Four reasons to love gouache

Sometimes, you get bitten by the bug that urges you to try something new.

I know that I have been bitten when I find myself buying art supplies – they are one of my bug’s ‘new things’ of choice. In recent years, this bug urged me, out of the blue, to try brush and ink work. Watercolour followed soon after. And when a dear friend gave me a set of technical pens a few years ago, the bug didn’t bite for a while. Last week, the art-supply bug struck again, however, and I found myself coming home with something special: a set of gouache paints.

This little painting (gouache and ink on paper) was an introduction to how gouache works: how it thickens up, thins out, how it mixes, what will sit on top of it, and what can hide underneath it. It’s messy and improvised, which is how most of my art-learning proceeds: make little messes, and keep making messes until things make sense.gouache 1 8-3-2018gouache 3 detail

I learned that I really enjoy how gouache works. In fact, I love gouache.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Specifically, four.

1. Gouache is versatile, with incredible range. Depending on how it’s applied, its coverage can range from washy and almost watercolour-style to smooth opaque sections of flat colour. It comes thick out of the tube, but is fully water-soluble, allowing for different degrees of saturation and layering. For this property, gouache often gets described as lying midway between the wet transparency of watercolour and the opacity and saturation of acrylic paint. I like to think of gouache as the gelato of paints: it has a very smooth and velvety consistency, and just a tiny dollop packs a big colour/flavor punch. It also dries nicely matte (not at all glossy). This last quality was particularly useful to graphic designers before the heyday of digital imaging; because it provided a saturated and fast-drying pigment that was also matte and non-reflective (i.e. great for scanning or photographing images for print), gouache was the retro designer’s medium of choice.

But there’s more.

2.  Paints on both page and palette can be reactivated and reworked with water after they’ve dried. While paints like acrylics and oils are generally indelible once dry, gouache can be revived and “fixed.” All is not set in stone! There is, of course, a limit to this, and this advantage poses its own hazards: painting with a too-wet brush on top of an already-dried image can sometimes dissolve underlying layers of paint right off the page, leaving white ‘halos’ or spots. The key is to get the right amount of water which, I’m finding, takes trial and error and likely differs across paint brands. A related implication is that finished paintings need to stay bone dry; stray drops of water on finished gouache could be potentially not a good thing (the caveats on this point are lengthy, but this is still an interesting property because… paint that can be revived with water!!).

3.  Gouache provides a great drawing surface. Its matte, almost chalky surface once dried is great for layering paints and other media; ink (from either a brush or technical pen) seems to sit quite happily on top of a layer of gouache.

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Black and pink ink on layered gouache.

Pencil sketching and erasing on gouache also works quite well. It sits solidly on the page, and doesn’t fade easily, despite repeated – gentle – erasings (I have left white patches on past watercolour paintings this way). Gouache adheres well.

4.  And finally, bold colour.This is perhaps what gouache is known for; the medium is great for creating bold, flat and layer-able fields of pigment. I found that it may take several layers of paint to get, say, a light pigment to appear fully opaque over a dark one (see the dog below, where one layer of white paint isn’t fully opaque on the violet background). Layers of paint are ok, though (and I suspect this opacity will, again, differ by brand and quality). The paint generally allows for sharp contrasts, crisp contours, and simple, bold graphic forms (what I love).

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So, there are some initial thoughts on gouache. I’m excited to continue experimenting (and if you’ve had any gouache experiences, I’d love to hear about them!).

And, introducing…a new hybrid website

To encourage myself to stay productive in painting and drawing, I’ve rearranged handmadehabit.com – now a hybrid blog-portfolio! The chronological format of regular blogging meant that my favourite work was getting lost in the archives; I felt it should have a corner of its own.

The general menu now includes links to 2 portfolios where I plan to continue to create collections of work: painting + drawing and short comics (feel free to have a peek, these still-sparse galleries will be updated on an ongoing basis!). I’ve also added a place for the occasional sketchbook doodle, and have updated the about page. The Blog menu navigates to the regular blog and its categories: posts on knitting, art/craft projects and process, good reads, and inspiration (the usual).

Thank you for reading, and wishing you lots of creative mojo into the week ahead!

