Painting With Gouache
(NOTE: This page was completely revised in September 2009)
People begin painting for a variety of reasons: a social activity, such as a painting class; a pleasant way to pass a few hours; an experiment, simply to see if they can. For many, it is a wonderful and valid hobby, to occupy the mind, engage the imagination, and keep motor skills active. In my case, painting was a natural progression from a lifetime of producing drawings in pencil, colored pencil, and pen and ink. A lifelong desire to paint was put off until I reached my sixties. Once begun, it has become a passion that can’t be ignored.
Just as painting was a progression from drawing, the use of gouache grew out of the direction those drawings were taking. I had begun using gouache for backgrounds and underpaintings for my Prismacolor pencil drawings. As the underpaintings became more extensive, I eventually set the pencils aside, and proceeded to just paint. In the beginning, the transition from sharp points to soft brushes was difficult. I found myself attempting to “draw” with a brush, and it wasn’t the look I wanted.
I am a simple man, with simple beliefs, and as a result, I take a fairly simple approach to painting. I don’t experiment with other media these days. I’ve dabble briefly in oils, acrylics and pastels in years past, but today, my focus is exclusively on gouache. Painting is one of the most difficult things I’ve tried to do. Achieving the look I want with gouache is enough of a challenge without spending time experimenting with other materials.
Many of my oil painter friends wonder why I don’t switch to oils. After all, most galleries prefer it, it sells better, and the general public is familiar with it. Gouache, on the other hand, is thought of as just another form of watercolor, and the public, as well as many artists, never heard of it. For me, it was, and still is, primarily a matter of convenience. It has also presented its own peculiar challenges that I just can’t resist.
What is it?
The use of gouache is centuries old. From the Italian “guazzo”, meaning “water paint”, its use appears to go back some 800 years, used originally to illuminate manuscripts. Early European painters used it as an outdoor sketching medium, and it was used extensively during the golden age of magazine illustration because of its fast-drying characteristics.
There are other sources of technical information about gouache, so I’ll speak here simply from my own experience. Gouache, like any other medium, can be used in a variety of ways, and since every artist works differently, others will have different experiences. There are a lot of very fine artists working with or experimenting with gouache today, and I am in awe of what some of them do. For most, it is an occasional diversion from their primary medium of oils, watercolors or pastels, and some use it for plein air, or outdoor, sketches. Very few fine artists have used it as their primary painting medium.
Later in this article, I reference a couple of artists who I know do a lot of experimentation with gouache. In addition, the names that come up in any discussions about gouache that I have participated in are Erik Tiemens, Nathan Fowkes, Thomas Paquette and Marc Hanson. All have websites and/or blogs where one can see their wonderful work.
Gouache (gwash), also called opaque watercolor, is heavier than traditional transparent watercolors, with a higher pigment to water ratio. It has unique properties and peculiarities, among them an extremely fast drying time, and the fact that colors dry to a different value than when they were originally applied. (In general, lights dry lighter; darks dry darker.) This provides an interesting challenge to the painter, especially if work is being done over several sessions.
Other Characteristics of gouache.
Gouache dries very quickly, both on the painting and on the palette. However, it is rewettable, and remains active, apparently for years. I have a little plastic foldup watercolor palette that I took on a trip recently. It still had dried globs of paint from some outdoor sessions nearly a year before. I rolled a wet brush around on it, and it was good to go, although it never quite softens up completely like out of the tube. I generally use this dried paint thinly, to lay out compositions, draw initial structural shapes, and establish large color masses with thin washes. When I’m ready to really start painting, I squeeze out fresh paint, working in a gouache version of alla prima, in the sense of working wet-in-wet. I’ve incorporated a step-by-step demonstration at the end of this article to show my process of developing a painting.
Because gouache remains “live”, unless it is fixed in some way, wet paint – or a wet brush – stroked over it will activate the existing paint, and the existing paint can mix with the fresh paint. Referred to as “lifting”, this characteristic is frustrating to many people who don’t use gouache very often. Because of my own painting method, I embrace this characteristic and make use of it extensively.
Will the gouache crack? They say it will if applied too thickly. The problem is, I can’t find a definition of “too thick”. It might if done on paper, or any flexible support. I have worked primarily on illustration board, Multimedia artboard and masonite, and I’ve applied paint fairly thickly at times, but I don’t think it’s thick enough to be in danger of cracking. I’ve tried using a palette knife a couple of times, but so far haven’t gotten the hang of it. It’s probably just as well.
