How to get glassy smooth gesso for painting or drawing

How to get glassy smooth gesso by Lianne Williams

How DO you get an extremely smooth gesso finish on a wooden board?

After weeks of research, experimentation and various brands of gesso I've finally found a method that works for me- and it's SO simple. Out of all the advice I looked at online and all the people I harassed for answers and tips, the magic step was written right on the gesso instructions itself! Can you believe it?

Important note: This is MY preferred method for gesso, which I use on rigid wooden boards for colour pencil, acrylic and water mixable oils (or mixed media). It does work on canvas weave but the gesso I use isn't 'recommended' for flexible surfaces like stretched canvas (canvas on board is fine) as it could potentially crack over time. So you may require another gesso technique for your chosen medium.

Also, this post contains affiliate links which I receive compensation for if you decide to purchase something through them.

You will need:

What you need for porcelain smooth gesso
  • Gesso (I'm using Golden Sandable Hard Gesso but a variety of brands should work, I've heard household primer can be just as effective!!) 
  • Wooden Board
  • Paintbrush or roller (whatever you've got- palette knife works nicely too.
  • Sandpaper extra fine (I'm using a P180 grade here and it did great but the finer the better) You might also want to invest in an electric sander if you end up doing this a lot or have a big board to sand. Trust me.
  • Spray water bottle (full of water. Or a very wet sponge.) 
  • Optional: old rags for wiping down and cleaning up gesso residue.

A word on gesso (pronounced jesso... who knew!?) Not all gesso's are the same. Some are deliberately very gritty for paint adhesion and never smooth down, some are designed to set with some flexibility, like a plastic, which is better for stretched canvas but they don't sand well. These gesso's are not designed for creating these kinds of ultra smooth surfaces so I personally recommend Golden Sandable Hard Gesso because I KNOW it's going to do the job. From past experiments I think something like Daler Rowney Artist's Gesso would work fine too but Golden wins hands down for me- there are other brands worldwide which you might find easier to get hold of (I can't get some varieties) so it's just a case of shopping around and finding one that's SUITABLE FOR SANDING, that's the key. It'll usually say this on the bottle itself.

How to gesso your board:

1) Prepare your board however you like. Make sure to sand your board and smooth off any bumps or splinters. Wipe off any dust with a damp rag. Seal it if you want to/need to.

2) Once ready, apply one thin coat of gesso across the board with your brush or roller. Try and get your brushstrokes all going in the same direction for optimum smoothness. Rinse and dry your brush. Let the gesso dry.

first layer of gesso

3) When the first layer is bone dry (if it's even slightly wet this next step will destroy all your hard work) give the surface a quick sand to get rid of any major imperfections or streaks and then apply a second layer of gesso, applying your brush strokes in the other direction (strokes should layer horizontally, vertically, horizontally etc). Once again leave to dry and rinse your brush.

4) Repeat these steps until you have at least 4 layers of gesso. 5 or more is better. Some people apply as many as 20. Your board should be white and opaque but it will have visible brush marks and may feel rough to the touch. It could be painted on now just fine but let's get it EXTRA smooth!

5) Leave your gesso overnight to make sure it's 100% dry. Just to be sure.

6) Get your water bottle and spritz your board working in small areas at a time. Try one corner first to see how this works. You need visible droplets on the gesso, it can't be just damp or it'll dry out too quick as you start working it. So give it a good soaking.

spraying water on gesso

7) Now using small circular motions, sand your gesso where the board is wet. You might want to wear gloves as after a few moments of elbow grease the gesso will start making a white slop, but will also begin smoothing to a super fine finish. Be careful to not sand down too far and expose the board again (this is where more layers helps!). If things are getting messy and you can't see what's happening, wipe away the residue with a damp cloth. To continue sanding just spritz with water again and carry on.

Smoothing gesso with water

Unlike dry sanding which is usually the recommended method, the water helps polish and flatten the gesso leaving a beautiful smooth finish. Once you've got one area smooth, wipe away the gesso residue and then move onto the next rough area and continue until you've smoothed down the entire board. Hold your board up to the light to check you've polished out all the brush marks. Finer sandpapers (this was done with P180 but you can go as fine as P3000!!!!) will refine the surface even further! You can go as fine as you like but remember you're sanding into your layers and the board can only take so much before it goes too thin.

Gesso rough and smooth, before and after wet sanding
gesso before and after

Once done you should have a super smooth gesso surface to work on that can handle colour pencil, acrylic and oils. Just wipe off all the residue, leave to dry and then begin drawing or painting.

Yup. It's THAT simple.

Let me know if you have any other suggestions on how to refine this technique or if there's a gesso/product you recommend that will work in the same way which other's may want to use. I'm yet to find a way to smooth clear primer/gesso so if you have any tips on that, please get in touch in the comments!