Drawing & Painting blog

IN PRAISE OF GOUACHE

I think of gouache as the ‘dark horse’ of the paint world. Most people have heard of it but very few really know what it is and fewer still have tried it, despite it being an extremely easy, effective and versatile medium to work in.

'Porte de Chatillon' by Eugène Galien-Laloue

Eugène Galien-Laloue (1854-1941)  PORTE DE CHATILLON, PARIS.  Gouache, watercolour and pencil on paper
CC0 1.0 Public Domain

It wasn’t always this way. For centuries gouache was popular and widely used by artists and it enjoyed a resurgence during the modernist era when artists began rejecting chiaroscuro (representing forms with light and shade) and started using strong flat colour, which gouache was ideally suited to. The list of artists who most frequently worked in the medium include Moreau, Degas, Redon, Matisse, Kokoschka, Schiele, Klee, Malevich, and Chagall. Everyone is familiar with Matisse’s wonderful ‘Cut-outs’, but don’t realize that they were painted in gouache! In the 20th century we also find Alexander Calder, Jackson Pollock, Agnes Martin, Sol LeWitt, and Bridget Riley also working in gouache. Today modern artists employ such a wide variety of mediums but they rarely work in gouache, with Anish Kapoor being one notable exception.

I might never have come across gouache paint myself except that when I once studied theatre design and worked for some time as a theatrical model maker, we used gouache to paint tiny little models of theatre sets. Being fully opaque and with a velvety matt finish that could be applied without showing brush strokes, gouache was often the paint of choice for theatre, costume and textile designers, as well as for illustrators and animators. Being water soluble it is easy to dilute, apply and clean up after. These days however it has largely been replaced within the design industries with something else even quicker and easier: Adobe Photoshop.

'Fragment of the Alps' by John Ruskin

John Ruskin, FRAGMENT OF THE ALPS (BOULDER AT CHAMONIX), 1854-1856, Watercolour and gouache over graphite on paper
Credit: Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Samuel Sachs

With the decline in its use in both fine art and design, gouache now has a tiny percentage of the paint market and is regarded as something of an oddity and an unusual choice of medium to work in. This is such a shame because not only is it great for beginners – the technique is arguably easier than either watercolour, oils or acrylics, and – but it’s also very well suited to the type of bright, bold colours and innovative mixed media that modern artists often experiment with. In fact artists of the past have also appreciated all of these qualities. This painting by John Ruskin combines both watercolour (used for the light coloured, layered rocks) and gouache paint in a way that artists have been doing for centuries: giving a strength and solidity to certain colours and the forms they depict that would be hard to achieve with watercolour alone.

Just what exactly is gouache?

I discovered that I’d been pronouncing the word incorrectly for years and had been Anglicizing it to ‘goo-ash’ whereas the correct pronunciation is actually more like  ‘gwash’. The word comes from the Italian ‘aguazzo’ which means mud and is a reference to gouache’s wet and opaque appearance. Gouache is often called ‘opaque watercolour’ because it contains the same ingredients as watercolour – a pigment bound with a ‘Gum Arabic’ binder – but it lacks the transparency of watercolour and its colours are richer and more saturated.

Holbein gouache paint
Photo credit: Holbein paints

Both gouache and watercolour dry to a matt finish that can be ‘re-activated’ when water is re-applied so that you can re-blend your paint, soften edges, and so on. This sets both apart from acrylic or oil paint which both have a glossy finish and are not alterable once they are dry because of chemical changes that take place as they do so.

Some history

Opaque water-based paint was used in continental Europe at least as far back as the time of Albrecht Dürer, although prior to the eighteenth century it would have been known as ‘bodycolour’ which denoted any opaque paint made from a heavy percentage of pigment and a glue size binder, usually with the addition of some kind of chalk or whitening pigment. When artists mixed their watercolour paint with a white pigment such as ‘Lead White’ or ‘Chinese White’ to make it no longer fully transparent, the resulting paint mixture would have been referred to as ‘bodycolour’. Historically and still now, the terms ‘gouache’ and ‘bodycolour’ may be used interchangeably.

