On Painting with Gouache:

Senor Ricardo Portrait

Senor Ricardo, Gouache on Clayboard. 30 x 24 inches.


Gouache (g-wash) - (from the Italian aguazzo):

Today, I mostly paint picture stories in oil on canvas. But for years I painted in gouache, producing many paintings.

If you are contemplating painting with gouache, the thoughts below maybe helpful.


How I Paint with Gouache:

I first used gouache because I am lazy!

When painting with watercolor, it is usual to save the white of the paper by coating the desired white areas with a resist material. Then, when the painting of the other areas is near complete, the resist is rubbed off leaving white of the paper to show through.

This takes planning, time for the resist to be applied, time for it to dry. Then after painting, there is the time for the resist to be carefully removed – plus time to soften the resulting hard edges by going over with a moist brush.
Always wanting to take the short cut, I soon found it is quicker and easier to add opaque white (gouache) where white is needed in the near finished painting.


Jazz Club

Jazz Club, Gouache on Clayboard. 22 x 30 inches.


Background About Gouache:

Click here to skip the history lesson and to go to where I discuss my painting techniques.

Gouache is a heavy, opaque watercolor paint, sometimes called body color, which produces a less wet-appearing and more strongly colored picture than ordinary watercolor.

Also, the word is used to describe any painting produced with gouache. The term gouache can be used interchangeably with body color, although the latter is made in a slightly different way.

The paint is rendered heavy and opaque by the addition of a white pigment (chalk, Chinese white, etc.) in a gum Arabic mixture. This results in a stronger color than ordinary watercolor. Which is why my gouache paintings look so bright and colorful!

The term was originally coined in the eighteenth century in France, although the technique is considerably older, being in use as early as the fifthteenth century in Europe.

Starting in the middle of the nineteenth century and continuing to the middle of the twentieth century, most European & American artists painted in gouache at one time or another in their careers.

Gouache was the original, and is still the primary, paint used in the production of decalcomanias. It can be very effective when applied to colored paper, see example in the works by J.M.W. Turner.  

In the twentieth century commercial artists used gouache widely. This association caused many contemporary artists of that period to avoid its use. And until recently few fine artists used gouache.

Today, gouache has become popular once again, resulting in this webpage being the most visited of my whole website.


Doorway Children

Doorway Children, Gouache on Clayboard. 30 x 22 inches.


Problems with Painting with Gouache:

The pigment dries slightly lighter than it appears when wet, which can make it difficult to match color. But with practice, it is easy to compensate.

The medium can also be susceptible to cracking if applied too thickly on paper. This problem can be alleviated to some degree by the use of a commercial thickening media, often know as Aquapasto.

Also, I had success using thick gouache on rigid textured clayboard, as discussed below. Using clayboard, I have frequently painted with gouache in an impasto style, often using a palette knife to apply the paint.

The finished gouache surface looks like oil or acrylic, often with a three dimensional thickness that adds character to the image. An example is my painting “Lunch Break” where the painted hamburger in the left figure’s hand is probably in excess of an 1/8 inch thick.


Lunch Break Painting

Lunch Break, Gouache on Clayboard. 12 x 16 inches.


I Started Painting In Watercolor:

When I began to seriously paint, my early work was mostly ink drawn botanicals on paper, using plants and flowers from my garden. Often these were enhanced with watercolor washes.  

From this, I progressed to live figure drawing and an intensive study of art theory. Much of my artwork from this period was created in the studio using watercolors on paper. It was during this period that I started developing my limited color palette.

Gradually I moved out of the studio and began painting on paper en plein-air (outdoor painting of landscapes), still using mostly transparent watercolor.

Later I began adding some gouache – first white, and then later other colors. I was able to obtain effects, not so easy to produce with regular watercolor alone.

In 2002, at a workshop, I was encouraged to experiment with painting watercolor onto gessoed paper, and protecting the finished image with varnish instead of the usual glass. I found this process difficult, due to the lack of absorbency of the gessoed paper – but fascinating due to the boldness of the resulting colors.

I persevered with the process after the workshop, and tried using gessoed canvas instead of paper. This rougher surface seemed somewhat easier to anchor the paint. I created some dozen or so paintings using this technique – some en plein-air and some in the studio. 

To increase the boldness of the colors I started intermix more gouache with my transparent watercolors. The technique, with its resulting strong colors and sharp contrast, continued to appeal.

Using a varnish finish and doing away with protective glass and its reflections was a great plus. But still the gesso does not adsorb water. It is necessary to paint layer by layer with periods of drying between. I tended to work with a hair dryer in one hand and a brush in the other! The process was slow.


Napa Vineyard

Napa Vineyard, Gouache on Clayboard. 22 x 30 inches.


