Comparing gouache vs watercolor paints? While both are made from water soluble pigments and binders, there are several important differences between the two mediums. Most significantly, watercolor paint can be watered down and spread thinly enough to become nearly transparent. While you can add water to gouache, you cannot make it more translucent. Instead, gouache typically provides a dense, opaque finish. 

If you’re curious about the other differences between the two mediums and when to use gouache vs watercolor, continue reading for a full comparison.  

On the left, you can see the more transparent properties of watercolor paint, while the painting on the right showcases the bold, flat wash of gouache paint. 
On the left, you can see the more transparent properties of watercolor paint, while the painting on the right showcases the bold, flat wash of gouache paint. 

When and How to Use Gouache Paint 

What is gouache? The gouache definition is simply a technique of painting with opaque watercolors. Gouache is known as opaque watercolor paint because it’s typically mixed with water in the same way the watercolors are, but it provides a flat, matte wash of bold color. 

Even when thinned out with water, gouache offers a bold, flat wash of color, while watercolors are more transparent and light. 
Even when thinned out with water, gouache offers a bold, flat wash of color, while watercolors are more transparent and light. 

Gouache is a versatile paint, so there’s really no one standard recommendation for when to use it, but in general, it’s ideal for creating large, bold areas of color. For example, you might use it to paint lettering or fill in drawings. It’s often used by illustrators because those large, flat areas of color are easy to photograph and scan in to create digital illustrations. 

To learn how to use gouache, you first need a few simple materials: gouache paint, paint brushes, paper, and a mixing tray. From there, you can learn a variety of techniques to help you create your desired gouache art composition, such as:

  • Staining: Creating a large wash of color that could, for example, serve as the background of your painting. 
  • Opaque layers: Adding in shapes and layers on top of your background (for example, painting clouds in a sky).
  • Wet-on-wet: Dampening your paper and then adding gouache paint, creating blurred edges and shapes. 

The more you practice, the more familiar you’ll become with your paint and how to use it to create the exact composition you envision. 

When and How to Use Watercolor 

A better-known medium, watercolors are often used by landscape and still life artists. Watercolors also work well with other mediums, such as colored pencils, graphite, and ink to create mixed media compositions. Fashion designers and illustrators often choose watercolor because the paint can be blended and applied to depict a wide range of textures. 

To learn how to use watercolor, you will need watercolor paint, brushes, a mixing tray, and watercolor paper. Then, you’ll focus on learning how to adjust the amount of water in your paint to create different shades of color and translucency, as well as how to blend those colors together on the paper.  

In this composition, Skillshare instructor Katie Rodgers demonstrates how to create the texture of patent leather with watercolors. 
In this composition, Skillshare instructor Katie Rodgers demonstrates how to create the texture of patent leather with watercolors. 

Explore Your Options

Getting to Know Your Paint: Watercolor, Gouache, and Acryla Gouache With Dylan Mierzwinski

Is Gouache Easier Than Watercolor?

While watercolor is perhaps more well known, both gouache and watercolor are common beginner mediums. Unlike oil or acrylic paints, they leave more room for error, because if you are unhappy with your initial work, you can simply rewet the paint and rework it to your liking. 

Ultimately, rather than considering the skill level required, it comes down to the finish you prefer: translucent or matte. 

Can You Use Gouache as Watercolor? 

Like watercolor, you can reanimate gouache paint with water, which allows you to blend and rework your painting. However, that doesn’t mean you can use gouache exactly like you would use watercolor paint.

For example, to achieve a lighter color with watercolor paint, you add more water. To create a lighter shade of gouache, however, you add white pigment. 

The way you layer colors also differs with the two types of paint. With watercolors, you cannot layer lighter colors on top of darker colors—they simply won’t show up well. Instead, you must paint lighter shapes first, and then paint dark portions in the negative space. With gouache paint, you can first paint a dark background, and then layer on top of it with lighter shades of paint. 

In this image, you can see the same composition created with watercolors (on the left) and gouache (on the right). 
In this image, you can see the same composition created with watercolors (on the left) and gouache (on the right). 

Pros and Cons for Watercolors vs Gouache 

Watercolors

1. Pro: Easy to blend 

Watercolors are heavily water-based, as soon as two wet colors touch, they begin bleeding into each other. This makes the paint incredibly easy to blend. 

Watercolors are incredibly easy to blend, allowing shades of color to bleed effortlessly into each other. 
Watercolors are incredibly easy to blend, allowing shades of color to bleed effortlessly into each other. 

2. Con: A lack of careful planning can lead to mistakes 

Because watercolors blend so well, it can be easy to unintentionally let colors blend together, creating muddy areas within your composition. To create a successful watercolor painting, you must plan carefully to avoid unintentional blending of colors. 

3. Pro: Translucent finish

Unlike gouache, watercolor paint becomes transparent when mixed with water, allowing the white of the paper to show through from underneath. This creates a light, bright, translucent finish that can make your composition shine. 

4. Con: Requires thicker paper 

Because watercolors require a significant amount of water, the wet paint can cause thin paper to buckle. In general, it’s best to use watercolor-specific paper for watercolors. 

Gouache

1.  Pro: Opaque finish

Gouache dries with an opaque finish, which makes it easy to layer shapes on top of each other—just make sure to let each layer dry completely to avoid reanimating the paint underneath. 

Gouache paint can be used to create large, flat, opaque washes of color—like the background and flowers in this piece of gouache art. 
Gouache paint can be used to create large, flat, opaque washes of color—like the background and flowers in this piece of gouache art. 

2. Con: Less blendable than watercolor

While you can blend gouache paint, it’s not quite as effortless as the process is with watercolor. Unlike with watercolors, colors of gouache don’t simply bleed when they touch. 

3. Pro: More paper options 

Because gouache requires less water than watercolors, you can use it on thinner paper, like sketchbook or mixed media paper. You can also paint on colored paper because it is opaque. Watercolors, on the other hand, generally don’t show up as well on colored paper. 

4. Con: If applied too thickly, it can crack

Gouache is a thicker paint than watercolor, so if it’s applied too thickly, it can crack when it dries. 

In comparing watercolor vs gouache, there are subtle but important differences. If you’re interested in these mediums, try both and see what you prefer. Your vision and creative process will play a role in your decision to use one or the other—or both!  

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