'Young Hare' by Dürer
Albrecht Dürer, YOUNG HARE, 1502, Watercolour and bodycolour on paper
CC0 1.0 Public Domain

By the time the term ‘gouache’ was used in eighteenth century France it described a bodycolour made with pigment and a specific binding agent of gum arabic, plus some form of whitener. These days gouache is pre-mixed in tubes and generally also contains additives such as glycerin or dextrin which improve the adhesion and flexibility of the paint layer. These may be referred to as ‘moisturizers’ or ‘plasticizers’.

How gouache paint is made

With gouache you get a paint layer that’s thicker and heavier than watercolour and doesn’t reveal any of the painting surface beneath unless you water it down considerably. This is achieved in a number of ways:

  • The pigments are less finely ground than with watercolour. This helps to make them less transparent when applied to paper. Because of this opacity you can also paint with it onto wooden board or cardboard. Technically you could also paint onto canvas too although a pre-primed, gessoed canvas might not accept the gouache paint well.
  • The ratio of pigment to gum arabic binder is higher than with watercolour. This makes the colour very saturated and again, more opaque.
  • A white substance such a chalk or Titanium is usually (but not always) mixed with the coloured pigment. With watercolour paints tube of coloured paint will never contain any white, although most sets of watercolours come with a tube of ‘Chinese White’ colour which people often use to create highlights with. In the past when painting with watercolours I’ve also been known to add a tiny bit of it to a colour to correct a mistake! If you were to add some of this Chinese White to your other watercolours you would effectively have created a primitive form of gouache – although you’d likely get a chalky and unsatisfactory effect.
  • The better ranges of gouache paint try to achieve opacity with a heavier pigment load, rather than with the addition of too much white pigment. Fairly cheap gouache paint ranges like Daler-Rowney’s ‘Designer’s Gouache’ tend to add  Calcium Carbonate (chalk) to most of their colours, whereas Winsor & Newton’s famous ‘Designer’s Gouache’ range (made since 1935 this was the first range of high quality, pre-tubed gouache produced for designers) uses a minimal amount of chalk and some white pigments such as Titanium where they consider it necessary. This is a common approach taken by manufacturers making professional grade paint ranges because trying to create an opaque paint from the most transparent pigments – particularly modern synthetic ones – is very difficult.

Winsor & Newton utilize naturally more opaque pigments where possible in order to minimize the necessity for too much white to be added. The very well regarded Japanese company Holbein and some other companies such as M Graham actually use no whitening ingredients at all and achieve their opacity through a heavy pigment weight, the selection of more naturally opaque pigments, and a moisturizer. Holbein gouache is slightly less opaque as a result but you could always mix in a tiny bit of white yourself if you want to alter this.

How is painting with gouache different to painting with watercolour?

  • You can cover over areas of paint by painting over it with a new layer. This isn’t really possible with watercolour.
  • Because it is thicker, gouache won’t be absorbed into the paper in the same way as a watercolour paint but will mainly sit on the paper surface. Most artists paint onto specialist watercolour paper when working with gouache because it’s thick and pre-sized and won’t buckle when paint is applied to it but they tend to go for a smooth, hot-pressed paper and not a coarse-toothed variety because goauche doesn’t soak into paper to create a textured, watery effect like watercolour does.
  • Although gouache won’t go as transparent as watercolour you can dilute it to quite a watery wash to encourage more transparency. More typically though artists working in gouache will lighten a colour by adding a only a very little bit of water to encourage the paper texture to peep through a bit, and by adding more white if necessary (this is called tinting) although too much white may produce a chalky effect. With just a little bit of dilution and not too much white, gouache can be incredibly vibrant. This painting by Paul Klee is a good example.
  • You can paint on coloured paper and if you apply your paint without dilution the paper will not show through at all, as with this beautifully sensitive portrait by Toulouse-Lautrec. This would have been impossible with watercolour where you can only accurately paint skin tones – dark or light – on pale paper. Working with gouache onto a coloured background is very different to watercolour painting where you let the lightest areas be represented by the white of the paper. Here instead you can let your paper colour peep through the paint and represent your mid tones. A creamy white background and watercolour paint is great for representing bright natural daylight, but working on a tinted paper that shines through gives a depth and atmosphere that can work well for indoor light or darker outdoor conditions.
'Augusta' by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, AUGUSTA, 1890, Gouache on cardboard
Credit: Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Annie Swan Coburn
  • You can’t employ a ‘wet on wet’ watercolour technique where you add paint to a wash that’s not yet dry. With gouache you need to let a first layer fully dry before adding a second. Another thing you need to be wary of is using very thick layers of paint because unlike with watercolour where you can apply as many washes as the paper will take, gouache may crack with too thick an application. If you want to paint thickly then Acrylic would be a better alternative to watercolour for you.
  • Typically artists use watercolour brushes to paint with gouache but if you are using quite thick and undiluted paint you may find it easier to manipulate with synthetic brushes designed for use with acrylic, rather than a soft animal brush like a Sable. You can find more information on brush types here.
  • And lastly, with gouache as your colours dry they may appear very slightly lighter. This is something you quickly get used to and accommodate for.

