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Gouache and Watercolor​

Gouache has its roots in the graphic design industry. Back before digital imaging, graphic artists had to prepare copy for print with a pencil, brush and paint. The requirement was for quick drying, solid, opaque colors that offered no reflection when scanned or photographed.



Gouache was the perfect pigment – it could be applied without showing any brush strokes, it was completely opaque and extremely flat. The fact that Gouache was a stepping stone to a final print product meant there was no need for permanence – once the scan or photograph was taken, the artwork had served it’s purpose.


The use of Gouache in the graphics industry has all but disappeared. Artists however still appreciate the flat, velvety quality of Gouache and to this end most of the paint manufactures have improved the permanence and light fastness of the product.


Gouache comes in a wide range of colors. Some manufacturers produce the same colors as their watercolors in their gouache range.(See M. Graham’s range of artists watercolor and color matched gouache). No matter which manufacturer you choose, it is a good idea to check their color charts before buying paint. Only choose the most permanent colors.



What Is Gouache?

Gouache is very closely related to watercolor. It uses the same gum Arabic binder, but has more pigment which is not ground as finely as watercolor. Gouache also has chalk or Calcium Carbonate added to make it flat and opaque. It can be re dissolved after it has dried just like watercolor.

Why Use Gouache?

If you are a traditional transparent watercolor painter then Gouache is probably not for you. If you like to play and experiment during the course of a painting, then Gouache is a wonderful tool.
I like to start with a solid, structural plan – a composition thumbnail, an idea of color arrangement and a focal point to build the painting around.


I generally start with transparent watercolor, charcoal and ink, build up a powerful focal area with strong tonal contrast and intense color. I retain this area of clarity through out the course of the painting. I will scrub back, wash over and generally destroy less important regions of the work then subtly reconstruct them.


This process is risky and unpredictable, but wonderful things emerge that would not happen if a more controlled approach was taken. Gouache is perfect for this reconstructing as it remains very soluble and can be infinitely adjusted with a damp brush.



Because Gouache is an opaque pigment it is best kept away from your watercolors – it will quickly turn them to mud.
I have a small palette attached to the end of my watercolor palette I keep just for Gouache.


I often tint White Gouache with watercolor so I squeeze small amounts of my regular watercolors on to the Gouache palette too.

Examples of Paintings Incorporating Gouache and Watercolor

This example shows the clean, sharp focal area built up with transparent watercolor. Strong darks contrasting with areas of white paper hold attention in this focal area. Tinted White Gouache breaks down and covers large areas of the painting. This is broken up with loose white charcoal and pastel marks.




Most of this painting is transparent watercolor but the areas of intense Ultramarine Blue were painted with pure Ultramarine Blue Gouache. The awning and pale blue shapes around the shop-front were painted with a mixture of Ultramarine Blue and White Gouache.

Some regions of pale green were made by mixing Phthalo Green watercolor with White Gouache. These shots of color can be added over any part of the painting due to the covering capacity and opacity of gouache.




The flat blue sky in this painting was one of the last areas painted. Initially the area was washed in with Cobalt Blue watercolor so I could better judge what was happening. When the painting was almost finished a combination of Ultramarine Blue Gouache and White Gouache was mixed to a creamy consistency and carefully applied to the sky.


Once this dried television antennas, chimney pots and fine details were carefully placed over the blue.

The reason for leaving the application of gouache until the end is because one drop of water on the gouache would ruin the flat effect. The blue umbrellas in the foreground were strengthened with a mixture of pale blue gouache too.




Big wet puddles of tinted Gouache were flooded through the background of this landscape. The trees on the left were painted in with a dark mixture of Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue and Indian Yellow watercolor while the gouache was still wet.
The amount of bleeding and feathering that takes place with this technique is unpredictable, but if it all goes wrong a water spray will wash it all away allowing you to start again. Just remember to hold on to that area of clean sharp contrast at the focal point.




The regions away from the focal point in this painting were brutally attacked with gesso before being washed over with some tinted Gouache, The patch of light in the sky and water were flooded in with pure white Gouache then quickly feathered out with a dry Hake Brush. Once everything had dried patches of White Gouache tinted with Phthalo Green watercolor were added as were areas of Orange tinted White Gouache.




This painting demonstrates the way Gouache sits on top of anything it is painted over. The sticks and leaves were first washed in with watercolor. Progressively darker mixtures of watercolor were painted into the negative spaces, allowing the foliage to emerge. Larger leaf shapes were then masked around and painted with watercolor gesso. When the masking tape was removed the hard edged shapes were washed over with watercolor. Transparent darker washes were graded over either side to exaggerate the light in the focal point. Over the top of all this, loose marks and spots of tinted White Gouache were introduced to add color and detail.


Gouache and Varnish

If you are using Gouache in mixed media work that will be varnished rather than placed under glass, be aware of the shift in tone when the varnish is applied. In this example a wax varnish was applied to the top half of these varying mixtures of Ultramarine Blue Gouache and White Gouache.


The pure Ultramarine is noticeably darker with the application of wax. A good rule of thumb is if it looks OK when the gouache is wet, it will be fine when a varnish is applied.


Gouache should not be seen as a way of covering mistakes or hiding things, rather as a way of introducing flat punchy colors, flicks of fine detail or big unpredictable areas of flat, opaque wash to contrast with regions of transparent detail.

If you are keen to experiment with your painting and find the traditional approach to watercolor a bit predictable, pick up a couple of tubes of Gouache and have some fun – It’s a great partner for transparent watercolor.


See also “Which White” for information on the difference between Gouache and Gesso and their individual uses.


Author: John Lovett

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