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If you’ve ever tried watercolor painting (or even looked into it), chances are you’ve encountered the word gouache at some point along the way.
Gouache paint, like both watercolor and acrylic paint, is a watermedia: a pigment that has to be mixed with water in order to be spread across a surface. Because it isn’t as popular as other styles of paint, gouache is often described as an “opaque watercolor,” a children’s poster paint, or a supplementary medium to be used alongside better-known techniques.
But don’t be fooled! Gouache painting has been around for more than a thousand years (the term “gouache” dates back to at least the 18th century), and in that time, artists have used the medium to create historically important, visually arresting, totally dynamic works of art.
Want to learn more about how to use gouache? Read on, and you’ll learn everything you need to know about the history of this powerful medium, why you should start using its unique creative qualities to your artistic advantage, and the materials and techniques you need to get started.
First things first: What is gouache? And how on earth do you pronounce it?
Gouache paint is a mix of natural or synthetic pigments, water, and gum arabic (or in less expensive brands, yellow dextrin) that acts as a binding agent to hold the paint together. Chalk is sometimes added to give the paint extra heft or body, and certain varieties add propylene glycol as well; traditional gouache tends to become brittle when it dries, and the extra additive attracts water to help paint layers stay more flexible over the long term.
French in origin, the word “gouache” is pronounced gwash like “squash,” and was inspired by the Italian “guazzo” technique that, while different, dried with similarly muddy, matte finish.
Still confused about gouache pronunciation? Check out Leah Goren’s all-important How to Say Gouache tutorial here:
While the term “gouache” wasn’t introduced until the 18th century, similarly opaque water-based mediums have been used by artists for thousands of years. In ancient Egypt, colorful pigments were bound together with honey and other binders to create an early form of gouache, and by the middle ages, Persian artists were using a rudimentary form of gouache to decorate their famously beautiful Persian Miniature paintings (1). In the 15th century, Albrecht Durer relied on the matte finish of early gouache to give his paintings a soft glow, and in the 18th century, François Boucher used the paint to capture the pastel colors of his famous “The Birth and Triumph of Venus” (2).
By the 19th century, gouache began to be produced industrially and its transportable qualities proved popular with landscape artists, particularly the “en plein air” French school of impressionists who painted canvases outdoors. In the early and mid-20th century, commercial artists heavily relied on gouache to paint poster art, letter comic books, and fill in cel animation because of the medium’s precise, flat color and its quick-drying qualities.
“It can be used to paint lettering or fill in drawings, it allows flexibility because mistakes can be covered up, and it photographs well — an important attribute in the age of digital illustration and design.”
Fauve masters like Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, and Marc Chagall experimented using gouache with other materials like ink, oil, and watercolor and found great success in their quest to create new and interesting color combinations and compositions. Matisse, in particular, worked with gouache and decoupage to create his famous series of “Blue Nudes” that remain popular with audiences worldwide.
Today’s artists prize gouache because it provides precision, full, flat color coverage, and crisp edges. It can be used to paint lettering or fill in drawings, it allows flexibility because mistakes can be covered up, and it photographs well — an important attribute in the age of digital illustration and design.
Gouache and watercolor are made of the same basic materials, but differ in specific, important ways.
Watercolors contain pigments that have very small particle sizes so that the paint can be spread thinly enough to be near-transparent. Gouache, on the other hand, has larger particles and more body, so it looks heavier, denser, and more opaque after it dries. The paint is best used to create a flat wash of color that dries matte. Because it dries so quickly, gouache is ideal for gestural, action, and direct paintings.
Gouache, like watercolor, can be re-wetted and binds to the paper that it’s on, but unlike watercolor, gouache paints cannot be watered down to look more translucent. Artists can’t use gouache to build layers of color like they can with watercolor.
“If you are a traditional transparent watercolor painter, then gouache is probably not for you,” says artist John Levitt. “If you like to play and experiment during the course of a painting, then gouache is a wonderful tool.” He describes his creative process as “risky and unpredictable,” explaining how he builds up areas of the painting before essentially destroying and reconstructing them. “Gouache is perfect for this reconstructing as it remains very soluble and can be infinitely adjusted with a damp brush” (3).
Gouache and acrylic paint are not the same. Acrylic paint is thicker and more durable than gouache — acrylics are waterproof and can stand up to dust and light (4). Acrylics are also ideal for multiple types of mediums, including paper, wood, glass, and plastic. Gouache, on the other hand, is best suited for paper.
Gouache also can’t be applied so thickly that it creates surface texture like acrylics and oils can (gouache cracks if it is applied too thickly). While gouache is typically applied with a paintbrush, acrylics can be applied with other tools, such as a palette knife.
Acrylic, unlike gouache, can’t be rewet and reworked — once it’s dry, you can’t change it (although you can paint over it). By rewetting gouache, you can reactivate the paint and make changes. This makes it a versatile and forgiving medium (5).
Getting started with gouache is fairly simple — you just need paints, paint brushes, paper, and a mixing tray.
