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.

gouache 4 detail
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).

gouache 2 detail

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!