Getting Started With Gouache
Okay, first things first: what is gouache?—and how the heck do you pronounce it? Happily, the pronunciation issue is an easy one to clear up: “gouache” rhymes with “squash.” So now you know.
Gouache paint (sometimes also called “opaque watercolor”) has been used under different names for over a thousand years. A form of gouache that employed honey as a binder was developed in ancient Egypt, and the egg tempera that was so en vogue in Medieval times was also a sort of gouache. While gouache fell out of favor for a time with the introduction of oil paint, it came back in a big way in the 18th century, and has long been a favorite among illustrators and comic-book artists. And as you may have noticed, it’s been getting a lot of attention on social media over the past few years. Google searches for “gouache” spiked at the beginning of the pandemic, and the medium has remained popular since then. In fact, there’s a good chance you’re on this page specifically because all the hype about gouache has you intrigued, and you’re trying to decide if it’s something you want to explore further.
Measured in months, I’m still pretty new to gouache myself. I picked it up a little under a year ago after painting almost exclusively with watercolor for a solid twelve years. But since I began messing around with gouache in late 2021, I’ve used it almost every single day. I’ve amassed a huge collection of gouache-specific art supplies, and gouache has become my medium of choice. I really can’t get enough of it.
What I love most about gouache is its versatility. Like watercolor, it can be reactivated for easy blending and workability. I can do a lot of my mixing “on the page,” and can easily work my paint into a smooth consistency compatible with super-fine detail work. But unlike watercolor, gouache is an opaque medium, which means it isn’t transparent. It takes up volume on the page; early layers can be completely covered with later layers; and I can work somewhat spontaneously, building up my paintings intuitively as I go rather than plotting out each square centimeter of my subject in advance.
What Kind of Gouache Should You Use?
So what kind of tube paints should you start with? If you’ve read my 5 Watercolor Tips For When You’re Getting SOOOO Frustrated, you already know I’m a strong believer in sticking to artist-grade paint even as a beginner, and for me, this principle holds true for gouache. My reasoning is pretty simple: if you get started with student-grade paints, you won’t actually know what the medium can do for you. You may pick up bad habits as you attempt to find workarounds for your low-quality paint. And worse: you may get overwhelmed by the medium and give up altogether without ever having actually tried proper gouache paint. We can’t have that!
Now, there’s no way around this next part, so I’ll just come right out and say it: artist-grade gouache IS expensive. Gouache has a much higher pigment load than watercolor, which means it’s expensive to produce. But don’t get too sad! Just because gouache is expensive doesn’t mean it has to be inaccessible. A principle I’ve shared about watercolor paints applies here too: you don’t need to buy all the colors of the rainbow in order to get a proper start. When I started using gouache, I had very little disposable income, so all I could afford was the primary color mixing set from Holbein. (If you click that link and scroll down to the options, it should be listed as the first one. As of the time of this writing, it’s priced at about 31 USD.) Although I’ve expanded my collection some since then, these five tubes of paint are still my go-tos, and I’ve done some of my best painting using only these colors. Holbein is hands-down my absolute favorite gouache brand, and as far as I’m aware, they can’t be beat for quality or vibrance. However, if you’re looking for a mixing set with slightly more muted—perhaps a bit less incandescent?—colors, the basic mixing set from M. Graham isn’t too bad either. (Again, it should be the first option when you scroll down at
this link. Currently priced at about $45 USD.) To improve flow and prevent cracking (a common problem with gouache), this line of paint is also made with real honey—just like my beloved Sennelier watercolors and that early gouache from Ancient Egypt!
What Kind of Paper Should You Use?
Although I tend to prefer the tangible texture of cold-pressed, khadi, shizen, or even rough paper for my watercolor paintings, I highly recommend using hot-pressed watercolor paper (always artist-grade, of course!) for gouache. Because gouache isn’t transparent like watercolor, you don’t need to worry about incorporating the texture of the paper into your paintings. On the contrary, you’ll probably find yourself appreciating a smooth surface that won’t distract from the fine details and creamy covering gouache allows you to develop. I personally stick to a pad of Arches hot-pressed watercolor paper for essentially all my gouache paintings. (Look for the pink cover to make sure it’s hot-pressed and not cold-pressed or rough!)
Don’t Be Afraid of the White Paint!
If you’ve ever spent much time learning to paint with watercolors, one of the hardest things to get accustomed to when you pick up gouache is how differently white functions in these two mediums. Whereas proper watercolor paint sets really shouldn’t even include white and the lightest lights in a watercolor painting are found in the untouched white of the page, gouache paintings rely heavily on the use of white paint. Artist-grade gouache is highly-pigmented and isn’t meant to be diluted with water to the degree that watercolor paints are diluted. This means that in order to manage the saturation of gouache paint, you’ll need to add white into most of the colors you mix. In fact, you’re likely to get through your tube of white paint much faster than you get through any of the other colors, so it’s advisable to buy an extra tube of white gouache in a larger size. (I always keep a big 59 ml tube of M. Graham’s Titanium White in my art bag.) Although it took me quite awhile to warm up to this new approach to white paint, I really enjoy being able to work lights and highlights into my creations later in the game rather than being forced to plan my entire painting in minute detail before beginning so as to preserve a sufficient amount of white space on the page. It also allows me to start from dark backgrounds—like this fun black paper from Stonehenge!
In parting, I’d like to share one of the most helpful gouache tutorial videos I’ve come across since I began exploring this medium last year. Ogygia Art’s “How To Layer Gouache” was a game-changer for me when I found myself totally befuddled by this essential gouache skill, and I hope you find it useful too as you step into the realm of glowing possibilities this medium extends.
For all I’ve said about it being a versatile medium and my new favorite one, there’s no getting around the reality that painting with gouache isn’t really like painting with watercolor, oil, or acrylic, and presents some pretty serious challenges for anyone who’s learned how to paint in another medium. I can’t possibly address all those issues in this brief article, but I’ll be creating more resources for you in the future and would love to hear about the specific gouache problems you’d like me to address in upcoming articles. Feel free to reach out via the contact form!