Gouache dries to a matte, suede-like finish. It’s pretty tough paint, and unless the surface is scratched, it holds up well to being handled. Because it dries immediately, I often stack finished boards in boxes without slip sheets.
I find paper difficult to work on, and because I varnish most of my work and put it directly into frames without mats or glass, I prefer working on a more rigid support. I’ve worked on Crescent board, gessoed masonite, and most recently on Multimedia artboard. Each has its own surface characteristics, and adjustments have to be made from one to the other. Masonite remains rigid, of course, but both the Crescent and Multimedia board need to be taped down or clipped to a stiff surface. There are many other surfaces out there to paint on with gouache. Since I haven’t tried them, I’ll only address those that I’ve used.
I work on both gessoed and ungessoed Crescent illustration board, although I have begun to simplify my life by painting most often on ungessoed board. I prefer the cold press, because I do like a little texture to work on. Different weights of Crescent board seem to have different texture patterns. The Crescent board has plenty of absorbency to take the paint well, which I like. One drawback is that I can’t wipe a passage out completely. Also, too many rough strokes with a wet brush will begin to rough up the surface.
Because I varnish most of my finished work, I often cut the board with some empty border space around the painting area. I tape it down to either foamcore board or masonite, because when it gets wet, it will warp. I also use those little black spring loaded clips. The border also allows me the option of matting the painting if I choose to. The paint will act differently depending on whether you gesso it or not. It seems to have a softer, suede-like appearance without gesso, and I think there is less lifting. Gessoed illustration board will not be quite as slick as gessoed masonite.
A number of people have expressed the frustration that gessoed masonite is a slick surface, and difficult to paint on. They are partly right. I think “slick” may be a bit of an overstatement. It is definitely not a porous surface that the paint sinks into. How do I paint on it? The only answer on this one is, there is no easy answer. You just have to experiment – with the ratio of paint vs water, and the touch of the brush.
Austin, Texas artist David Clemons was one of two people who suggested masonite as a potential surface for gouache, so I figure I’m safe. I sometimes wonder if David doesn’t have a laboratory attached to his studio space, because he does a lot of research and experimenting with paints and surfaces. He’s a gold mine of information regarding gouache and casein You can find lots of opinions about gouache (including David’s) at www.wetcanvas.com. Go to the Casein, Gouache, Egg Tempera forum.
I used to buy masonite panels off the shelf at my local art supply store, but not anymore, for reasons stated in the following paragraph. They come in most of the standard sizes, smooth on both sides. I’m sure I could find untempered masonite at one of the big stores like Home Depot or Loew’s, but I just simply don’t have room for a table saw.
A note of caution: I have had the paint peel from a gessoed masonite board. Close inspection makes it appear that the gesso didn’t adhere to the masonite. There have been a couple of thoughts proposed on this from other artists. One is that the masonite had an oily surface that wasn’t cleaned thoroughly. The other is that I should have prepped the masonite with a sealer before brushing on the gesso. It has also been suggested that I wasn’t using the right kind of gesso. One of the most likely scenarios is that I was using acrylic gesso on tempered masonite, which apparently has some oil in it. I have been told that acrylic gesso will work fine on untempered masonite. I have suspended my use of masonite until I decide if I want to spend the time doing extensive prep work prior to starting a painting. Future lifestyle plans will call for keeping my processes as simple and uncomplicated as possible.
This is true “pick it up and paint on it” stuff. Made of paper and epoxy resin, it takes the paint extremely well, and for a short time, became my favorite support. It’s roughly in the same price range as Crescent board, but doesn’t warp when extensive wet washes are used. While it is thin and doesn’t warp, I still use a couple of very small pieces of tape to attach it to a solid surface like foamcore board. It’s been around a long time, and appears to take virtually any media. Like the Crescent board, I can’t completely wipe off a passage to repaint. A coat of gesso may take care of that. There does seem to be a slightly longer drying time than with Crescent board. We’re only talking about minutes here, so it’s not often a problem. This is good stuff, but I’ll admit, I find myself returning to Crescent board, maybe because of the more absorbent texture.
Someone who is doing a lot of experimenting with gouache on a variety of papers is New Mexico artist Deborah Secor. Primarily a pastellist, Deborah explores gouache at very small sizes, and creates some wonderful gems. I suspect she may start playing with larger sizes as well. Deborah’s work can be found at http://www.deborahsecor.blogspot.com/
I’ve used a gesso brand off the shelf at my local store, Demco Artist Series, white, for oil and acrylic, and also more recently Liquitex Acrylic Gesso.
If or when I take a new approach to gesso and/or masonite, I’ll update this section.
