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Oh My Gouache!

“Oh my, Gouache!” said the paintbrush to the puddle of paint.

“What?” the puddle replied.

“You are a babe of an aqueous medium! You’re velvety soft, excellently opaque and so, so deeply colourful! I can’t believe I haven’t told you this before.”

Pleased with the surprise barrage of compliments, Gouache could only say “Well gee, thanks, I didn’t want to brag but yeah, I am pretty darn cool aren’t I?” And so, Gouache put on his sunglasses and went on to create some of the most delicious paintings the world would ever see.


Gouache itself is a paint made from a mix of pigments, water-soluble gum and chalky filler or white pigment. This ingenious mix, similar but profoundly different to the composition of watercolour, is well known for being a favourite of designers and illustrators but by no means is it limited to such arenas. In fact, gouache can be used in such a way as to mimic oil paint.

The qualities of gouache are numerous. Gouache, with its large amounts of binders and fillers forms a real film with total hiding power. When painted to a full film it has a matt opaque surface which gives it a strength, solidity and weight which sometimes even oil lacks. It is this dried earth look which Matisse cleverly exploited in his cut-outs. The ingredient of the filler or white pigment also gives gouache a light reflecting quality which enhances the strong contrasting values often used in its paintings. However, cool old gouache can do much more than only this.

Standing in the Tate and looking at the pre-Raphaelite paintings of Edward Burne-Jones one might assume their eyes had lain upon an oil, but no, it is quite likely to be a gouache! Once one has overcome such an embarrassing slip-up and apologised to the gallery attendant for being such a sinful idiot one can begin to further appreciate the versatility of this paint. Sidonia von Bork for example shows how gouache can emanate the glow of oil despite its inherent mattness.  Burne-Jones also exhibits how gouache can recreate the delicacy, detail and sense of form more familiar in oil and acrylic. Other artists to exploit gouache’s oily mimicry include Anish Kapoor and Egon Schiele.

Arthur Melville is the artist who truly championed gouache. Firstly, Melville showed that whilst watercolours are undeniably superior when used in transparent or semi-transparent washes gouache was perfectly capable too. Indeed, when transparent pigments such as burnt sienna or phthalo blue are used in a wash of gouache they are just as brilliant as that of a watercolour. Secondly, Melville explored the capabilities of gouache by developing a technique whereby he saturated his paper with Chinese white paint and then painted over it. This is why in paintings like The Blue Night, Venice and King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid the colours are so rich, deep and bejewelled. The latter painting also exhibits Melville’s final clever trick which was to manipulate different layers of gouache by using a damp clean brush and sponges to bring covered colours like his Chinese white from below to create ghostly fleeting forms and a velvet-like texture.

Topping off gouache’s all round excellence is that it can be mixed and matched freely with watercolour, ink, pastels and charcoals. A true free spirit! Of course, there are a few things gouache can’t do – it can’t sit out in the rain, it can’t be used in an impasto style, and, positively, it doesn’t become progressively transparent like oil paints can do with age.

If this has all rather tickled your fancy at Green and Stone we stock Winsor & Newton Designers’ Gouache and Schminke Horadam Artists’ Gouache. Designers’ gouache is intended for reproduction work, not permanent pieces. Whilst Artists’ is permanent, lightfast and is intended to create your magnum opus!

By Ned Elliott


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