The Beginner’s Guide to Gouache

28/09/2021 Off By Alina Novikova

If you’ve ever tried watercolour painting (or even looked into it), chances are you’ve encountered the word gouache at some point along the way.

Gouache paint, like both watercolour and acrylic paint, is a water media: a pigment that has to be mixed with water in order to be spread across a surface. Because it isn’t as popular as other styles of paint, gouache is often described as an “opaque watercolour,” a children’s poster paint, or a supplementary medium to be used alongside better-known techniques.

Gouache painting has been around for more than a thousand years (the term “gouache” dates back to at least the 18th century), and in that time, artists have used the medium to create historically important, visually arresting, totally dynamic works of art.

Want to learn more about how to use gouache? Read on, and you’ll learn everything you need to know about the history of this powerful medium, why you should start using its unique creative qualities to your artistic advantage, and the materials and techniques you need to get started.

 

 

What Is Gouache?

Gouache paint is a mix of natural or synthetic pigments, water, and gum arabic (or in less expensive brands, yellow dextrin) that acts as a binding agent to hold the paint together. Chalk is sometimes added to give the paint extra heft or body, and certain varieties add propylene glycol as well traditional gouache tends to become brittle when it dries, and the extra additive attracts water to help paint layers stay more flexible over the long term.

French in origin, the word “gouache” is pronounced wash like “squash,” and was inspired by the Italian “Guzzo” technique that, while different, dried with a similarly muddy, matte finish.

The History Of Gouache.

While the term “gouache” wasn’t introduced until the 18 th century, similarly opaque water-based mediums have been used by artists for thousands of years. In ancient Egypt, colourful pigments were bound together with honey and other binders to create an early form of gouache, and by the middle ages, Persian artists were using a rudimentary form of gouache to decorate their famously beautiful Persian Miniature paintings. In the 15 th century, Albrecht Durer relied on the matte finish of early gouache to give his paintings a soft glow, and in the 18th century, François Boucher used the paint to capture the pastel colours of his famous “The Birth and Triumph of Venus”.

 

By the 19 th century, gouache began to be produced industrially and its transportable qualities proved popular with landscape artists, particularly the “en Plein air” French school of impressionists who painted canvases outdoors. In the early and mid-20 th century, commercial artists heavily relied on gouache to paint poster art, letter comic books, and fill in cel animation because of the medium’s precise, flat colour and its quick-drying qualities.

 

Fauve masters like Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, and Marc Chagall experimented using gouache with other materials like ink, oil, and watercolour and found great success in their quest to create new and interesting colours combinations and compositions. Matisse, in particular, worked with gouache and decoupage to create his famous series of “Blue Nudes” that remain popular with audiences worldwide.

Today’s artist’s prize gouache is because it provides precision, full, flat colour coverage, and crisp edges. It can be used to paint lettering or fill in drawings, it allows flexibility because mistakes can be covered up, and it photographs well – an important attribute in the age of digital illustration and design.

What Is The Difference Between Gouache and Watercolour?

Gouache and watercolour are made of the same basic materials but differ in specific, important ways.

Watercolours contain pigments that have very small particle sizes so that the paint can be spread thinly enough to be near-transparent. Gouache, on the other hand, has larger particles and more body, so it looks heavier, denser, and more opaque after it dries. The paint is best used to create a flat wash of colour that dries matte. Because it dries so quickly, gouache is ideal for gestural, action, and direct paintings.

Gouache, like watercolour, can be re-wetted and binds to the paper that it’s on, but unlike watercolour, gouache paints cannot be watered down to look more translucent. Artists can’t use gouache to build layers of colour as they can with watercolour.

Is Gouache The Same As Acrylic Paint?

Gouache and acrylic paint are not the same. Acrylic paint is thicker and more durable than gouache – acrylics are waterproof and can stand up to dust and light. Acrylics are also ideal for multiple types of mediums, including paper, wood, glass, and plastic. Gouache, on the other hand, is best suited for paper.

