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Beginner’s guide to gouache

Simple to set up, gouache paint is the perfect portable medium. Learn how to use it in our beginner's guide to gouache

Beginner's guide to gouache

Talk to artists of a certain generation about gouache, and they’ll likely roll their eyes and complain about the colour swatches they were forced to paint at art school. While its natural flatness does makes it suitable for humdrum tasks like this, far too often is gouache undervalued as a medium.

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But if you’re new to painting and keen to crack on at home, there’s actually no medium we’d recommend more. The materials you’ll need for gouache are relatively inexpensive (certainly in relation to oils), and it’s incredibly easy to get up and running.

The easiest way to describe gouache is as watercolour’s non-transparent cousin. Like watercolour, it uses gum arabic as a pigment binder. But it has an opacity – especially when mixed with white – that lets you build it up in layers.

Gouache has always been highly popular with illustrators and designers; if you like to create cards, prints or suchlike, it’s the absolute best. 

Read on for our in-depth beginner’s guide to gouache painting – we’ll talk you through the medium’s strengths, tricky points and all the materials you’ll need to get started. You might also want to take a look at our beginner’s guide to acrylic paint and beginner’s guide to oil paint.

Advantages of gouache paint

Gouache is a water-based medium, which makes it suitable for all ages. It’s also rehydratable, which not only offers all sorts of benefits when it comes to painting, but means it’s easy to clean up. You can wash dried gouache off a palette with no problem, and if you spill it on a (non-porous) surface, a damp cloth will quickly remove it.

Another advantage of gouache is that it photographs beautifully – a major reason why it’s always been so popular with commercial artists who paint book jackets, magazine illustrations and other images for reproduction. We’re not telling you to go that route… but your work will look mighty impressive on Instagram. Just saying.

Disadvantages of gouache paint

The fact that gouache is rehydratable does make it a slightly finicky medium. Beginners often find that when they build up gouache in layers, they reactivate the paint beneath, which smudges and disturbs the painting. You’ll probably have to grit your teeth through a few such mishaps. If it becomes a real problem, you can try acrylic gouache, which isn’t rehydratable.

Because it’s so pigment-rich, gouache is also an expensive medium. That’s why you’ll only find it available in small tubes of around 14ml (except for white, which mercifully you can get in larger 60ml tubes, and you’ll definitely use lots). Because of this, you’ll always be restricted in size: gouache painting is a fundamentally small-scale activity.

Beginner's guide to gouache
Painting by Matt Breen

Gouache techniques

Gouache is an incredibly versatile medium. You can use it in stains and translucent layers, much like watercolour. But you can also work opaquely by mixing white into your other colours – and this is where gouache really shines. It dries to a wonderfully flat, matte finish, which is why it’s so popular with graphic artists.

Then there’s a technique known as ‘tiling’, which you can see in the magnificent paintings of Norman Rockwell. This is where you paint your image in discrete shapes of colour, almost like a mosaic. Then, once you’re done, you can take a damp brush and blend the edges of each of these titles together by re-wetting the paint. This takes patience and lots of practice, but the results can be incredible. 

Want to have a go at a gouache painting project? We love Esther Curtis’ how to paint a self-portrait, butterfly art and still life art projects, which are all use gouache and are suitable for beginners.

How to start gouache painting: essential equipment

The basics

You’ll need a few basic essentials. An old rag is essential for you to wipe excess paint off your brush. Some high-strength kitchen roll – the blue lint-free stuff – will be needed too. Get a jar of water. An atomiser spray will also keep your paints wet for longer, if you spritz them every ten minutes or so. 

Gouache paint

As ever, we offer the same mantra to beginners: buy the best paints you can afford. Cheap gouache paints won’t deliver the same encouraging results. Not only are they less pigment-rich, they’re often filled with white to give them extra opacity, giving them a milky quality you don’t necessarily want.

Our favourite brand of gouache paints is M Graham. These superb colours use honey rather than the usual gum arabic as a binder, which keeps them wet for longer. They’re costly, but worth every penny.

There’s also a relatively new addition to the gouache market, which have become very popular, very fast: Himi’s jelly gouaches, which are so-called because they come in plastic pots with a peel-off lid. Fun and inexpensive, they come in a cute plastic box, and would make a lovely gift for any budding gouache artist. You can also buy single colour refills.

A quick note on dry gouache: because gouache is rehydratable, you can reactivate colours with a wet brush, much like watercolour pans. This is perfectly fine, and it’s certainly less wasteful than squeezing out fresh paint each time, when some will inevitably end up not being used. But for our money, gouache is like orange juice: best when freshly squeezed.

Brushes

Here’s the good news. While we urge you to buy good-quality paints, you can get away with cheaper synthetic brushes when painting with gouache, since it’s a paint that’s relatively gentle on brush hairs. This set from ProArte is a solid option, offering you a comprehensive range of rounds and flats.

Something that we really, really appreciate about gouache is that if it dries in your brushes, they can be washed out with no issue. 

Palette

For home use, buy a white enamel tray, which is also known as a butcher’s tray. Trust us on this – it’s the best option going. Diluted gouache tends to bead on glass palettes, and will run off flat traditional palettes.

Fold a damp, saturated piece of paper towel into one corner of the tray, and squeeze out your colours here: the soggy paper will keep them wet for longer. At the end of your session, you can clean out the tray in the sink and it will look good as new.

If you want to do some outdoor painting, consider a fold-out palette with a thumbhole, like this budget-friendly option from Royal & Langnickel. Small and discreet, you can stow it away in a backpack with no trouble.

Support

You can use gouache on canvas, but this isn’t where it shines. If the canvas is too flexible, the paint could easily crack. Gouache is best on paper or illustration board.

Whether it’s a sketchbook, sketchpad or loose sheets, the paper you choose should be at 300gsm in weight, so it doesn’t crinkle. Toned paper makes for a nice alternative to white, which always looks a bit intimidating . You can choose between rough cold-pressed or smooth hot-pressed watercolour paper: our advice to newbies is to try both.

Illustration board comes in large sheets that you can cut to size – carefully, of course – with a craft knife. You’ll find that it can take thicker layers of gouache than paper. Although it’s much thicker than paper, it can still sometimes curl inward or ‘potato chip’, but this is easily fixed with a little gentle correction.

Anything else?

If you’ve got the above covered, you have everything you need for gouache painting. But you may also want to buy some Japanese washi tape, a low-stick tape to border the edges of your work. It will make your paintings look much tidier, and peeling it off once you’ve finished is one of the most satisfying things you can imagine.

Works on paper often need a little post-production to both protect them and make them more presentable. Since dried gouache can be re-wetted, you might want to seal your work with a fixative or varnish. After that, you could also mount it on a hard surface like a plywood panel, or put it behind glass in a frame.

But for now, don’t worry about hanging your results. Just get involved with gouache, and focus on enjoying yourself. Good luck from the Gathered team!

All of the paintings in this feature are by Matt Breen. Find more of Matt’s artwork on Instagram @mattbreenart.

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Looking for more painting inspiration? Take a look at our watercolor painting ideas and watercolour painting for beginners guide. If you want to stock up your art supplies, check out our best watercolour paints, best acrylic paints and best drawing tablet for beginners guides.