page, or ALL the empty white pages in a journal. If you're one of these people - this is so common. I can help you to get over that hurdle so you can start having FUN with art!!
Click the button below to get my FREE pdf to give you the KICK IN THE PANTS you need to start art journaling ;) It's filled with tons of tips and advice from not only me, but one of my artsy idols - Bob Ross! We'll have you "breaking the blank page" and creating in no time!!!
If you do need that "kick in the pants" to start an art journal, you'll enjoy this YouTube series too!
I hope you enjoyed today's demo! Thanks for watching!!
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The thrift shop is AMAZING if you need mixed media art journaling ideas! Join me on a little field trip to one of my favorite shops in Durham called The Scrap Exchange. I'll show you EXACTLY what I look for when I'm on the hunt for old books to upcycle into mixed media art journals and altered book art journals! It's SO much fun, and you won't believe HOW CHEAP!!
I might have spent a whopping 8 bucks!!
And, yes... before you EVEN THINK IT... this is pre-covid, hence the NO MASK routine- when things were "normal." Sigh...
Before we even walk into the store, here are the TOP 3 THINGS I'm always looking for when I'm on the hunt for an old book to upcycle into an altered book art journal for my mixed media masterpieces!!
1. Matte pages that are super flat - not glossy
2. Threaded binding
3. Thin books (12 - 30 pages usually feels good to me because I like to FILL my art journals completely!!)
QUICK THRIFT TRIP TIPS: Head to the children's section & sheet music book section and you're sure to score!!
Grabbing an old book like the one pictured above is AWESOME to keep around when you're in the mood for collage!
I love these types of books because the pages are usually really thin and distressed looking already (another LOVE IT for me). Additionally the pages are usually very pourous and soak up whatever adhesives and primers I throw at them from matte medium to gesso!
Lots of people have asked if I feel bad taking these old books home to use for art. I'll tell ya what- I don't. Not one bit!! That's because I specifically look for the books that are super beat up and completely on their last legs anyway- with missing pages, no cover, etc. I take the ones that no one else wants. THESE are my treasures!
I also REALLY love picking up books that have a variety of font sizes and typefaces in them. It just makes things more interesting to look at if you mix these elements up in your collage art.
Magazines like the one above are GORGEOUS, but I really shy away from them because they are typically super glossy, and I know working on a matte surface is going to yield better results, so as much as this glamour shot is calling my name - back she goes onto the shelf for someone else.
The pages of the children's encyclopedia above are PERFECT and exactly what I'm looking for, but there are SO many pages in this book, it's a little overwhelming. If I can't find something, I may come back to this one, because it's possible to systematically score and remove pages to thin the book out without compromising it's integrity if it has threaded binding (see below). I don't know if I'm in the mood for that much effort though, and with SO many options in this thrift shop - I keep digging!
As you'll see in the video, we ended up with quite a few awesome finds! I found an old fashioned giant coloring book of "Alice in Wonderland" that felt just perfect to me. Mandi grabbed an old book of paper dolls, some sheet music, and a board book.
Board books like the one she found (below) can be great as altered books! They're super sturdy and this one has a particularly fun shape! Just a word of warning - board books often have a sheen or gloss to them, which can make art-ing on top of them tricky. A great work around is to literally spray them with paint primer, or to sand the gloss right off the page!
Once you've decided which book you want to turn into an art journal, it's super easy to get started. I often begin with shoring up the pages using some pretty duct tape down the center to reinforce the binding. This typically sets the stage for my entire color scheme for a piece!
If getting started feels hard (TRUST ME, YOU'RE NOT ALONE!!), I've got a Bob Ross inspired "Kick in the Pants" PDF for you to help you start art journaling so you can get over the fear of the blank page, and just start HAVING FUN already!! CLICK the button below and I'll send that fun art journaling cheatsheet straight to your inbox!!
After you grab your art journaling cheatsheet, be sure to binge this entire series on YouTube about art journaling. I promise it will help you get OVER the HURDLE and just start creating. Here is one of the funny, no stress projects we do! Aren't these emus hilarious?!
If you're in the mood to try addding human faces to your art journal, but kinda hate drawing or feel intimidated by it - I've got an entire NO DRAW series of art journaling prompts to help you try this as well. It's SO much fun!! You can download my FREE face shape template, and I teach you EXACTLY how to use her so you can play around with adding gorgeous faces in your art journal - without the stress of having to learn how to draw!
The children's book I bought on this thrift shop field trip turned out to be so much fun to work in. Here's one of my favorite pieces I created inside. She's actually a mixed media art tutorial as well. That tear wasn't meant to be there, believe it or not. Find out HOW it came to be by clicking HERE.
If hope you have just as much fun on your own thrift shop adventure and creating your own mixed media art journal as I did!! See ya back here next week!!
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Karen, you are absolutely fabulous! You make me feel like I can draw anything. I have recently retired and finally have the time to do some of the art that I have loved since I was in school. I am really at the beginning of my art journey and I hope to learn as much as I can. Thank you for all you do.