With some of the qualities of both watercolors and acrylics, but not totally the same as either, gouache is less common than these other paints. But it’s versatile, vibrant, and easy to use, so it’s worth a try whether you’re a beginner painter or an established artist wanting to try out a new medium. 

First, some background: Gouache is a highly pigmented paint that is usually water based, though it can also be acrylic based. It’s sometimes referred to as opaque watercolor because water activates it (like watercolor), but it’s more densely pigmented and dries more opaquely. It also dries with less of a glossy look than acrylics, with a flatter matte finish. But, it can be layered up like acrylic for a more textured effect.

You might be asking yourself, how do I start with gouache? Watching a gouache tutorial is a good place to begin, but first we’ll run through how to use gouache step by step.

How to Paint With Gouache in 5 Steps

Step 1: Gather Your Materials

To paint with gouache you’ll need a basic collection of gouache paint, paintbrushes, paper, a palette, and water.
To paint with gouache you’ll need a basic collection of gouache paint, paintbrushes, paper, a palette, and water.

To paint with gouache, you’ll first want to gather a few basic materials, all of which can easily be found at art supply stores.

  • Gouache paints
  • White pastel for blocking out white areas
  • Pencil for outlining 
  • Palette for mixing
  • Brushes
  • Paper
  • A jar of water
  • A gouache tutorial video if you’d like to follow along

The variety of colors you start with will depend on how comfortable you are with color mixing. If you have a good grasp of color mixing principles, you’ll only need the three primary colors (red, blue, and yellow), as well as white and black. If you’re not so confident, buying a larger variety of colors will get you off to a quicker start.

Pro Tip
When you’re just starting out and experimenting with gouache, look for paints labeled series one or two. These are best for beginners as they’re a bit cheaper than professional paints, which use costlier pigments.

Unlike acrylic paints, which can be used on wood, plastic, glass, or other surfaces, gouache is really only suitable for paper or canvas. Because it has a high water content, you’ll need a paper that can hold the water well and not crinkle. Watercolor paper with either a rippled or a smooth surface is suitable for painting with gouache.

Medium-quality paint brushes are perfectly fine when you’re starting out. Get a few different sizes so you can cover larger surfaces with paint as well as some finer ones to add detail.

Learn to Paint With Gouache Step by Step

Gouache 101: A Beginner’s Guide.

Step 2: Outline Your Painting

Outlining your painting before adding paint to the paper will help you get the proportions and color blocking right.
Outlining your painting before adding paint to the paper will help you get the proportions and color blocking right.

As with other types of painting, it’s a good idea to outline your subject on your surface first, in pencil. Use a relatively light touch so you can’t see your pencil strokes under the lighter shades of paint (though gouache is quite opaque, so this is less of a concern than with other mediums). 

If you have any significant areas of white in your painting, you’ll want to sketch them out in white pastel. Once you start painting, the oil in the pastel will repel the watery paint and prevent your color from bleeding into these areas. 

And be sure to do all of this outlining first, before mixing your paints. Gouache is fast-drying, so you’ll want to start painting as soon as you’ve mixed your colors.

Step 3: Mix Your Paints

Mix your paints together, and with water, to create your desired color and consistency.
Mix your paints together, and with water, to create your desired color and consistency.

Gouache paint comes out of the tube wet, and it can be mixed with more water to achieve a smoother consistency. That said, you can’t make it transparent by mixing it with water in the same way you can with watercolor paint. When adding water to paints on your palette, do so little by little and with the paintbrush, to avoid adding too much. 

How much water do you use with gouache? That depends on the effect you want to create, but don’t go too crazy, as watering gouache down too much will diminish its signature opaque finish. If you accidentally add too much water to your paints, you can balance it out by adding a few drops of gum arabic to it. This will help bind the color to the paper and prevent the pigment from being easily brushed off the paper once the water in the paint has dried.

If you’re wanting to create a graphic picture with clean lines and blocks of color—reasons why many artists love gouache—pre-mix your colors on a palette before starting. Again, you’ll want to work quite quickly as gouache is fast-drying, but you can always re-wet your paint to keep using it.

You can also use the “wet on wet” technique, where you mix wet paints directly on the paper, instead of in your palette. This technique is a great way of blending colors, adding shadows, and avoiding crisp edges, though it can be a bit trickier to master. If you’re just starting out, experiment with color mixing on your palette first.

Step 4: Get Painting!

Student work in gouache by Tara Neal for   Beyond Watercolor: Learn to Paint with Gouache  .
Student work in gouache by Tara Neal for Beyond Watercolor: Learn to Paint with Gouache.

There are truly no rules about how you should or shouldn’t paint with gouache, but there are some techniques specific to the medium that you might want to try. Likewise, it’s helpful to know what probably won’t work.

Start by applying your base colors in thin layers on the canvas. While gouache can be layered up for a more textured finish, each layer should be thin or the paint will crack when it dries. Also, make sure to let each layer of paint dry completely before adding another. (Good news: Because of how quickly gouache dries, you won’t have to wait around the way you do with other mediums, like oil paints.) 

Once you’ve laid your base layers, block out the major shapes and colors of your painting. You can go back with a finer brush to add more detail after each layer dries.

A benefit of gouache is that it’s easy to cover up mistakes—because it dries matte and opaque, you can paint right over anything you’d like to cover up. It’s one of the reasons gouache is so good for beginners! Make any final touch-ups before finishing up your painting. 

Step 5: Cleaning Up

One advantage of gouache is that it’s easy to clean up once you’ve finished painting.
One advantage of gouache is that it’s easy to clean up once you’ve finished painting.

As gouache is water based, it’s easy to clean up—you don’t need any smelly, toxic solvents as you do with oil paints.

But before washing your palette, consider whether you might want to use that color again. A benefit of gouache is that you can reconstitute it with water, so even a dried patch of paint on your palette can be used again later. You might not need to wash your palette every time.

Do clean your brushes properly after each use, though, by washing them with water and a bit of soap in the palm of your hand. Doing so will keep them in good condition and help them last longer.

As a final step, you may choose to display your masterpiece! If so, be aware that gouache is less durable than acrylic paint, which can withstand dust and light better. So, frame your gouache painting behind glass to keep it looking great for years to come.

Get Started With Gouache

Beyond Watercolor: Learn to Paint with Gouache.