Which mediums can you combine with gouache?

Gouache is fantastic when used in ‘mixed media’ alongside graphite, pastel, watercolour, ink, and even lithography. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec combined it with thinned oil and charcoal, Edgar Degas with pastel. Egon Schiele used it in conjunction with pencil and watercolour whilst Anish Kapoor mixes it with acrylic. Because it’s flat and matt you can use it as a base colour and then work on top of it in another medium. Alternatively if you thin it down a bit you can apply it on top of pencil or ink, allowing these marks to still remain visible.

This work by JMW Turner exemplifies so many of the effects you can achieve with the addition of gouache to watercolour. Turner has worked on a blue tinted paper which suggests a darkening sky, late in the day. The application of yellow watercolour washes on top to suggest thin clouds, still just about lit by a sinking sun. Being transparent these washes of yellow watercolour vibrate against the blue paper to create that almost greenish effect that you sometimes get when the light starts to really go on a very bright day.

'The Scarlet Sunset' by Joseph Mallord William Turner

Joseph Mallord William Turner, THE SCARLET SUNSET, 1830-40, Watercolour and gouache on paper
© Estate of Turner, Photo © Tate CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

Turner has then used gouache to pick out strong bold colours – the heavier, lower red clouds, the richly yellow sun and its reflection on water – with an intensity that you’d struggle to achieve with watercolour, particularly on a tinted paper. For the bluish paint used to depict the bridge and the silhouetted buildings, Turner used a gouache made of Lead White and Ultramarine. Once this layer was dry he applied further washes of transparent red watercolour on top which the bridge and buildings – given that opacity with the addition of the white paint – shine through.

'L'Inspiration' by Gustave Moreau
Gustave Moreau, L’INSPIRATION, 1893, Watercolour and gouache with pen and blue ink over traces of graphite on wove paper
CC0 1.0 Public Domain, Credit: The Art Institute of Chicago

Gouache was very popular with artists associated with the Expressionist, PreRaphaelite, and Symbolist movements: all of which delighted in using very rich colour. This lovely work by the late 19th century Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau makes the most of the strong colour of gouache whilst maintaining an illustrative quality that wouldn’t have been possible with oils, by combining it with watercolour, pen and blue ink.

One artist who exploited all of the medium’s best qualities was the Belle Epoque French painter Eugène Galien-Laloue who painted the ‘Porte de Chatillon’ at the top of this article. Galien-Laloue frequently worked entirely in  gouache, over a pencil sketch. Sometimes referred to as an ‘illustrator’ on account of his choice of medium and his rather unchallenging subject matter, Galien-Laloue painted hugely accomplished street scenes of a brightly illuminated Paris. He worked onto warmly tinted paper to give his paintings an atmospheric light, favouring the depiction of dark or overcast days and skillfully depicting clouds, rain, snow, and the effects of wind.

'Place De La Bastille' by Eugène Galien-Laloue
Eugène Galien-Laloue (1854-1941), PLACE DE LA BASTILLE, Gouache over pencil on paper
CC0 1.0 Public Domain

This painting was executed entirely in gouache over pencil. Here Galien-Laloue actually exploits the potential chalkiness of the medium, using thick opaque pale paint over the warmly tinted light brown paper to suggest clouds heavy with snow. In places he’s diluted this paint just enough to make it pool a little on the paper, drying with watermarks that represent the texture of snow clouds. He uses more watered down paint for the wet sleet lying on the pavements and road. Unlike a watercolour wash that would sink straight into the paper, here the wet gouache seems to pool like real puddles.

