Why I Love Gouache

May 11, 2016


Above: Pentel Pocket Brush Pen sketch in a Japanese Lined Journal. This sketch was made on a spread first covered with Montana Acrylic Marker and washi tape. I then painted with gouache, just the areas of the portrait that I wanted to paint, using the paint opaquely when I wanted to obscure the lines and background color, and more translucently when I wanted some of either of those to show through. Another aspect of gouache that I didn't mention below. Because you are using it opaquely you use less water than you do when working with transparent watercolors. This allows you to use gouache on a larger variety of papers that might otherwise not be suitable. Choices and options. You have to love them.

I get so excited when I write about gouache that I forget not everyone knows what it is and why it might be so marvelous. Since the release last week of the limited edition 10-tube set of Schmincke Horadam Gouache several people have written to ask me about it and why I like it.

I think if you look on my blog and see the types of sketches I make with gouache in my journals, or you come to my art shows and see the paintings I do in gouache, you get an immediate impression. You might see the opacity, you might see the texture, you might see the flat color…

Gouache is opaque watercolor. I love working with the opacity the paint allows. I can put down heavy ink lines from a Pentel Pocket Brush pen, and yet still cover lines I don't want any more.

151222-coincidenceCRAltDETLeft: Detail from the above image. I love particularly how gouache allows me to leave a record of my brush stroke as it moves across the image—see light pink area under the eye.

The opacity makes it great for working on toned surfaces. Transparent watercolor allows light to move through the paint layer, hit the paper surface and bounce back to your eye. That creates the brilliance we all love in well executed watercolors. However, it means that watercolors done on toned paper will allow those tones to come up to your eye as well, and influence that color. That's not always a happy marriage so it's usual to paint with transparent watercolors on a white paper, board, or treated canvas.

I love working on toned surfaces—this makes gouache a perfect accompaniment. The opaque nature of the paint blocks the paper tone from view. Additionally the colors of the paint pop out against the toned surface bringing its own type of brilliancy to the eye.

The opacity also brings with it the gift of texture. You can not only obscure lined or patterned paper with this paint, but you can allow bits to show through depending on how you apply the paint. And as you apply the paint you can choose to allow your strokes to show or not show, creating another level of texture in your piece. This ability to play with and push the paint around, and to even allow the paint's texture to have supremacy over the "real" subject of the painting is intoxicating. Using gouache, even when things are going badly reminds you that you are painting and having a great time!

There's also the ease of working with gouache that appeals to me. Gouache (traditional gouache, not the newer acrylic ones) is water soluble all the time. The medium is Gum Arabic, just as in transparent watercolor. Because this medium is always water soluble it means you can put the gouache in pans (if you use a brand that rewets well and Schmincke does). You can then use gouache in the field without it drying to a hard unusable state in your pans or on your palette like acrylics or acrylic gouache would do.

Gouache also dries to a matte surface that I think is lovely. That surface is also a wonderful ground for color pencil and other dry media. 

Quality gouache like Schmincke Horadam Gouache allows me to do both light translucent layers not unlike watercolor, but different, so I get "two paints" out of it while only carrying one paint palette in my bag.

Because gouache is always water soluble you don't have the issues with field work you would have for keeping your palette fresh and your brushes clean that you would have with acrylics. You can use gouache fresh and soft in your pan palette, and keep it fresh by spritzing it with water or keeping it in a tightly closed palette when not in use. I write a lot about this on my blog. You can check it out through the Gouache Compendium.

I'm very sensitive to odors and because of this I can't use media that have certain odors—acrylics with ammonia components, and oil paints for example. Schmincke gouache has no unpleasant odor. There is nothing to give me a headache no matter how long I work with it (and sometimes I work with it all day long).

Also important, Schmincke Horadam Gouache is an artist quality paint. It contains high pigment loads of high quality pigments. It doesn't contain chalky opacifiers. The colors have the same lightfastness qualities of other artist quality paints that use these pigments. You can create works of lasting beauty and value.

So that covers briefly the characteristics that make gouache, Schmincke Horadam Gouache, so fun for me to use—its qualities give it the highest rating on my fun factor meter. You can click on gouache in the category cloud of my blog and see many examples of how I work with it.

    • Connie
    • May 11, 2016

    What is the difference between other brands of qouache such as Winsor Newton?

    • Janine
    • May 14, 2016

    I would like to echo the ease of use of gouache when compared to transparent watercolors. Gouache is both intuitive and forgiving for a beginning painter. To darken a tone, use less water, add a tiny bit of black or another dark color. To lighten a tone, add white or more water. If you paint a second layer over the first, it will make a darker value (like working with graphite). If you make a mistake, paint over to correct it. After many frustrating attempts struggling with transparent watercolors, I have finally put them on the back burner. I pulled out my gouache tubes again and feel like my painting skills took a quantum leap forward. I also like that gouache dries quickly so you don’t have to wait forever for your washes to dry for fear of making mud. AND last but not least, let’s talk about the ability to use white paint vs. having to remember to leave white for the paper… Gouache is a godsend. 🙂 And you don’t have to use 100% rag paper for it to look good. It looks great on pretty much any type of support you want to use from plain old brown cardboard to student grade watercolor paper, to something really high end like the Strathmore 500 mixed media boards (which are amazing!).

  1. Reply

    I write about M. Graham gouache quite a bit on this blog Janine, because I like it too—however, Art Graham doesn’t have PB60 in his gouache color line so I can’t get my most important color from him and that pushes me away from the rest of the line. But I use it as well. I don’t care for Utrecht or Daler Rowney gouache at all compared to Schmincke and M. Graham. They fall in the “other” category with too many negatives for me.

  2. Reply

    A great advertisement for all the great things about gouache! Thanks for writing in Janine.

    • Janine
    • May 16, 2016

    My pleasure. I think everyone should give it a try. 🙂 (I’m a gouache evangelist!)

    I was thinking more about the difference between gouache and transparent watercolor. With transparent watercolor, you kind of need to know where you’re going with a painting before you start so you can preserve whites, etc. Once the washes start going down, you’re pretty much stuck with it unless you start over from scratch. With gouache, you can let the painting lead you and make decisions and changes on the fly, take all the detours you want. Since I am a more “spontaneous” seat of the pants type painter, I need a medium that allows for changes and detours along the way. I also like acrylics for the above mentioned reasons but the set up is less flexible. Gouache is fast and easy, portable and light, works in the studio and the field equally well.

    (Can you tell I’m sold on this?)

    I also love how you can see your brushwork w/ gouache. There is something inherent in the paint that has kind of a “old masters” feel. I’m not sure if it’s the opacity, or the colors or some other magical quality gouache possesses. All I know is the simplest subjects, even painted by my clumsy inexperienced hand, looks great in gouache.

    (The art equivalent of the Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants!)

    • Janine
    • May 16, 2016

    I agree that Utrecht and Daler are definitely not as good as Graham and Schminke but since I’ve got a few tubes of them, I’ll use them up then replace with the better stuff. I only wish it came in bigger tubes!!! I wrote in my sketchbook the other day, “I don’t know what the question is, but I’m pretty sure the answer is gouache.” 🙂

    Thanks for getting that set together! It is an incredible value. I have to email Kate today and ask when they will be shipping mine out!

    • ana
    • May 18, 2016

    Your posts about the joys of gouache have officially tempted me. I placed my order this morning. I’m so excited to try your Schmincke set after years of mediocre experiences with mediocre gouache.

  3. Reply

    I think you’re going to have great fun ana, and you couldn’t get a better price on these paints.

    • Bonnie
    • September 23, 2016

    What about royal talens brand?

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