Introduction to Gouache

If you’re like me, and you spend lots of time looking at art on social media, then you’ve likely come across the word gouache (pronounced “gwash”). But what exactly is gouache, and why is it rising in popularity?

Gouache is a type of water media, which means the paints must be mixed with water to spread correctly on the paper.

In some ways, it is similar to watercolour, and you’ll often hear artists refer to it as “opaque watercolour”. However, gouache has many properties of its own that make it unique. 

Gouache is made by mixing pigments with water and gum arabic, which acts as a binder. The main difference between gouache and watercolour is the size of the pigment used to create the paint.

Watercolour pigments are small, resulting in the paint’s translucent properties, allowing the paper’s white to shine through. However, the pigments used to create gouache are much larger, resulting in opaque layers with a velvety, matte finish.

Gouache does not reflect much light, so it photographs and scans exceptionally well. It does not produce glare, and colours and textures often look more faithful to the painting, making it easy to snap a perfect shot for Instagram.

Here's a more in-depth look at the difference between gouache and watercolour if you want to learn more. 

Here are a few colour swatches to better show you the difference. The top row is gouache, while the bottom one is watercolour. Note the opacity of the gouache in comparison to the watercolours.

History of Gouache 

Opaque water soluble paints similar to gouache have been used by artists around the world for over twelve centuries.

The ancient Greeks and Egyptians used tempera paints, which were created by mixing pigments with egg yolks which acted as a binder. Medieval Persians used gouache-like paints to create the well-regarded Persian Miniature paintings.

The term “gouache” itself was coined in 18th century France, and by the 19th century, gouache was produced industrially, making it more accessible to a wider range of artists.

The medium was really made popular by the Impressionists, who favored gouache for plein air painting (painting from life outdoors), due to its quick dry times and easy transportability.

Starting in the 20th century, gouache became widely used among commercial artists and illustrators because of its bright colors and matte finish. The medium is still popular among illustrators today. 

Many notable artists have painted with gouache, including Salvador Dali, Georgia O’Keeffe, and John Singer Sargeant. Perhaps the most famous gouache works are Henri Matisse’s cut-out series, including the Blue Nudes, which were created by cutting out and arranging paper that had first been painted with gouache.

Why Artists Love It

Gouache is incredibly flexible. You can adjust its consistency to achieve and combine a wide range of effects. It can be mixed to a thicker, cream-like consistency to achieve completely opaque layers. You can also thin it out by mixing it with water, resulting in a translucent effect similar to watercolour.

Achieving the right consistency can be a bit tricky at first, but with practice, you’ll soon figure out which ones work for your projects and which don’t.

I like to use a mix of opaque and translucent layers when I paint with gouache. In these studies of the Blue Ridge Mountains, you can see a combination of these effects.

Additionally, because gouache rehydrates with water, you can reactivate paint that has already dried on your paper to make changes. You can also reuse the paint that has completely dried out on your palette, making gouache a more eco-friendly option that reduces waste!

While it will not be the exact same consistency as gouache straight from the tube, rehydrated paint still works well for techniques like dry brushing to create texture or for adding translucent washes of colour to an area.

Because gouache is opaque, you can layer from light to dark as you can with watercolour and from dark to light to create bright, contrasting details. This makes gouache a rather forgiving medium. If you make a mistake, you can simply cover up the area and start again!

Be careful here with the consistency of your paint - because gouache reactivates with water, you may accidentally lift up the bottom layer of paint if you mix in too much.

Materials You’ll Need

Luckily, getting started with gouache is reasonably inexpensive, especially when compared to other mediums like oils. You only need a few basic supplies, but using the proper ones can make a huge difference!

1. Gouache Paints

With gouache, it’s essential to purchase high-quality paints if you don’t want to become frustrated. Winsor and Newton and Holbein offer high-quality options with great coverage, opacity, and vibrant colours.

2. Painting Surface

Although gouache can be used on canvas, it shines when used on heavyweight watercolour paper. Use at least 300 gsm to prevent your paper from buckling under the water. In the paintings I've featured here, I used the Etchr Perfect Sketchbook.

You can choose from cold press or hot press, but this is really a matter of preference, and it largely depends on your project.

Cold press paper tends to be more textured and has a higher capacity for absorbing water, meaning there is less time to correct work before it dries.

Hot press paper has a smoother finish which is ideal for paintings with lots of fine detail. Because of how light reflects off the paper, pigments appear slightly more vibrant on hot press when dry.

You should try out both to see which fits your needs better! Recommended paper/sketchbooks:

Etchr Lab Perfect Sketchbook

Etchr Lab Watercolor Blocks

3. Brushes

Flexible and soft synthetic hair brushes are best for gouache because they retain the proper amount of water and allow smoother strokes with precision while painting.

My must-have brushes for gouache painting include a wide flat brush to cover large areas, a smaller round brush, and a liner brush to add fine, precise details. Check out this set of Gouache brushes.

4. Palette

You’ll need a surface on which you can mix your paints to the desired consistency and colours. Any non-porous palette will work, but I prefer to use white ceramic watercolour palettes with distinct wells to keep my colours separated.

The porcelain mini palette works well, especially for Plein air painting and urban sketching projects. If you’re looking for something larger, try this ceramic palette.

5. Water Pots

When painting with gouache, it’s a good practice to keep two pots of water close by- one for cleaning off your brushes and one jar that is kept clean for mixing with paint.

6. Washi Tape

This is not strictly necessary for painting with gouache, but washi tape is great if you want to create margins around your painting to give the edges a clean, polished look. You can also use masking tape

Plus, is there anything more satisfying than peeling off the tape at the end and watching those clean lines appear? Note that if you plan to mat and frame your paintings, it will be necessary to leave a margin.

Basic Techniques

1. Staining

Staining is a technique that involves mixing a small amount of gouache with water to create a thin consistency, covering large areas to create base layers. Staining is particularly helpful for elements like skies or large swathes of grass.

2. Opaque Layering

Because gouache is opaque, you can add solid shapes on top of areas already painted, such as adding a moon to the sky or adding flowers to a field. To create opaque layers and details, keep your paint thick by decreasing the water you mix in.

3. Dry Brushing

Dry brushing is great for creating textured areas, like a mountain covered in trees. To dry brush, you’ll need to cover your brush in paint and then rub most of it off onto a rag. Then apply the paint from your brush to the paper with light strokes. Some areas will be left uncovered, creating a speckled look.

Tips:

  • Gouache colours do not look the same dry as they do wet. Light shades tend to look darker when dry, while dark colours might lighten.

  • Gouache dries quickly, which is great for projects like Plein air painting. However, it also means you need to work fast while laying down large washes and stains.

  • Because gouache can be reactivated, don’t use traditional varnish to seal your paintings. Any type of varnish will alter the value of the colours and affect the matte finish. The best way to preserve a gouache painting is to frame it behind glass.

This is only the beginning. There are so many other ways you can paint with gouache! Experiment and improvise to figure out techniques best suit you!

If you’re eager to learn more, check out our Introduction to Gouache Course taught by professional artist Andrew Peña! This in-depth course will take you from total beginner to feeling confident about painting original pieces.

Who is your favourite gouache artist? Comment below!

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Lilly Carr is an artist and illustrator based in Chicago, USA. She uses gouache to create colourful pieces inspired by the magic of nature. When she’s not painting, she loves spending time exploring the outdoors and gets overly excited every time she spots an exciting mushroom or rock.

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