Let me say very clearly that I am neither an advocate nor an opponent of varnishing gouache. Some people do, most don’t; and some vehemently oppose it. It is a personal choice. I do it. Those who oppose it have valid reasons: it gives a glossy surface (depending on the angle you view it), and it does change some of the colors, although it mostly appears to just revitalize the colors to the brilliance they had when first applied. I have also used Krylon Matte Finish spray, which appears to provide good protection as well, without the glossy finish.
When a painting is finished and signed, I apply several coats of spray varnish, and, if necessary for work on illustration board, crop it to fit directly into a frame. Most artists seem to prefer the soft matte finish of gouache. I’ve been swimming against the current most of my artistic life, and continue to do so in this respect. Varnishing eliminates the need for a mat and glass, restores the original brilliance of the paint, and gives the finished piece the look of a small oil painting. I kind of like it that way.
I have found that on larger pieces (16×20 is large for me), getting smooth coverage is difficult. In assuring that I get complete coverage, I seem to overdo the spray, resulting in some areas being more glossy than others. This is only noticeable when the work is viewed from an extreme side angle.
I have pieces that were varnished almost two years ago, and see no changes other than those that have been mentioned. I make it clear when displaying my work that it is varnished.
I can only tell you what I’ve told others: try it on a couple of your absolute rejects. It’s a very personal choice, and I don’t want to feel responsible for anyone feeling like they ruined a wonderful piece of art if they aren’t happy with the result.
I use Krylon Kamar Varnish. It’s a spray varnish and should always be used outdoors. I generally let a painting sit for about a week before varnishing, I lay the painting flat and apply a light first coat, then one or two more light coats after that, waiting about an hour between coats. I believe a single coat would suffice, but several coats assure me that I’ve covered the entire painting well. It dries very quickly, touchable after less than fifteen minutes. Watch out for bugs, because they will become part of the painting if you’re not careful. To avoid bugs, I spray a piece, then move it into my garage immediately and lay it on a flat surface. I can frame a piece within an hour of spraying the last coat. It’s not magic, and is really an easy process. The label says it’s non-yellowing, acid free, and allows easy rework, although I haven’t tried to rework a varnished piece.
The following information was provided by “Angus” in a previous comment:
This resin varnish is marketed as an archival lifetime finish that should never yellow. However, if it is damaged or degrades, it may be easily removed with mineral spirits or, for spot repair, a pencil eraser. It may also be painted over if there is damage to the underlying paint. Kamar is a blend of B67 and F10 museum quality acrylic resins. These are harder than B72, but remain soluble if retouching is ever required due to damage, and may be painted over.
How do I know all this? Krylon is one of the few companies that will actually tell you exactly what is in its products (no secret formulas). This came from a factory rep, who assured me that Kamar will last a very long time, does not yellow, and is easy either to remove or paint over. It can be used with oil or waterbased paint.
Comparisons with other media
It has been twenty years or so since I experimented very briefly with oils and with acrylics. Much has changed in terms of mediums that can be used with them to either speed up or slow down their drying time. My knowledge of both is limited, so in making any comparisons, I’m going to restrict myself only to my own experience.
Compared to oils…
There can be a similarity to oils, in that one can apply bold strokes over existing paint, and a loaded brush can create strokes that resemble those produced with oils. One probably shouldn’t work in a thick impasto technique, however, due to the possibility of cracking. Unlike oils, gouache dries almost immediately. It can, however, be mixed and blended directly on the painting, like oils, because it remains “active” even when it is dry.
Compared to acrylics…
Like acrylics, gouache dries quickly, even more quickly than acrylics. However, unlike acrylics, it can be reworked months, even years later. A wet brush will reactivate gouache, and new color can be blended into existing paint, directly on the painting. No medium is required other than water.
I remember toning down, or changing the temperature of an acrylic painting by going over it with a thin wash. The same can be done with gouache, although it has to be done very carefully and patiently. The brush must be cleaned after two or three strokes, and the wash must be applied with a very, very light touch.
While an acrylic painting, when dry, can be placed directly into a frame, a gouache painting must be framed under glass unless it is fixed or varnished.
Compared to transparent watercolor…
I should say first that I have no real experience using transparent watercolor. In terms of paint, transparent watercolor is, of course, the closest relative to gouache. They can be used in very similar ways, but also with completely different methods. Many artists have used the two together, presumably laying the groundwork with watercolor, then adding more opaque gouache strokes over it. Some mix white gouache with transparent watercolor to make it more opaque, and many use white gouache for touchups and highlights. For me, pure gouache offers the best of both worlds, allowing me to use thin transparent washes when desired, and thicker more opaque passages with strokes akin to oils.
