Many forms of painting exist, ranging from acrylic paint to watercolor to oil, and each have their own advantages and unique set of techniques. Today we’re focusing on gouache, an opaque water-based paint that has an endless array of applications and allows you to create truly beautiful work.
First, let’s start with a refresher course on what gouache is and what separates it from other forms of painting. From there, we’ll dive into the eight pro tips we rounded up from working artists that will help you bypass some of the most common mistakes newbies make while honing your gouache painting skills.
So, What Exactly is Gouache?
One of the best ways to improve your gouache craft is to first have a firm grasp on what it is. For the answer to that, we reached out to Kate Joy Stetson, an illustrator and painter based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania who’s very familiar with the technique.
“Gouache is a water-based paint, similar to watercolor, but with a higher pigment load and greater opacity. I first used it in my foundation studies at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) when I had a particularly tricky professor whose background was in graphic design. She loved gouache for its intensity in color” she told us.
After quite a bit of trial and error, Stetson says that she truly grew to love gouache for its flexibility, noting that it can be diluted to watercolor and even rewetted after it’s hardened for further use. She also came to admire its ability to call back classic illustration techniques.
“Gouache is different from acrylic, which is another water-based paint, in that it can be rewetted like watercolor, while acrylic cannot. Gouache also has a drier, tackier feel, while acrylic and oil can be applied with a faster stroke,” she explains. Further, when acrylic dries it’s quite glossy, while gouache dries soft and matte more akin to a watercolor painting.
The primary medium used in gouache — which, by the way, has a rich history that dates back over 600 years — is a natural pigment that’s very similar to watercolor. The primary differences between the two are that the particle sizes are larger in gouache, it uses binders like gum Arabic and dextrin, and it also utilizes white fillers such as chalk to make the consistency heavier and opaquer.
Ready to use gouache paint yourself? Here are a few great pieces of advice to keep in mind as you get started.
Try Not to Think of Gouache as Watercolor
Though gouache and watercolor have a number of overlaps and similarities, they really shouldn’t be conflated in application.
“The most common mistake people make when using gouache for the first time is that they use it as watercolors,” says Pooja Shah, a New York City-based painter who works in with acrylics, watercolor, impasto, and of course, gouache. “Opaqueness is the main characteristics of gouache, so one must use the right amount of water to get that opaqueness and the matte finish. Too much water makes it look like watercolor, and too [little] water can lead to cracking on the paint surface after it dries out.”
The consistency of the paint is very important, Shah says, and that it should be “like cream that easily flows from the brush.” Not sure you’ve got the hang of it? Don’t worry. Finding the right mix of paint and water will get easier the more you work with the medium.
Do Color Charts and Swatches For All Your Paints
It’s easy to get excited and want to take your gouache paint from palette to canvas, but creating color charts in advance will benefit your workflow and wallet.
“Test your colors before using them, perhaps creating charts with tints, which are colors mixed with white, and with shades, which are colors mixed with black, so you can refer to them [as you paint],” advises Stetson. “Gouache is expensive and sometimes unforgiving, so testing your colors helps you plan for any future work, as you will know how to produce the color you want.”
Even if you’re using color straight out of the tube without shading or tinting them, it’s very possible that they won’t dry the exact color. Shah notes that dark shades of gouache tend to become a little lighter after they’ve dried, while lighter shades can look darker than you’d expect. Think of it like shopping for paint swatches before painting your entire house or looking at nail polish examples before choosing a color for a manicure.
Opt for Synthetic Brushes
Though it may seem counterintuitive — (real is better, right?) — Shah says that synthetic paint brushes tend to work better for gouache painting compared to natural hair brushes. She explains, “The water-holding capacity of the synthetic hair brush is less than that of the natural hair brush. [By using synthetic], you can better control the amount of water that goes into the paint and avoid any streakiness, too.”
Start With Something Small Scale
Everyone has to begin somewhere, and the artists we talked to recommended starting with a small-scope project and limited color palette for your first couple paintings. By sticking to about three to five hues instead of the entire spectrum, you can reduce your risk of ending up with muddy colors on your canvas. They also recommended choosing painting projects that are easy enough to feel fun and approachable. You don’t want to risk feeling burnt out or frustrated on your first few projects.
As a Beginner, It’s Best to Always Start with Fresh Paint
One of the most wonderful (read: very practical) things about gouache is that even once your paint dries in your palette, you can reactivate it again with a drop or two of water. (In fact, you can even reactivate an entire dried out tube with some glycerin and water.) As a beginner, though, our pro artists recommend sticking with fresh paint right out of the tube on your first handful of paintings.
Arguably, one of the trickiest things about gouache painting is getting the consistency right. By using only fresh paint versus reactivated, your paints will have a more predictable consistency. Once you become more familiar with gouache paints in general, you can begin playing with the consistency of re-hydrated paint.
Give the Base Layer a Chance to Dry Before Pressing Onward
“When working with multiple layers of gouache paint, always make sure that the base layer has completely dried out [before beginning a new layer],” says Shah. “This is important because gouache is easily reactivated with water, so if the base layer has not dried out completely then the next layer will bleed into the base layer creating muddy colors.” Drying only takes a few minutes.
Shah adds that another way to help prevent any potential muddiness is to use an acrylic binder to fix the base layer, though this can reduce the matte finish of the paint.
Take it Slow and Easy as You Paint and Layer
Gouache requires methodical and careful technique in order to create the most beautiful end result.
“Painting with gouache is slow and full of texture. For the base layer, outline large blocks of color before filling them in. These base layers leave a raised edge that allow for easy color blocking,” says Shah. “For subsequent layers, go slower with your application, as the layers below will blend with the top color. Painting a second layer on top of gouache is just as full of texture, almost like the feel of a cat’s tongue.”
Some additional good rules of thumb regarding layers is to work from light to dark colors (you can more easily paint something dark over light instead of vice versa), as well as from thinner consistency to thicker. It’s also best to start by painting larger shapes and then doing smaller shapes on top, which allows the bottom layers of color and design to still show through. Think of it like your painting is slowing coming into focus the closer you get to completion.
Don’t Forget to Protect Your Masterpiece
Stetson stresses the importance of protecting your gouache painting whether it’s midway finished or ready to be hung. She says, “Just like watercolor, gouache can be destroyed by an errant droplet of water. You can use spray fixative for a bit of protection, but nothing will keep it absolutely safe without ruining some its qualities.”
The best protection of all? A quality glass frame, which will complement your painting beautifully no matter where you decide to show it off.
Want to learn more about gouache? Skillshare’s got dozens of classes to help you get started.
Cover image: Class still from Botanical Illustration: Paint a Colorful Garden with Watercolor and Gouache with Sara Boccaccini Meadows