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Gouache Paint, Richer than Watercolor and Easier than Oil Paint

Updated on November 28, 2015

Gouache - A Pleasure to Paint With

Gouache is a water based medium similar to watercolor but 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 thickness and covering power that watercolor does not. The reason I like working with gouache is it's rapid drying time. If your support (what you paint on) is not ideal, gouache can make it look pretty good, with a great support, the painting will be gorgeous. No solvents are needed for this artist friendly medium.

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, 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. Oil paints have a deep richness and lushness about them that can't be beat, 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 qualify 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.

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 paint brush. 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 thicker areas will crack if the paper or cardboard is flexed. 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.

Re-Workability and Liftability

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. 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 they have been used in design and illustration work.

Gouache painting in process.  If you look closely, you will be able to see areas on the plaid that I have washed out with water.
Gouache painting in process. If you look closely, you will be able to see areas on the plaid that I have washed out with water. | Source

The Master of Collage, Henry Matisse

Henri Matisse understood the beauty of gouache and exploited it's bright clean colors in his famous cut outs 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. So, as you can see from my painting 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.

Henri Matisse at Work

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.

What I imagine my favorite birch tree will look like in the coming months.  You will also be able to see on this painting where I have lifted out color on the right portion of the sky and added color on the trunk.
What I imagine my favorite birch tree will look like in the coming months. You will also be able to see on this painting where I have lifted out color on the right portion of the sky and added color on the trunk. | Source

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 fine art painting, quick field color studies or finished design or illustration pieces. Whichever way you choose to use gouache, enjoy the results.

Formulations of Gouache

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. 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.

My advise 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. 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 which give a each color a unique property. Now go have fun and paint!


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    • thoughtfulgirl2 profile image

      thoughtfulgirl2 19 months ago from East Coast

      yes indeed, I usually paint every day even if only for 15 minutes. it keeps the creative wheels turning:)

    • AMFredenburg profile image

      Aldene Fredenburg 20 months ago from Southwestern New Hampshire

      A good New Year's resolution; paint!


    • thoughtfulgirl2 profile image

      thoughtfulgirl2 20 months ago from East Coast

      Thanks so much, and if you have any questions feel free to contact me and I would love to see your work!

    • AMFredenburg profile image

      Aldene Fredenburg 20 months ago from Southwestern New Hampshire

      Wonderful! This article makes me want to try the medium; pinned and shared.