I have read that some watercolor societies don’t recognize gouache, and that some watercolor shows and competitions don’t accept gouache. I don’t consider myself a watercolorist. I am simply a painter who uses a water soluble paint.
For watercolor and gouache combinations, I will refer you to my friend, English artist Maggie Latham. Maggie does a lot of experimenting with both watercolor and gouache on a variety of papers, and her “Everything Gouache” blog is filled with lots of good information: http://everythinggouache.blogspot.com/
While I generally begin with washes, as a painting progresses, I sometimes tend to paint like an oil painter. I use bristle brights and filberts, as well as some small rounds and liners. I like for a brush to be somewhat stiff, but still have some flexibility. I do not use top of the line, expensive brushes. Gouache on a textured surface will wear brushes down pretty quickly. A square brush won’t stay square for very long. For his plein air gouache work, Mark Hanson uses cheap craft brushes he gets at one of the major craft store chains. I felt better after reading that, because I use a lot of those myself. If you’re going to use gouache primarily for studies, don’t invest in the same quality brushes you use for oils or watercolor. Experiment with cheap brushes first. And by all means, don’t use the brushes you use for those other media.
I use DaVinci Gouache. I can buy larger tubes online at a reasonable price that definitely beats my local art supply store’s prices. I went from a student brand in the beginning (Reeves) to Windsor & Newton, and saw a big improvement in the way the paint flowed. I finally went to DaVinci, and saw no difference. Artist’s who experiment with different brands seem to prefer other manufacturers as well, citing smoother coverage or fluidity. I suspect preferences depend a lot on painting styles and techniques, and for the way I paint, DaVinci serves my purposes quite well. Anyone who has followed my use of gouache for any length of time will recognize that when it comes to materials, I tend to take the view “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. I am a peasant, I’m afraid, more likely to be swayed by practicality than by trend.
My Work Space
I have one of those nice wood palettes with the thumb hole in it, but it’s never been used. Since I work in a water-soluble medium, I use a cheap aluminum baking pan with a snap-on plastic lid. For the size I use, an 8×10 piece of glass, with a neutral colored board under it, fits nicely into the pan. Gouache dries VERY, VERY QUICKLY, even on the palette. To keep the paint from drying out too fast, I squeeze it out on folded strips of wet paper towels, and spray the paper towels regularly while I’m working. When I remember to spray one last time and put on the lid, the paint will stay wet for a day, sometimes three days. A spray bottle is essential, as is the standard roll of paper towels.
Like most artists, I’d love to have a huge studio attached to the house, or in a barn, but we live in a condo/townhouse, and space is at a premium. Because my studio also serves as sleeping/play space for our grandchildren when they visit, I try to keep my actual work area pretty compact. Here, next to my easel, is my painting setup. As you can see, it isn’t fancy, and doesn’t take up much room. When we need the space, I simply pour the water out of the jars, put the lid on the palette, toss everything in a big plastic bin and put it on a shelf in the closet. Of course, then there’s the easel, the work table, the frames, and assorted boxes, but they all have a hiding place as well. An inflatable air mattress comes out, and we have an instant sleeping space. It means living without a studio for a couple of days, but that time is spent enjoying family anyway, and setting back up is generally a quick operation.
My wife and I have a long range plan… to eventually live and travel in a motorhome or travel trailer, exploring the country, painting, and doing a wide range of shows, large and small. The convenience of gouache will surely come into play when that day comes. While paint, brushes, and board don’t require a lot of space, framed art and spare frames and framing supplies do. That will become a challenge when our lifestyle changes.
Pretty fancy, huh? Now you know why I will never be part of a studio tour.
How I Use Gouache
I study, and observe, and try to learn from the experience of those who have portrayed the landscape before me, but when it’s time to paint, using the principles I’ve learned, I tend to let intuition take over. The painting becomes part observation, part science, part memory and part imagination, with, quite often, a strong dose of emotion.
I began painting at a drawing table, but my dear wife bought me an easel, and once I began working at the easel, my work changed rapidly, and started taking on a more painterly look. In the photo below, you will see that I do occasionally have a print of someone else’s work nearby, simply to study how they painted certain passages. In this case, it was a Clyde Aspevig painting, primarily for the way he painted the foreground grasses. I have no hesitation about learning from others.
I generally paint in silence, trying to hear the ripple of water meandering past stones in a creek, the soft swish of a breeze in the leaves and grasses, those mysterious buzzing sounds one hears when the sun is shining and every footstep kicks up a little cloud of dust on dry ground.