Squirrel sketch

Welcome to August! For the past few days, I have been fervently returning to my pencils and inks and sketchbook. I never quite know how or where the creative pendulum is going to swing, but I’m happy for this unexpected deep-dive back into drawing (let’s see how long it lasts). I’ve also welcomed a new addition to my art supply family: gouache! More on this in a later post.

I thought I’d kick off this spate of drawings by sharing an oldie. It was drawn in 2012, when I was living in Chicago’s Hyde Park – alongside some of the largest squirrels I have ever seen.

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Happy Weekend to you!

The heart of a gardener

The other day, a very dear gardener friend gave me a beautiful and unexpected gift: some pickings from this summer’s yield!veggies july 27As you can see, this included some quite delicious things: lettuce, French chard, arugula, some sprigs of dill (of which one can never have enough), cherry tomatoes (that taste like the sun), a ton of basil + mint, and a few edible Nasturtium flowers (these bright orange buds are known for their zingy, peppery flavor which happens to be perfect for salads).

In past experience, I have tended to be chronically unlucky in my gardening attempts and exploits (where, yes, even a poor succulent didn’t quite thrive on my watch, I overwatered!). I’d like to continue to work on this, on my ability to steward and care for other forms of life. My gardener friend truly inspired me when he described a more recent project of nursing caterpillars to moth-hood — that is, adopting and feeding them, allowing them a safe place to build a chrysalis and grow their new bodies, then gently letting them go once their newly-sprouted wings had dried.

As a knitter and appreciator of the fact that good things take time (and also often only happen in their own time), I’d like to cultivate the heart of a gardener — a co-creator in an art whose medium is life itself! Maybe I’ll start small, sprout a few seedlings, and see what happens?


I’ve been sorely behind on my blogging and reading this month, but look forward to catching up on your creative exploits and adventures! 🙂

Lace lessons: the Leticia Shawl

After a month and a few days of (slow) knitting, the Leticia shawl is done!

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Designed by Reiko Kuwamura, Leticia is a crescent-shaped shawl that is worked in sport weight in 2 stages: the shawl begins with a lace border, followed by the reverse stockinette ‘body,’ shaped using German short rows. The ‘sheerness’ of the shawl is achieved by a technique called ‘condo knitting,’ or working garter or stockinette using two very different sized needles on alternating rows (the mix of little loops and big loops = fun see-through fabric that is super easy to make!).

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Condo knitting (US 6 and US 11).

This marks my very first introduction to lace-knitting, and I found the pattern excellent and very straightforward. It includes a video short rows tutorial, as well as a formula-page for re-adapting Leticia to any size. If you want to liberate your inner lace-knitter, Leticia is the one (I now need to do more lace, very soon).

As seasoned lace-knitters know, lace needs to be blocked. As a lace newbie, however, I was unaware of just how huge the difference between pre-blocked FO and blocked FO can be! I thought I’d share some first-time thoughts on the lace-blocking process below.

Pre-blocked underwhelm

When the shawl first came off the needles (following a bind-off which took an hour and a half), I was a little underwhelmed. This “finished object” looked nothing like the nice Ravelry pictures. It had no drape; I couldn’t make out the crescent shape; it was puckering at the ends; and the lace edging was curled up and indiscernible. In fact, it looked so different from what was expected that I considered re-doing the shawl in a different needle size, worried as I was about that puckering (whose origins baffled me).

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As you can see, the shawl looks about as wearable as a deflated balloon that has lost all of its air and has just hit the pavement (which was kind of the state of my heart after casting off and realizing this was the product of a month’s work).

I held off on any rash decisions, though. I could hazard a frogging, I told myself, but only after giving blocking a try. Lace teaches one to keep hope alive.

Blocking : Stitches in Suspense 

In my pre-blocked-lace dismay, I decided to use points on a rewards card to get 9 bona fide blocking boards and a set of T-pins. My usual “pin to the ironing board” methods were just not going to cut it with the Leticia shawl: it had an over 5-foot ‘wingspan’ and picot-edging with 105 ‘points’ that needed to be pinned out for shape!

I started by pinning portions of the top of the shawl in a straight line, tugging and pinning the shawl down at every other picot (not enough pins to do them all). The garment started to take shape, relaxing from its curled up state into a symmetrical, pucker-free form.

