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Gesso Glazes​

The use of soft translucent gesso glazes can add a subtle, dream like quality to a painting – obscuring detail, compressing tonal contrast and tightening color harmony.


These glazed areas can then be worked over with watercolor, ink charcoal or gouache to create an interesting region of layered suggestion to support your focal area.


The secret to applying these gesso glazes is to make the gradation smooth and even from untouched painting to milky translucency with no evidence of an edge. To achieve this you must work quickly and keep the outer edge of the glaze constantly wet to prevent a hard line forming.

watercolor doorway using gesso glazes

This painting of an old doorway has had a gesso glaze applied to the top left and bottom right hand corners to help amplify the diagonal band of interest. The glazes were applied to one corner at a time, as the gesso can dry and form a hard edge if the process is not carried out quickly enough.

Materials for Gesso Glazes

The materials required to apply these glazes are simple and probably already included in your painting equipment.

  • White Gesso

  • A bristle brush is used to apply the gesso.

  • A dry (goat hair) Hake brush is used to feather and even out the glaze.

  • A water spray bottle is handy for keeping the leading edge of the glaze damp.

  • An old towel is also needed to keep the Hake brush constantly dry.

Step 1
Our plan is to cover the area within the red arc with an evenly graded gesso glaze. The first step is to lightly spray the area with clean water then, starting right down in the corner with a brush loaded with gesso straight from the pot, work half way across our planned area.
In this case the painting is completely dry, but the technique can also be used on wet paint resulting in more obvious destruction of the underlying work and a stronger color influence bleeding up into the gesso.



Step 2
Completely and evenly cover the lower half of the area we plan to glaze.



Step 3
Quickly wash every trace of gesso from your brush, shake off the excess water then run the wet brush along the leading edge of the gesso to stop a hard edge forming.



Step 4
Once the edge has been wet, work the brush back across the area of gesso. Use long diagonal strokes, moving in the direction of the arrow towards the lower corner. This action dilutes and evens out the gesso.

Directions for applying a gesso glaze to a painting



Step 5
Thoroughly wash the brush again and repeat step 4, further diluting the gesso. Depending on the size of the area and consistency of the gesso you may need to repeat this step 3-4 times.
Don’t worry if the process lifts and blends with some of the underlying pigment – this adds to the subtlety of the glaze.
Make sure all the gesso has been worked over and diluted before moving on to your hake brush.



Step 6

The glaze will fade as it dries out so you can leave it a little more opaque than you would like the final glaze to appear. When you are satisfied with the consistency of your glaze, take your dry hake brush and gently make one gentle stroke back towards the bottom corner. Before repeating this stroke, thoroughly dry the brush on your towel. After several of these gentle, “stroke and dry” passes are made, you should be able to increase the number of strokes between drying. This action gradually dries out and evenly distributes the glaze



An old towel will keep your hake brush dry and absorbent.



Step 7
As the glaze dries out you can lightly feather your dry hake brush over the glaze to make it smooth and even. As soon as the glaze appears smooth and even with no visible edge, stop and let it dry.



Final Step
Allow the glaze to dry thoroughly, then work some subtle, understated detail back over it. If the glaze appears too transparent and weak after it dries, simply repeat the process. These glazes can be built up, one on top of the other until the desired effect is achieved.



The whole left hand region of this painting was treated with a gesso glaze. Some subdued detail remains visible through the glaze. Gouache, ink and charcoal pencil were used to suggest brick textures and building details over the glaze.




All but the main focal area of this painting was subdued with a number of heavy gesso glazes. Gouache, watercolor, ink and charcoal were used to reinstate the suggestion of surrounding buildings obscured by rain.

The subtle, layering effect produced by this technique builds an interesting depth into the suggested regions of the painting. This contrasts with the clear, crisp areas of ink and water- color in the focal area.

Watercolor painting of buildings in Annecy, France, using gesso glazes



The upper sky in this painting of San Francisco Bay was covered with three layers of gesso glaze. The milky opacity contrasts with the transparency of the Permanent Rose, Cobalt and Aureolin washes in the sky and water. This opaque/transparent contrast suggests the heavy blanket of fog rolling in across the bay.


Gesso glazes are a great way to loose, simplify and obliterate regions of a painting, allowing you to adjust and control where attention is focused in the work. The results are never entirely predictable, which is what I like about the technique. There are a few important points to keep in mind.


  • Keep the edge of the glaze wet to avoid a hard line

  • Make sure all the gesso becomes stirred up and evenly diluted during application

  • Keep your hake brush thoroughly dry throughout the procedure

  • Use gentle strokes with the Hake – barely touching the surface

  • Stop as soon as the glaze looks evenly graded.

Any Gesso can be used for these glazes. I prefer watercolor gesso but, because the glazes are so thin regular gesso does just as good a job. The following links are to watercolor gessos – the same companies also make regular gesso. Golden Paints “Absorbent Ground“, Daniel Smith “Gold Gesso“, Art Boards “Superior Quality Panel Gesso” and Schmincke “AQUA Primer Fine” are all Gessoes blended to be absorbent to watercolor paint.


Remember, gesso is an acrylic based paint, so MUST be washed
out of brushes and off pallets etc. BEFORE it dries. 

Author: John Lovett

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