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!

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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Doll 3: Craft as care

Hello. How has the start of April found you? We’ve had snow in Chicago (just 2 days ago), but today the light and birds are back.

I’ve sewn another felt doe. I decided, after the last one, to put a pause on the doll-making in order to focus on my other project, but I couldn’t resist stitching this one, very much driven by a vision and a feeling. So, I did my best to make time for her in the interstices of other goings on (Easter, a new academic quarter, and so on). Now the doll is done! As you’ll see, this one is a little under the weather, a little blue, and in need of general proximity to a blanket. It was only after I finished that I saw the doll as a kind of mashup between Eeyore of Winnie the Pooh and Linus of Peanuts (they share an emotional kinship, don’t they?). But, not to worry: this doe is in good company.

It’s been my habit, after completing projects, to write up a ‘process post’ and unpack some of the working-up from my (maker) point of view. This time, I thought I’d tell the hand-crafting story from a slightly different perspective and, in the process, create a short visual narrative about care — or, how I’ve come to understand the caring space that crafting creates for me. Craft is a space of openness, patience, generosity, and exploration; it’s a very good place to find one’s feet, heal from whatever is ailing, and support renewal and new directions. This supportive aspect of making leads me to believe that making is kind of like a second immune system (and one nurtured by continuous practice). 🙂 In this way, I’m coming to discover how the things we make quite powerfully (re)make us in turn.

Enjoy. And deer hugs!

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Have you ever felt “crafted” by a project you were working on? In what ways?

1st week of Spring: thinking about process and play

I hope you’ve enjoyed a great week.

This week has been a bit busy on my end: there have been a few unexpected (time-consuming) things to attend to at home and, of course, the larger academic project I’m working on. But, it hasn’t been so busy that I did not find time to play with my doll patterns, felt, and flosses.

Beyond all language and metrics of productivity, the time I spend making dolls / making things for the dolls is essentially that: play. In contrast to my recent knitting projects (where I had a clear pattern to work, directions to follow), a lot of my doll-crafting time feels a bit like a state of suspension – with the work being invented as I go, I feel my grip on goal-direction loosen and lose its unilinear quality: many solutions to problems or dilemmas crop up, or work themselves out over a week or two after playing with and testing out different alternatives. In this state, crafting feels both hazy and focused. On the one hand, working feels like walking through dreams – like being given license to wander and explore, precisely because so many things are possible. At the same time, my usual sensitivities become a bit more acute, acuity sharpens (mostly for the better!). I’d like to write a longer post on my thoughts on this process, but for the time being, I’ll say that recovering a space and sense of play and open-endedness (design!) is becoming a major route to enabling my creativity and well-being (no big surprise there, perhaps!).

I’ve also taken, recently, to using notebooks as little homes to organize ideas for different crafting media. It’s nice to have separate, offline spaces for collecting, gathering, sketching, diarizing, and jotting down. For me, it’s otherwise easy for various projects to get jumbled up (and meld into an overwhelming mega-project), or for me to forget that perfect idea that came in the shower. I’m not a multi-tasker, but more of a serial single-tasker (and I very much struggle with making the transitions in between). Hence, the need for little homes where the different ideas can find kinship, cross-pollinate, and lead a happy existence until I’m able to properly attend to them. Taking out one of these books and putting it on my one-and-only work desk also signals to me that I’m entering the zone for that particular project. When space is limited, these books help me to set the tone and intention for a work session.

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Let’s not let the best ideas get tangled up like that floss: the orange book is for doll-making & blogging, the white one for knitting, and the black one for drawings.

And, on the doll front…

Last week, I bought some extra skeins of floss and, having learned some lessons from the previous project, a set of doll needles (just saying that brings me a flicker of excitement).

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The bigger doll needles in the set measure 3 inches (compare with the regular hand-sewing needle above). Doll needles are long, ample-eyed, and are super for stitching through multiple doll parts and fabric-layers with thick, heavier-duty thread. They make the sewing of classic doll button joints, for instance, 1000 times easier.

In that arena, it looks like last week’s deer-friend is anticipating some company.

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You know, after all, what they say about March: it comes in like a lion, and goes out like a… doe (that’s the saying, right?).

Looking forward to catching up with your creative goings on, and wishing you a great Easter / weekend!

How do you organize your work on multiple media and/or projects? (notebooks, schedules, workspaces, other methods?). And, do you distinguish between work on patterns designed and generated by others, and those you design yourself?