I ended up short by a single 12″ x 12″ blocking square. I blocked the rest of the shawl, left that section behind, then re-wetted and pinned it down after the first portion was dry. Having a modular board that was easily re-arrangeable was key. Apparently, this worked ok (excuse the blurry pictures):

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The difference between pre-blocked and blocked Leticia is like night and day. It was a marvelous feeling to take the fresh-blocked garment off the boards after a day or two and see it hold a completely different shape: the lacework edging had opened up, the shawl was ‘breathing’ and beautifully sheer, and instead of curled up, it was soft drape-y magic!

Learning lace, I’m realizing, is certainly a good lesson in patience–the hours of stitching are rewarded by still more days of pinning out and waiting. But, it is also a lesson in  transformation. Or, better yet, revelation, with all of the magic, surprise, and unexpected emergence of the extraordinary that the word suggests. In the realm of lace, what you see is not quite what you get!

You can read more random notes on the knitting process on my Leticia Ravelry project page. Thanks for reading!

Do you love lace? Or have any memorable lace projects? Do tell!

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Robert Henri on the song within

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What a month June has panned out to be. Between writing and a summer job, it’s been a busy one. On the making front, other than finishing up a Leticia shawl (unblocked…more on this soon), I’ve been enjoying The Art Spirit, by painter and portraitist Robert HenriOriginally published in 1923, The Art Spirit is a collection of Henri’s notes, letters and lectures to his pupils and proteges on the creative life. For the devoted student of painting, there’s lots to sink one’s technical teeth into: painterly lessons on colour theory, composition, the importance of keeping a clean palette (I always lapsed there), avoiding the overuse of ‘white’ to convey value (I did that), and cultivating the powers of visual memory.

But this little collection shines most brightly, I think, in how the fragments come together to convey a message on the ‘art spirit’: the joyful cultivation of vision and imagination. For Henri, ‘art’ (a term which he does not take too seriously) comes from enchantment with life. Part of the labour of making, he suggests, lies in developing self-knowledge through our imaginative sensibilities — allowing ourselves to be touched and moved by the things around us, rendered sensate, and finding exuberance and discovery in our worlds of feeling. Several times in the text, he suggests that the object is not to ‘make art,’ but to live — and to allow what we make to be a trace of that living.

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Image source: The School of Life’s The Dangers of Being Dutiful (a delightful Youtube video on precisely that).

This is a familiar message. But I enjoy how Henri articulates the idea, in different ways, with his own mix of wonder, warmth, and the ardent desire that budding artists learn, beyond technique, to recognize, value, and find tremendous joy in their ‘inner sense,’ and in painting as a modality of life.

You’ll find some of the Art Spirit moments that I found interesting below (I’ve gone ahead and feminized the masculine pronouns).


The real study of an art student is more a development of that sensitive nature and appreciative imagination with which she was so fully endowed when a child, and which, unfortunately in almost all cases, the contact with the grown-ups shames out of her before she has passed into what is understood as real life. 

On the experience of creative insight:

At such times, there is a song going on within us, a song to which we listen. It fills us with surprise. We marvel at it. We would continue to hear it. But few are capable of holding themselves in the state of listening to their own song. Intellectuality steps in and as the song within us is of the utmost sensitiveness, it retires in the presence of the cold material intellect… yet we live in the memory of these songs… They are the pinnacles of our experience and it is the desire to express these intimate sensations, this song from within, which motivates the masters of all art. 

Cherish your own emotions and never under-value them. We are not here to do what has already been done.

Find out what you really like if you can. Find out what is really important to you. Then sing your song. You will have something to sing about and your whole heart will be in the singing.

From a letter of criticism to a student:

Your education must be self-education. Self-education is an effort to free one’s course so that a full growth may be attained. One need not be afraid of what this full growth may become. Give your throat a chance to sing its song. All the knowledge in the world to which you have access is yours to use…Don’t bother about your originality, set yourself just as free as you can and your originality will take care of you. It will be as much a surprise to you as to anyone else.

The end will be what it will be. The object is intense living, fulfillment; the great happiness in creation.

And one last one, for now, from a painting critique Henri wrote to a student: “I like your work and have only to ask you to go on your own interesting way with all the courage you can muster.”

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