Watercolor vs. Gouache

Updated on April 17, 2014

Gouache & Watercolor 101

Gouache seems to generate a good helping of confusion. There's the name, pronounced "gwash," with its unfriendly spelling. And then there's the eternal question "What really is the difference between watercolor and gouache?" I couldn't tell you how many times I've heard it come up.

Let's get started with the demystification.

By far the easiest and fastest way to answer the question (but not nearly the most comprehensive) is that gouache is just an opaque form of watercolor.

Most people know from tinkering with watercolor in kindergarten that it is a transparent and thin paint. Watercolor allows the artist to apply thin washes, or layers of color, building a surface of color one layer at a time. Gouache, on the other hand, can come in a small tube or as a pan (like watercolor), can be thinned (like watercolor) but even when it is thinned has a different characteristic to it. The opacity of gouache grants you certain things that watercolor won't, and vise versa.

Transparency of watercolor is a distinguishing characteristic
Transparency of watercolor is a distinguishing characteristic | Source

Watercolor vs. Gouache

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Components of Paint

Before we get any further into distinguishing properties of watercolor and gouache, let's look a little bit at what they both actually consist of.

Watercolor consists of three main ingredients:

Pigment: These can be synthetic or organic

Binder: Gum arabic is used to suspend the pigment and to affix it to the paper

Other additives: Can be honey or other preservatives to achieve optimum flow and durability

Ingredients in gouache:

Pigment: Can be natural or synthetic

Binder: Gum arabic

Other additives: Honey, often has chalk added

You may be surprised to learn that when you get right down to it, the ingredients in watercolor and gouache are almost identical. What really differentiates them is that the particles of pigment in gouache are larger, the ratio of pigment to water is much higher, and chalk is often added to increase opacity. Higher quality gouache (Winsor & Newton, Holbein, M. Graham) do not include added chalk.

Combining the Mediums

Winslow Homer's "Boys in a Dory" (1873) utilizes the transparency of watercolor together with opaque gouache
Winslow Homer's "Boys in a Dory" (1873) utilizes the transparency of watercolor together with opaque gouache | Source

Using Either/Or, or Both

But what does this mean when you are actually using them?!

...Your creative mind might be wondering.

The possibilities of watercolor and gouache are extensive. Let's look at some reasons why you would choose one over the other. Keep in mind that although gouache can be watered down to appear more transparent, it will not granulate (appear mottled or speckled) like watercolor and will dry to a more matte finish.

With watercolor you can:

  • Achieve luminous areas of color with many transparent washes
  • Keep a pencil or (waterproof) pen drawing underneath the paint
  • Play with color by layering and glazing
  • Do quick field sketches

Gouache, on the other hand, allows:

  • Greater ability to cover up mistakes, due to the opacity of the paint
  • Effective covering of large spaces if you trying to get a flat area of color
  • Great outlining and lettering
  • Painting on toned paper
  • An almost dusty, matte finish

Try using both similar projects to find out which you prefer. They can often be used interchangeably, together and layered on top of each other to achieve truly unique effects.

Artist Example

Final Words & Fun Tips

Both mediums can take extensive practice to master.

Some fun ways practice with gouache include using toned paper, making a color wheel, adjusting the amount of water you thin with to find optimum consistency (some find the consistency difficult to adjust to), and painting light over dark. It is also great for highlighting watercolor paintings.

Start out experimenting with gouache and watercolor separately to see how they behave and then move to combining them. You might be surprised with what you can do!

Harmonious Together

Watercolor and Gouache really work great together
Watercolor and Gouache really work great together | Source


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    • profile image

      Kari 9 days ago

      Thank you. This was very helpful as I sought to understand gouache so that I could explain it to a 4th grade class.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 3 years ago from Philippines

      rosalocke, thank you so much for your response. So, I guess I'm on the right track:). And that watercolor comment of the museum director, I think she just said it because all the paintings were watercolor and it was her way of promoting the paintings.

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 3 years ago from California

      Gouache is not paint I am familiar with, but I like it. Your description was easy to understand. I think I like it better than watercolor.

    • rosalocke profile image

      Rosie Lockie 3 years ago from Oregon

      grand old lady: I've never heard of having to re-frame gouache paintings yearly. I assume museums that show works in gouache don't go through the trouble of re-framing yearly. I don't see why this would be necessary.

      I don't think watercolor is really the most difficult to paint with. I think every medium has specific difficulties, and with watercolor it can be hard to control and virtually impossible to cover your mistakes, but is also easy to start doing and get better with practice.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 3 years ago from Philippines

      Someone did a wonderful painting for me of my daughter and he said he used gouache. That was the first time I heard of it. He suggested I reframe it every year, because of the paint. Well, it's been on my wall for 20 years, never re-framed, and still very, very beautiful. Would you know if it's important to re-frame gouache every year? Another person said watercolor is the most difficult to paint with, so if an artist can paint with watercolor, he's really good. But the one who told me this owned a museum and she supported artists who only used watercolor, so I was wondering if that's true, too. Do you think it is true? Great, helpful and informative hub.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 3 years ago from Long Island, NY

      This is a very clear explanation of the difference between watercolor and gouache, as well as the advantage of using one or the other. The examples you show are extremely helpful too. I used to draw doodles and your hub made me interested in getting back to that again, only this time adding color with this method.

