What is Gouache?

Referred by many as the 'opaque watercolour', gouache (pronounced 'gwash') is a water-based paint similar to watercolour but with larger pigment particles, resulting in an opaque, velvety finish.

Gouache paintings do not reflect much light, so they photograph 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. 

The image below contains colour swatches to better show you the difference. The top row is made of gouache paints, while the bottom one is made of watercolour. Note the opacity of the gouache paints in comparison to the watercolours.


History of Gouache 

Gouache has been used for over 12 centuries and was first made popular by the Impressionists due to its quick drying time and easy portability, making it the perfect medium for plein air painting (painting from life outdoors).

It became popular among commercial artists and illustrators in the 20th century because of its bright colors and matte finish.

Notable artists who have used gouache: Salvador Dali, Georgia O'Keeffe, and John Singer Sargeant. Henri Matisse's famous cut-out series, including the Blue Nudes, were created by arranging paper painted with gouache.


Why Artists Love It

Gouache is both an incredibly flexible and forgiving medium.

You can adjust its consistency to achieve and combine a wide range of effects: a thicker, cream-like consistency to achieve completely opaque layers; or thin it out by mixing it with water, resulting in a translucent effect similar to watercolour.

Additionally, because gouache rehydrates with water, you can reactivate paint that has already dried on the paper to make changes (be careful to not accidentally lift up the bottom layer of paint if you mix in too much). You can also reuse the paint that has completely dried out on your palette, making gouache a more eco-friendly option that reduces waste! 

Due to its opaqueness, you can layer from light to dark, or from dark to light to create bright, contrasting details. If you make a mistake, you can simply cover up the area and start again!


Tip: 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.


Materials You’ll Need

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. Paints

High-quality paints will save you frustration. Winsor and Newton or Holbein offer high-quality options with great coverage, opacity, and vibrant colours.

2. Painting Surface

Use at least 300 gsm to prevent your paper from buckling. You can choose 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. 

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.

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.

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. Optional: Washi Tape

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


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 do this, 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.


Let's Practice! 

We're just scratching the surface! Want to keep on learning? Try these out (by order of difficulty):

  •  Course: Introduction to Gouache - This in-depth course will take you from total beginner to feeling confident about painting original pieces.

Interested in more easy gouache painting ideas? Check out other gouache classes on Etchr Studio here

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Author: Lilly Carr 

Editor: Ânia Marcos

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