On Using Textured Clayboard:

In early 2003, I was asked to submit some nocturnal scenes for an invitational show. I wanted to use my new bold technique with its strong colors. This would enable my work to be comparable to other exhibitors working in acrylic and oil.

A few months earlier, at a trade show, I had seen a demonstration of a then new support material: textured clayboard. This rigid material has a surface adsorption similar to good watercolor paper. It is designed specifically for water based paints and is recommended to be finishing with a sealer or varnish.

I purchased some boards, found it easy to work, and produced some excellent paintings. I completed four paintings for that show, sold two immediately - and have not looked back! Since then I have produced many paintings on this board.

Textured Clayboard is a museum quality support material for painting. It is manufactured and distributed by Ampersand Art Supply of Austin, Texas, under the brand name "Clayboad Textured ™.” The clayboard is created using a spraying and baking process, depositing kaolin clay onto a museum quality pressed wood panel. The finished board has an absorbency and texture of cold press watercolor paper, without some of its limitations. I have used Textured Clayboard for both watercolor and gouache. The resulting painted image is richer and more vibrant than on paper. When sealed with a clear varnish or lacquer, the painted image will last forever! Also, it is possible to do away with protective glass and its annoying reflections. The clay and board are 100% pH neutral, acid free, and the white finished board does not yellow.


Dick C.

Dick C., Gouache on Aquamedia Canvas. 30 x 22 inches.

On Using Watermedia Canvas:

In 2004 a new form of “gessoed” watermedia canvas become available, specifically designed for watermedia paints. This specially treated canvas has a surface that absorbs water. I found that painting on it was very similar to the textured clayboard.

Large sheets of clayboard are heavy. Stretched canvas panels are light and I started to use this canvas for my larger paintings. Since then I have completed several such paintings.


Marin Dairy Farm

Marin County Dairy Farm, Gouache on Board. 22 x 30 inches.

Painting with Gouache:

Since good quality gouache paint is very opaque, it has a lot of similarity to oil or acrylic in its application. These processes are so similar, that I found my eventual transition to oil painting very easy.

With gouache, so long as it is wet, colors may be mixed on the work surface. Or, if it has dried, the surface may be lightly sprayed with water (I always use distilled water - see my note below) to soften the dried paint and to allow wet into wet techniques to be used.

But, if used wet over dry, with a very dry brush, it easy to completely hide an earlier coat, which is very useful to correct or change earlier work.

Using my standard color palette, I have developed a series of palette boxes using the Masterson’s Handy Stay-Wet Palette.

These compact boxes are made of lightweight white plastic that cleans up easily. They are reasonably airtight when closed. A sponge layer below a special strong porous paper creates a damp atmosphere and keeps the top surface moist.

I use one box for each pair of complementary colors (red/green, blue/orange, and yellow/ultramarine-violet). In addition I have a box for black/white, and another for earth tones.

By squeezing a blob of paint for each complementary color pair, at each end of a box. Then, with a palette knife I smear and mix the colors. The result, for the complementary colors, is a transition from one color, through black, to the other color complement.

Then, by adding a blob of white to the side of the box, it is possible to get the lighter shades. Smaller blobs of my "additional" colors around the box intermix to give other tints that I use from time to time.



Palette Box.


From these boxes almost any shade and color I need may be found. I touch my brush to pick up paint in the desired color, and transfer it directly to my work surface. When I get low in a color, I just add some more.

It is very important to use the very best quality gouache paint you may afford. Cheap gouache is weak in pigment and does not provide good coverage. Bold colors are near impossible to obtain.


Botego Bay At Low Tide

Botago Bay At Low Tide, Gouache on Clayboard. 22 x 30 inches.


Use Distilled Water:

I always use distilled water for painting and for moistening my palette boxes. One reason is that where I live the local water is heavy in minerals. This often results in the painted colors looking drab, and sometimes stains the light areas.

Also, most local water contains a lot of organic material, which encourages mildew and algae. Using distilled water, I have some boxes that have been continual use for well over five years.

I use a spray bottle of distilled water to moisten up my boxes if they become too dry. If the work surface gets too dry, the spray bottle comes in handy to moisten up the area.

A drop of distilled water on my work surface will dry and leave no stain.


Today I paint in oil.

But, if you would like to discuss painting in Gouache please contact me.

If you want to see some of my gouache paintings, or learn more about how I paint, arrange to visit my Santa Barbara, California, Art Studio and Private Gallery.

They are situated about six miles northwest of downtown Santa Barbara. Only a few minutes driving distance from most local hotels.

To arrange a visit and to obtain driving directions, contact me for an appointment.


Painting is a continual learning process. I am always experimenting - trying new subjects, new methods, and new materials.


Updated January 2013.

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