What follows is a step-by-step explanation of how I paint.
This painting is 8×10, on gessoed masonite. It was done almost entirely with very cheap, flat synthetic bristle brushes, primarily a 1″ brush, and a few smaller ones toward the end.
I begin almost every painting the same way, with a very loose sketch, simply establishing the composition and the main shapes. Yellow ochre is my preferred color for this, and I work fairly wet, sometimes wiping out areas, sometimes simply going in with darker strokes as I make adjustments.
Using a mixture of ultramarine and burnt umber, I establish my darker masses and shadows. Because I tend toward warm in my paintings, I like the blue/purple as a beginning for the cooler shadows. They don’t always end up cool, but at least my heart’s in the right place at the beginning. Because gouache remains active, easily wiped out with a wet brush or paper towel, the ochre lines don’t concern me. They will eventually disappear in most places as I work over them, or remain in a softened form, giving the appearance of a warm undertone in the finished painting.
Next, I establish the warm areas, using pure yellow ochre, still working very wet. I’m a big fan of California urban landscape painter William (Bill) Wray, and Bill continually stresses “warm against cool, light against dark”, and I try to keep that philosophy in my head as I develop a painting. Here, I’m simply establishing where the light hits.
Due to the “lifting” characteristic of gouache, a very light touch with a wet brush is called for here, because in some areas, I’m simply layering light washes over darker undertones.
Even though it remains active, gouache dries on the surface very quickly. Within only a couple of minutes, I’ve taken a damp paper towel and wiped some areas, not being overly cautious, just to pick the paint out of some places, and soften edges. The damp paper towel will cause some of the colors to blend a bit, depending on how heavy a touch is used. Too heavy, and everything is wiped out; too light, and not much happens. I’ll also use a dampened cotton swab (Q-tip) to pick out some lighter spots.
Using ultramarine, lemon yellow, yellow ochre and red, I start experimenting with greens. (Every painting I do seems to be an experiment where greens are concerned.) I probably use way too much yellow ochre, but it does seem to unify the painting. Most of it will disappear as the greens are developed further, but some will remain and glow through the other colors.
I’ve carried some of the greens down into the water, and again use a damp paper towel to very lightly blend some of the color and soften the brush strokes.
I’ve begun to build the sky very lightly at this point, with combinations of ultramarine, yellow ochre, a touch of red, and titanium white, all applied pretty thinly. I’m letting the sky colors carry into the tree edges, taking advantage of the lifting characteristic of the gouache to soften some of the edges.
I’ve punched in a few sky holes at this point, trying to get some definition to the tree masses. I’ve continued to slowly work on the greens, and in some places the paint is being applied with a bit thicker consistency. I’ve carried the sky color down into the water a bit more opaquely as well.
Although the horizon line is still undefined, I’ve let the colors blend there as they may, through a variety of wet brush strokes and use of the damp paper towel.
From this point on, it’s a continuous cycle of opaque and transparent strokes, of pushing and pulling the lights and darks, the warms and cools, putting in the distant horizon tree line, and getting some definition into the water by pulling the sky colors and reflected ground and tree foliage.
The painting has reached that “now don’t screw it up” stage. I’m happy with how it’s going, and know the look I want to end up with.
Touches of yellow ochre/titanium white in the clouds give a bit more warmth to the sky. Then it’s a matter of simply working the greens until I’m satisfied, touching up the highlights and tweaking the skyholes.
A few added strokes in the grass area punch those areas a bit. Someone has pointed out that my skyholes are a bit rough, and I suspect the far waterline is a bit too harsh, but it does draw the eye to that area. Although that’s fine with me, I may touch a few of those things up before varnishing.
The progress images are digital photos, and the finished image is a scan, so colors and sharpness are a bit different. I’ve also sharpened the progress images slightly, so the brushwork is more visible.
I’ve included a blowup below, taken from the scanned image. I believe it goes a long way toward illustrating the layers of paint, the brushwork, and the edges that are developed through lifting and wiping. In the enlargment, the strokes and edges created by the bristle brushes appear sharp and harsh, but from three feet away, this painting has a very soft look. Overall, I’m happy with it. It already looks nice in a frame, and once it’s varnished, it should glow on the wall.
The Ongoing Process
The process shown above was photographed and/or scanned in January 2009. As my work continues to evolve, I find myself continually exploring a wider variation of color, softening edges, and experimenting with brushwork. However, the process, in general, remains the same. I try to publish posts of new work often here on the blog.