Photos of author Sonia Reeder-Jones applying gesso to drawing paper

Stretch and gesso drawing paper to create a durable drawing surface.

Author: Sonia Reeder-Jones



How To Gesso Drawing Paper

Why gesso drawing paper?

Applying gesso to drawing paper gives you complete control over the texture of your drawing surface. It creates a durable drawing surface which means you can erase, even aggressively, without damaging the paper's surface. You can tone your drawing paper to any color you like by tinting the gesso you're using. You can incorporate additives into your gesso like a fine grit pumice if you want to increase your paper's texture for mediums such as pastels.

Here are the supplies you need to gesso drawing paper:

  1. Tempered Masonite or smooth board larger than your paper
  2. Drawing paper
  3. Gummed paper tape with water activated adhesive
  4. Scissors
  5. Rag and a shallow bowl of water
  6. Acrylic gesso
  7. Paintbrush

Board for stretching paper:

If you want to gesso drawing paper, you'll need a board on which to stretch your paper. Stretching your paper enables the paper to accept wet gesso without buckling or wrinkling. You can use a tempered masonite board or a smooth board. Measure the width and height of your drawing paper. I currently use 3 inch wide gummed paper tape. The tape will overlap my paper edge by about 1/2 inch all the way around. So 2.5 inches of tape will extend beyond the edge of my paper. Double this for top and bottom or both sides and my board needs to be a minimum of 5 inches taller and wider than my paper. I prefer to use a board that is minimum six inches taller and wider than my paper.

Gummed paper tape:

You'll need a roll of gummed paper tape. Gummed paper tape is made of a heavy duty brown paper coated with water activated adhesive. This type of tape is commonly used as a carton sealing or mailing packaging tape. I've found rolls of gummed paper tape available at some office supply stores. This tape used to be easier to find. I've found you can still order it online.

You're going to cut 4 pieces of gummed paper tape. The paper tape will run along the outside edge of your paper. You'll want the tape to overlap itself as it intersects at the corners. Therefore, you'll need to cut your pieces of tape 2-4 inches longer than the width or height of your paper. Cut 2 pieces of paper tape approximately 2-4 inches longer than the width of your paper. Cut 2 pieces of paper tape approximately 2-4 inches longer than the height of your paper. Set these 4 pieces of paper tape aside while keeping them within easy reach.

Wetting your paper:

Wetting your paper will cause the paper fibers to swell and expand. Submerge your drawing paper into a tub of water. Be careful not to crease your paper. If you have questions regarding how long to soak your paper, winsornewton.com suggests soaking for the following length of time: "A heavy paper [300lb/640gsm] must soak for 15-20 mins, a lightweight [90lb/190gsm] one needs only 4-5 minutes." Your paper will likely begin to warp and buckle as it absorbs the water. The paper buckles as the paper fibers swell as they get wet. Lay your board flat on your work table. Center your paper on your board, leaving equal borders on all sides of board extending beyond your paper's edge. Gently run your hands across surface of your paper, gently easing out some of the wrinkles. Don't worry if you can't coax out all of the wrinkles, they should disappear as your paper shrinks as it dries.

Taping your paper to the board:

Pour some water into your shallow bowl. Fold your rag into quarters and place it into the water. The top of your rag should remain above the water line, but should absorb enough water to become fully saturated. Pick up one piece of pre-cut gummed paper tape. Make sure the gummed shiny adhesive side of tape faces downward. Run the adhesive side of tape across the wet rag in your bowl. This should be similar to licking a postage stamp. You want the entire surface of the adhesive side to be moist and activated. Be careful not to rub the adhesive off of the tape or it won't stick. Apply your moisture activated tape to the appropriate paper's edge. The tape should overlap the entire edge of your paper by about one half inch or so. Try to center your tape so that equal amounts extend beyond the end of your paper. The ends of your tape will overlap at the corners of your paper. Continue to apply tape around all four sides of your paper. Move quickly so that your adhesive remains wet. Otherwise it won't adhere to the paper's edge. I like to run my finger along each edge of my tape to be sure it is adhering to the paper's surface. Once tape is applied to all four sides of the drawing paper, lay the board aside and let the paper fully dry. Any remaining buckles in the paper should slowly disappear as the paper dries and shrinks.

Gesso your paper:

Once your stretched paper is fully dry the surface should be pulled tight or taut. Now you coat your paper with a thin layer of acrylic gesso. I prefer to paint on gesso with long brushstrokes moving back and forth across the paper in one single direction. Set your board aside and let the gesso dry. Once dry completely, apply a second coat of gesso. I prefer to change direction on each coat, still brushing back and forth across the paper. Immediately after applying gesso, I drag my brush lightly across the surface to smooth out any rough brushstrokes. I prefer a smooth drawing surface, so I attempt to create a linen like smooth texture with my brushstrokes. Set your board aside and again let the gesso dry. Once the second coat is fully dry, you can use as is or you can add a third and final coat. You can sand the surface for a very smooth drawing surface. You may want to tone the surface of your gessoed drawing paper. If so, mix a small amount of acrylic paint into the gesso you'll use for your final coat. Keep the ratio of acrylic paint to gesso very small to preserve the matte surface quality of the gesso. The surface quality is important for proper adhesion when drawing. Too much acrylic paint in the mix may create too slick or smooth of a surface for many drawing mediums to properly adhere to.

Once fully dry, you can draw as usual. Cut along the paper's edge with a knife to remove your paper from the board.