I am a trained fine artist. My articles share what mediums such as ink, pencil, or paint can do for your artwork.
What Is Gouache?
Gouache is a water-based medium similar to watercolor, but it's a little different. The same binder, gum arabic, is used in both watercolor and gouache. Gouache has an additional ingredient: precipitated, finely ground natural chalk. Larger pigment particles (not as finely ground) are more concentrated in gouache. As a result, gouache has a thickness and a covering power that watercolor does not.
How to Get Started Painting With Gouache
In this article, you'll learn:
- How Gouache Is Different From Other Paints
- Why and When You Should Use Gouache in Your Work
- Tips for Working With Gouache
- Tips for Buying Gouache
How Is Gouache Different From Other Paints?
Oil paints have a deep richness and lushness about them that can't be beat, and acrylic paints tend to dry darker than what you initially paint on the canvas. The beauty of a watercolor painting largely depends not only on the brand of paint used but the quality of the paper. (Interestingly, I have had my best results when using printmaking paper instead of watercolor paper when I paint in watercolor.)
Gouache is a different story. You can put this paint on just about any surface. It will adhere and cover beautifully. If you like the pure pleasure of putting paint to paper, wood, or canvas without all of the fuss, try gouache.
Why Use Gouache?
- Flexibility (re-workable, liftable, and quick-drying)
- Bright, clean colors
- Light-reflective qualities
- Good for mixed media
Re-Workability and Flexibility
The reason I like working with gouache is its rapid drying time. If your support (what you paint on) is not ideal, gouache can make it look pretty good, and with a great support, the painting will be gorgeous. No solvents are needed for this artist-friendly medium.
Gouache is a very flexible medium. As long as you are working on a strong support—such as bristol paper, heavy duty watercolor paper, canvas, or wood—gouache can be lifted out or scrubbed out, layered over or thinned to a sheer glaze. Basically, gouache is concentrated watercolor with an opaque finish. The colors are rich and vibrant and dry very quickly in a matter of minutes and can be reworked numerous times in one painting session (unlike oils).
I am not a deliberate painter. I tend to paint all at once, or as the term is called, "alla prima." For me, this is how I naturally paint. Somebody else may paint much more deliberately. The beauty of gouache is that it can be used in both ways. Thicker impasto swatches of paint can be worked onto the support along with delicate detailed moments in the painting. You can never go too thick with gouache, but you will be able to build up color beautifully.
Bright, Clean Colors
Gouache paintings have an almost velvet-like texture and matte finish. They photograph beautifully; there is no glare or shine to the surface, and this is why this paint is often used in design and illustration work.
I am a colorist painter, and pure color and color relationships are what intrigue me. I respect the magic an artist can create with the application of color. I am also particular about colors and like to paint them as I see them. Gouache does seem to dry to a lighter value than when you first put it down. Some people hate this, but I don't mind this. I have noticed that my paintings done in gouache have a clarity and lightness about them that other mediums do not allow.
How Henri Matisse Used Gouache for Colorful Cut-Outs
Henri Matisse understood the beauty of gouache, and he exploited its bright, clean colors in his famous cut-out compositions. The compositions were constructed from the ground up:
- First, white pieces of paper would be covered in one solid gouache color.
- After they dried, Mr. Matisse would cut out shapes freehand and play with them until he arrived at a composition that pleased him. He worked very organically and really enjoyed the process of creating his compositions.
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So, as you can see from my paintings and Mr. Matisse's colorful cut-outs, gouache is a very malleable medium and can be used for fine art paintings in a graphic or very painterly way.
Light-Reflective Qualities of Gouache
Gouache paint has one other unique quality about it: It has higher-than-average light reflective qualities. Children's skin tones look particularly beautiful when done in gouache. Subtle variations in skin tone can be modified with the transition from high key colors on cheeks and foreheads to low lights on the area right below the bottom lip.
Another subject area that gouache is perfectly suited for is seascapes. Brilliant sunlight touching down on an ocean will not be lost in a gouache painting. Don't be afraid to lift out paint in some areas or layer more paint down in another area. Gouache is perfectly suited for this type of fluid, changeable painting.
Mixed Media Applications of Gouache
Gouache can easily pair with collage, pastel, and charcoal. I enjoy piecing together a composition with bits of watercolor paintings with gouache added in. Then I enjoy drawing on top of the newly created picture. It's a way for me to connect all the elements together. Sometimes I'll scribble over that with pastel or sometimes I lay the pastel down first and allow it to mix freely with the gouache.
Gouache lends itself to great experimentation. I encourage you to find different ways to use gouache. Gouache is an ideal medium for fine art painting, quick field color studies, or finished design or illustration pieces. Whichever way you choose to use gouache, enjoy the results.
Tips for Working With Gouache
- How to Keep Your Colors Clean: Gouache paint is opaque, so it covers completely and blends beautifully. To keep your colors "clean," first wipe the brush on a rag to remove excess paint, then thoroughly swish around in a clean jar of water before switching to a different color (or just use a different paintbrush).
- How to Apply the Paint: Gouache can be applied somewhat thickly but not too thickly. If you are painting on paper or cardboard, it is better to apply thinly, or else thicker areas will crack if the paper or cardboard is flexed.
- How to Choose a Support or Surface to Use: Gouache is ideal on illustration board or clay board, which is very rigid and can take many layers of paint without warping. Canvas is also an option, but the canvas must be stretched very tight and should be primed with acrylic gesso. My preference is to get an idea down quickly, so I prefer to go with a vellum surface bristol paper or illustration board, and with these supports you can skip the gesso prep work.
Which Brand of Gouache Should I Buy?
Although gum arabic and pigment are the main ingredients in gouache—along with precipitated chalk in some brands—there are some other surprising ingredients used.
Formulations of Gouache
- Some manufacturers, such as M. Graham, will not use precipitated chalk or blanc fixe (barium sulphite) in their formulations. It is a matter of personal preference whether you want this in your gouache or not.
- Grinding of pigments is a key factor the success of a paint pigment; generally, the better technique in grinding paint, the better the result of the paint. M. Graham also adds honey to their formulations which prevents cracking when adding additional layers of paint. I think this is an excellent idea because gouache can crack and the honey acts as a binder and extender and keeps the paint film slightly more flexible.
- I have tried "student grade" and the more expensive brands. I have found the difference is not so much in the brands but in the colors. Pigments, because of their unique characteristics, grind to a different consistency, which gives each color a unique property.
My advice is to try different brands and stick with what you like the best. Go to your local art store and just look under the gouache aisle, pick out about five colors and experiment. Now go have fun and paint!
Claudia Smaletz (author) from East Coast on December 29, 2015:
yes indeed, I usually paint every day even if only for 15 minutes. it keeps the creative wheels turning:)
Aldene Fredenburg from Southwestern New Hampshire on December 25, 2015:
A good New Year's resolution; paint!
Claudia Smaletz (author) from East Coast on December 24, 2015:
Thanks so much, and if you have any questions feel free to contact me and I would love to see your work!
Aldene Fredenburg from Southwestern New Hampshire on December 23, 2015:
Wonderful! This article makes me want to try the medium; pinned and shared.