    • sparklingcrystal profile image

      sparklingcrystal 3 years ago from Manila

      I find yourself very very helpful especially for someone like me who's trying to use this medium (watercolor) on my artworks. Voted up!

    • indraprasetya profile image

      Indra Prasetya 3 years ago from Indonesia

      Great Hub (y)

    • profile image

      CaliforniaCousin 3 years ago

      Good article dudette....from Gabe

    • profile image

      Kathy Carr 3 years ago

      Interesting. I never took real note of the differences because they paint somewhat the same but gouache does grab the paper and mistakes better, now that I think about it. I did find myself gravitating more towards the gouache only because it does hide sketch mistakes better which is such an appeal to me. The only problem with me is that the watercolor can be so sheer and so darn fine to me and I just really love how I can have a hint of color and still be able to express myself. Enough said, Great Hub. I guess you notice, I am a paint fiend and I like them all. I can think of a million reasons why each paint appeals to me so, Congratulations on HOTD!

    • rosalocke profile image

      Rosie Lockie 3 years ago from Oregon

      Thank you all for the kind words!

      Laura335: I almost always draw out my painting first with pencil (unless I'm just sketching with watercolor). If I really don't want the pencil lines to show through I will go over lightly with an eraser before I start to paint, but that doesn't really solve the problem perfectly.

      I do go over a painting with an eraser after I have finished to get rid of the pencil outlines, which works surprisingly well and doesn't smear or lift the watercolor. You can still see pencil lines underneath but it definitely cleans up the look of the painting overall.

      DzMsLizzy: It's funny you mention ants because I have run into that problem before! I have learned not to leave watercolor palettes with blobs of paint sitting on the floor (where I live, sugar ants are a common problem), as they will soon become ant parties. I think when you are actually thinning the paint with water the amount of honey is so negligible that ants won't bother on a painting.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 3 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Congratulations on HOTD!! A very well done explanation, easily understandable even by me, a non-artist! I'd never even heard of "gouache" before.

      But I have to wonder about one of the ingredients. Honey? Hmm...how do you keep ants from your paints and paintings? ;-)

      Voted up, interesting and useful.

    • awezome-writer profile image

      Glenrose Cesista 3 years ago from Cebu City

      Congratulations on the Hub of the Day! You deserve it well. :) voted up!

    • Laura335 profile image

      Laura Smith 3 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA

      This is really useful. Do you have any tips on how to sketch out the design of your painting without leaving pencil marks behind? I feel like I always have to draw what I'm going to paint first, but I hate seeing the pencil marks behind the paint.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Beautiful and informative hub! Have to admit that I wasn't entirely sure of the difference. Now that's cleared up. Well deserving of Hub of the Day. Congrats!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 3 years ago from the short journey

      Well, that was interesting and encouraging! Congrats on your Hub of the Day award for this great post on these two mediums.

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 3 years ago

      Congrats on HOTD. I struggle with watercolor (I started painting with oil and moved to acrylics, which I really like), I was always curious about gouache and how different it might be. thanks for this explanation. I will have to try it some day but I don't get to paint as much as I used to.

    • PurvisBobbi44 profile image

      PurvisBobbi44 3 years ago from Florida

      What a great first hub in the morning to read. I love painting and did a some of it years ago. I was not great but found it relaxing.

      Have a great week and thanks for writing this hub---I enjoyed it.

      Bobbi Purvis

    • Dbro profile image

      Dbro 3 years ago from Texas, USA

      Great hub, rosalocke! I'm a watercolor artist, so I'm very familiar with the properties of watercolor. I have a few tubes of gouache, but I haven't worked with them in years. This article has inspired me to get them back out and experiment with them again.

      Congratulations on Hub of the Day! Very well deserved!

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 3 years ago from Germany

      Congrats on the hub of the day award! I would never know the difference between the two unless I will ask my hubby who is an artist. Thanks for the heads up.

    • rosalocke profile image

      Rosie Lockie 3 years ago from Oregon

      Thank you! I never saw a mention in an hp email, I can't seem to find it in my inbox! If anyone felt like forwarding it to my email: lockie.rosie@gmail.com I would be very appreciative.

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Calhoun 3 years ago from Western NC

      What a cool hub! I LOVE artistic hubs. And it looks like Mark has stopped by. That's a compliment, too! Nice job getting a mention in the recent HP email - yippee!

    • Mark Ewbie profile image

      Mark Ewbie 3 years ago from UK

      Congrats on getting a mention in the recent HP email. Well deserved - I like those graphics.

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      William Leverne Smith 3 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Fun with illustrations. Thanks for sharing! ;-)

    • dearabbysmom profile image

      dearabbysmom 3 years ago from Indiana

      I used gouache to paint in a college art class and was just wondering the other day if people still use it. And here is your hub! Great explanation of the differences. Voted up and interesting!