Gouache also can’t be applied so thickly that it creates a surface texture like acrylics and oils can (gouache cracks if it is applied too thickly). While gouache is typically applied with a paintbrush, acrylics can be applied with other tools, such as a palette knife.

 

 

Acrylic, unlike gouache, can’t be rewet and reworked – once it’s dry, you can’t change it (although you can paint over it). By rewetting gouache, you can reactivate the paint and make changes. This makes it a versatile and forgiving medium.

What You Need To Get Started With Gouache.

Getting started with gouache is fairly simple – you just need paints, paintbrushes, paper, and a mixing tray.

Gouache paint: There are lots of brands of gouache paint available. It’s a good idea, to begin with, a few primary colours, plus tubes of black and white, so you can mix a range of hues. For an upgrade, you can usually find beginners’ gouache paint sets that include a variety of colours.

Gouache paintbrushes: Gouache paintbrushes are typically the same as watercolour paintbrushes. You can choose from natural or synthetic fibres in a range of different sizes. Whichever you choose, you’ll generally want to keep your brush wet so you can move the paint around on the paper more easily.

Paper or another surface to paint: Gouache works well on watercolour paper, but you could also use some thick drawing paper. While you can use canvas, that’s typically better suited for acrylic. Overall, your best option is paper for gouache.

Mixing tray: Each colour of gouache paint will come in an individual tube, but to create the spectrum of colours you want, you’ll need a mixing tray. Start with a little of one pigment on the mixing tray, and then add water or another colour to achieve the shade you want.

In addition to these supplies, you’ll need a little water on hand (to wet the paint and mix different shades). Then, you’ll be ready to get started.

Painting With Gouache Techniques.

Now that you have your supplies ready, you can begin painting. While you are free to let your creativity run wild, it can be helpful to understand a few common gouache techniques as you begin your first painting:

Staining: You might start a painting with staining – that is, covering an area of the paper with a layer of paint to serve as the foundation for the rest of the painting. Often, staining uses a bit of gouache paint mixed with some water to create a thin consistency that can be swathed across the page. This technique feels especially similar to watercolour and can be used for elements such as the sky or field of grass in a landscape painting.

Opaque layers: Once you have the foundation of the painting, you can begin to layer in opaque elements. By using the paint without adding much water, you’ll achieve a rich, opaque colour that completely covers anything underneath it. You might use this technique to add clouds in the sky or a tree or shrubs in front of a mountain.

Wet-on-wet: By first dampening your paper and then adding wet gouache to it, you will end up with soft shapes and blurred lines. This can be a good technique for backgrounds or bodies of water.

 

 

Dry brushing: Dry brushing allows you to add texture to your painting. Simply pick up some semi-wet gouache paint with your brush, then brush most of it out (on a paper towel or scrap piece of paper). You should have only about 30 per cent of the paint left on the brush. Then, quickly sweep the “dry” brush over your painting. You’ll achieve a feathered, almost ragged effect that can be used for texture, highlights, or backgrounds.

Blooms: Blooms – or irregular, splotchy, abstract areas of colour similar to something you might see in a watercolour painting – are easy to achieve with gouache. Load up your brush with water and a small amount of pigment. When you blot it on the paper, you’ll get little puddles of colour that spread and bleed in an abstract way. These can form an interesting background or foundation to build upon.

Reworking dry areas: A useful aspect of gouache paint is that it can be re-wet after it has dried. That allows you to rework elements of a painting and achieve some interesting effects. For example, if you originally painted a shape with a hard edge, rewetting the outline allows you to blur out that edge and end up with a softer shape.

Of course, this is just the beginning. As with any medium of art, you can take these techniques and use them, build upon them, or go in a completely different direction.

Ready to start painting?

Gouache paint is fun, useful, and one of a kind. It’s a historically important medium, and whether you use it alone or in tandem with other materials, mastering gouache will give you a new arsenal of ways to express yourself creatively.

If you’ve grabbed some gouache and you’re ready to use it, check out Skillshare’s latest gouache tutorial with artist and expert Leah Goren. She’ll show you everything you need to know to begin your gouache paint practice so you can open up new artistic possibilities in no time.