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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 on an art journal page vs. how watercolor looks on a page prepped with golden absorbent ground!
If you've never started an art journal on your own before (GASP!!!) You're missing out on SO MUCH FUN!!
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!!!
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!
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to help you start an art journal, be sure to check out my
Art Journaling YouTube series below!
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Founder of Awesome Art School. Mixed Media Artist. Author of 18 Instructional Art Books!
"Karen is flipping hilarious and she's very real...I like the way she teaches in a way that really gives you confidence, whether you're a beginner or advanced there's always something new to learn!"
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