He has then worked on top of these layers, using brown paint with an extremely dry brush which picks up the paper’s texture to suggest the reflections of the buildings, people and cars on the wet ground. He uses a similarly dry paint to indicate branches and ironwork details with the flick of a tiny brush. Then turning once more to much thicker paint he picks out heavy white snow sitting on ledges and bright artificial lights in yellows and oranges. Galien-Laloue basically mixes every effect that it’s possible to create with gouache here, making a painting that couldn’t have been produced in any other type of paint.

Galien-Laloue certainly wasn’t radical in his choice of subject but it’s easy to forget what a novelty the artificial illumination of Paris would have seemed at the time and it’s this exciting new brightnes that he was seeking to capture. Paris only became the ‘City of Lights’ after the installation of 20,000 gaslights throughout the city during the late nineteenth century. If Galien-Laloue is a bit too ‘cheery’ for your tastes however I can recommend another rather less well-known Belle Epoque painter who excelled in his use of gouache: the French-Italian Luigi Loir. Although Loir also worked in oils , he frequently used gouache either by itself or in combination with watercolour and always to beautiful effect.

'Une place a Paris' by Luigi Loir
Luigi Loir (1845-1916), UNE PLACE À PARIS, Gouache on paper
CC0 1.0 Public Domain

Loir’s palette was more restrained than Galien-Laloue’s but he employed quite a similar technique: using a tinted paper to set the tone of the picture, creating heavy skies of chalky paint and then utilizing a plethora of different types of mark-making including actaully scratching back into his paint with a pencil. He too uses the chalky aspect of gouache to deliberate effect, using pale opaque shades to paint reflective, slippery rain underfoot. On top of this he picks out people’s footprints in greeny brown dabs.

Particularly clever is the building to the right of the image where a dry brush has been used to apply a layer of very thin paint, allowing the paper grain to show through and stand for the texture of the stone in shadow. Meanwhile watery, chalky white at the top of the windows cleverly suggests some curtains whilst bright yellow dabs of very thick paint suggests the gas lights within the room. Loir’s favourite period was dusk, when the darkening skies could be contrasted with the cozy artificial lighting that now lit up Paris.

'Paris Sur La Neige' by Luigi Loir

In Paris Sur La Neige Loir uses dry thin paint scumbled into the warm brown paper to create the buildings receding from us as the far end of the street, whilst thick white paint applied in the loosest manner stands for snow. Again it’s the tinted paper and the contrast in opacity and texture of the paint that is so effective in creating atmosphere and the very specific light created by certain weather conditions.

‘Acrylic Gouache’ paints

From the past to the present now and a brief mention about the new ‘Acrylic Gouache’ paints made by a number of different manufacturers including Holbein and Turner – two Japanese brands – and Liquitex. Acrylic Gouache (also known as ‘Acryla Gouache’) is really a matt version of acrylic paint. It’s marketed as a gouache because although it is water resistant when dry like regular acrylic, it has a matt finish that is very unlike them. Acrylic gouache does have other hybrid qualities that make it gouache-like: it has a high pigment load, is often mixed with white pigment to achieve extra opacity and will deliver very bright saturated colour. However the binder used is an acrylic polymer, rather than a gum arabic.

Photo credit: Jacksonart.com

Theis new acrylic gouache will give you many characteristics typical of acrylic paint such as the ability to paint thicker layers without your paint cracking, because the acrylic polymer binder brings flexibility to the paint layers. You can also easily paint onto canvas with it, or virtually any other surface. If you’d like to be able to paint onto canvas with a water-soluble paint but would prefer a matt finish rather than a glossy look, then acrylic gouache could be for you. It dries more slowly than regular acrylics giving a longer opportunity for reworking, but will still present much less opportunity to modify your work than regular gouache paint. Acrylic gouache is more opaque than acrylic paint because of the size of the pigment particles and the usual addition of a white pigment. About half of the pigments used to make regular acrylic paint will be transparent, and therefore the uniformity of opacity achieved with acrylic gouache has made it popular with designers.

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