The Beginners Guide to Gouache

If you’ve ever tried watercoloring (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 as 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? We’ve written a Beginner's Guide to answer your most pressing questions. Read on, and you’ll soon learn everything you need to know about the history of this powerful medium and why you should start using its unique creative qualities to your artistic advantage.

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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 on how to pronounce the word? Check out Leah Goren’s all-important How to Say Gouache tutorial here:

Though paint only began being called “gouache” in 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. 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.”

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 ability for precise, flat color and it’s quick-drying qualities.

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Fauve masters like Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, and Marc Chagall experimented with 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.

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How do you know when to choose gouache vs. watercolor?

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.  

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, and it 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). The paint is best used to create a flat wash of color that dries matte. Because it dries so quickly, gouache is also better for gestural, action and direct paintings than watercolors are.

Ready to get 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.