What is Gouache?

Gouache is pronounced “gwash.” It rhymes with “squash” and it’s simply another type of watercolor paint, with some unusual properties. It does not become absorbed into paper in the same way watercolor and other paints do. It remains on the paper’s surface, in a thick and opaque layer. Gouache is a French word that originates from the Italian “guazzo,” which literally means “water color.” It was first used in medieval illuminated manuscripts and gained popularity among French and Italian painters in 18th century. It was most often used in creating decorative art or landscapes.

In the 20th century, gouache became a popular medium for commercial artists because it photographed well and could be used to make crisp images and lettering. It was a reliable medium for reproducing advertisements before digital design.

Watercolor and gouache both consist of the same basic ingredients: a natural or synthetic pigment, gum arabic binder, and preservatives. The major difference between the two paints is that the particles of pigment in gouache are larger and the ratio of pigment to binder is higher. Most gouaches also have chalk added to the formula to further increase opacity. Like watercolors, gouache is available in tubes, pans and pots and can last for years when stored properly. 

Unlike watercolor, gouache remains opaque as it is watered down and has more of a matte finish than watercolor. Gouache offers artists the ability to cover large areas with very flat washes, while watercolor allows artists to build up translucent layers of color. Gouache has a bolder, flatter color laydown, more like acrylics or oils. Unlike acrylics or oils, gouache cannot be applied thickly to create texture—if a layer of gouache is too thick, it will crack when it dries.

Below is a comparison of how these different effects appear on paper: the painting on the left is made with gouache and the painting on the right is a watercolor. (Left: "Interior With Color," by Patricia Dubroof. Right: "White Iris," by Julie Starling). You can see that both paintings are made with washes, but the gouache painting has a flatter appearance, wheareas the watercolor is more transluscent and luminescent. The large pigment particles and opacity of gouache causes it to react to light in a different way.

Gouache vs watercolor comparison

Layering and glazing with gouache creates very different effects. With gouache, previous washes can be easily and fully covered. The paint does not blossom or bloom like regular watercolor but remains flat and even, more like acrylic or oil. The opacity of gouache offers an advantage because it gives artists the ability to edit mistakes more easily. Dark areas can be painted over with lighter colors because it has such solid coverage. 

Gouache is often used by commercial artists working in fashion design, poster art and comic illustrations because it lends itself well to both lettering and drawing. Some famous painters who worked primarily in gouache include J.M.W Turner, Paul Klee and Jean Dubuffet.

In the comparison below, you can see the opaque coverage and flattening effect of gouache in Patricia Dubroof's painting, "Rearview Pencrest." Each color is stong and opaque, with a superior covering effect. In the next painting, a watercolor by Julie Starling, you can see how the watercolor paint has less of a flattening effect but does not hide drawn lines in the same way.

Patricia Dubroof - gouache - Rearview Pencrest

Julie Staring - watercolor

Gouache and watercolors can work well when used together because they have similar chemical compositions. Both gouache and watercolor paints are water-based and dry quickly. If you already work in watercolor and are curious about gouache, buy gouache in primary colors and start experimenting with it both by itself and with your collection of watercolor paints. 

Patricia Dubroof's art and her 100 Drawings Project can be found online at www.pdubroof.com and on Facebook. Julie Starling's art can be found online at www.juliestarling.com and Facebook.  Both artists can be found teaching at Plaza Art in Rockville, Maryland from time to time; Patricia teaches painting every Monday morning at Plaza Rockville. Check out our current Workshop Schedules!