Gouache. Guh-wash. Goo-wash? Gwash?
Even the name is a weird one. When I first saw it I never dared say it for fear of saying wrong. I patiently waited until I heard someone else say it first. So now that we’ve figured out how to even say it, what is it?
Simply, gouache can be likened to an opaque watercolour. Whatever that means. It’s a watermedia that is used for creating opaque methods of painting. It’s made from pigment, water and a binding agent like dexterin or gum arabic. It’s actually quite similar to watercolour in composition. Also like watercolour, gouache can be reactivated with water and the paint can be infused into the paper support. Then it gets all confusing because it can also act similarly to acrylic paint in that it can create a superficial layer on your support.*
And that dual nature of gouache is where my struggles begin. When I look at artwork created by gouache, I fall in love with the beautiful opaque, matte artworks that blend seamlessly into the paper and within its own designs. But when I attempt it myself, I can’t seem to find that happy middle between too much water and not enough mixed with my paint. Without water, gouache acts like an acrylic, thick and textured. With too much water, it looks like a strange dull version of watercolours with the paper showing through. It also dries to a different colour value.
To make it even more confusing, there are two types of gouache: the traditional version tempered with gum arabic and the newer acrylic gouache, which contains acrylic binding agents. Acrylic gouache behaves like a regular gouache except that it can’t be reactivated with water after it has dried.
Take a look at gouache versus watercolour:
With the right ratio of paint to water, gouache can make a beautiful opaque colour on the paper. Right below that, the darkest watercolour block still has a translucent quality. Clearly, I know how to work with watercolour better than gouache but it still shows how these two mediums are similar and yet different. (That was the goal anyways.)
Currently I am working with the traditional kind of gouache made by Winsor & Newton and I’ve got six colours exactly: the primaries, a green, black and white. This very limited selection of colours (thanks to a limited budget and picky painter’s taste) forced me to practice my colour mixing again. But practice makes perfect! I refuse to be beat by a paint!
*Just in case, “support” in this instance refers to whatever it is you are painting on, be it paper, canvas, wood, etc.