- Gouache paint: There are lots of brands of gouache paint available. It’s a good idea to begin with a few primary colors, plus tubes of black and white, so you can mix a range of hues. For an upgrade, you can usually find beginners’ gouache paint sets that include a variety of colors.
- Gouache paint brushes: Gouache paint brushes are typically the same as watercolor paint brushes. You can choose from natural or synthetic fibers in a range of different sizes. Whichever you choose, you’ll generally want to keep your brush wet so you can move the paint around on the paper more easily.
- Paper or other surface to paint: Gouache works well on watercolor paper, but you could also use some thick drawing paper. While you can use canvas, that’s typically better suited for acrylic. Overall, your best option is paper for gouache.
- Mixing tray: Each color of gouache paint will come in an individual tube, but to create the spectrum of colors you want, you’ll need a mixing tray. Start with a little of one pigment on the mixing tray, and then add water or another color to achieve the shade you want.
In addition to these supplies, you’ll need a little water on hand (to wet the paint and mix different shades). Then, you’ll be ready to get started.
Now that you have your supplies ready, you can begin painting. While you are free to let your creativity run wild, it can be helpful to understand a few common gouache techniques as you begin your first painting:
- Staining: You might start a painting with staining — that is, covering an area of the paper with a layer of paint to serve as the foundation for the rest of the painting. Often, staining uses a bit of gouache paint mixed with some water to create a thin consistency that can be swathed across the page. This technique feels especially similar to watercolor, and can be used for elements such as the sky or field of grass in a landscape painting.
- Opaque layers: Once you have the foundation of the painting, you can begin to layer in opaque elements. By using the paint without adding much water, you’ll achieve a rich, opaque color that completely covers anything underneath it. You might use this technique to add clouds in a sky or a tree or shrubs in front of a mountain.
- Wet-on-wet: By first dampening your paper and then adding wet gouache to it, you will end up with soft shapes and blurred lines. This can be a good technique for backgrounds or bodies of water.
- Dry brushing: Dry brushing allows you to add texture to your painting. Simply pick up some semi-wet gouache paint with your brush, then brush most of it out (on a paper towel or scrap piece of paper). You should have only about 30 percent of the paint left on the brush. Then, quickly sweep the “dry” brush over your painting. You’ll achieve a feathered, almost ragged effect that can be used for texture, highlights, or backgrounds.
- Blooms: Blooms — or irregular, splotchy, abstract areas of color similar to something you might see in a watercolor painting — are easy to achieve with gouache. Load up your brush with water and a small amount of pigment. When you blot it on the paper, you’ll get little puddles of color that spread and bleed in an abstract way. These can form an interesting background or foundation to build upon.
- Reworking dry areas: A useful aspect of gouache paint is that it can be re-wet after it has dried. That allows you to rework elements of a painting and achieve some interesting effects. For example, if you originally painted a shape with a hard edge, rewetting the outline allows you to blur out that edge and end up with a softer shape.
Of course, this is just the beginning. As with any medium of art, you can take these techniques and use them, build upon them, or go in a completely different direction.
When you want to display one of your gouache paintings, make sure to protect it appropriately. As you’ve learned, water can reactivate the paint, so even just one stray drop of water can ruin your painting. The best protection is a glass frame; however, you can also use a spray fixative.
Ready to start painting?
Gouache paint is fun, useful, and one of a kind. It’s a historically important medium, and whether you use it alone or in tandem with other materials, mastering gouache will give you a new arsenal of ways to express yourself creatively.
If you’ve grabbed some gouache and you’re ready to use it, check out Skillshare’s latest gouache tutorial with artist and expert Leah Goren. She’ll show you everything you need to know to begin your gouache paint practice so you can open up new artistic possibilities in no time.
Find gouache classes on Skillshare:
- Botanical Illustration: Paint a Colorful Garden with Watercolor and Gouache with Sara Boccaccini Meadows
- Getting to Know Your Paint: Watercolor, Gouache, and Acryla Gouache with Dylan Mierzwinski
- Gouache Illustration: Paint a Whimsical, Colorful Character with Vanessa Gillings
- Beyond Watercolor: Learn to Paint with Gouache with Leah Goren
- Painting for Pattern Design: Create Botanical Patterns with Gouache & Photoshop with Angela Mckay
- Gouache Florals: Explore Shape, Color and Creative Composition with Peggy Dean
- Mixed Media Illustration: Create a Self-Portrait with Watercolor, Gouache & More with Maria-Ines Gul
- Painting Teacups in Gouache: Exploring Shape, Colour and Pattern with Alanna Cartier
1. Christie’s, https://www.christies.com/features/Collecting-Guide-Persian-Miniature-Paintings-8609-1.aspx
2. The J. Paul Getty Museum, http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/225481/francois-boucher-the-birth-and-triumph-of-venus-french-about-1743/
3. John Lovett, https://www.johnlovett.com/gouache-and-watercolor
4. Mary Fischer, Createlet, https://createlet.com/gouache-paint-vs-watercolor-paint-vs-acrylic-paint/
5. Malcolm Dewey Fine Art, https://www.malcolmdeweyfineart.com/blog/gouache-painting-for-beginners-materials#.XoPo5BNKhPN