Get to grips with gouache
Gouache! What even is it? Join artist and illustrator Laura Bifano as she demystifies the medium in this four-part series
Join artist and illustrator Laura Bifano as she demystifies the medium, in the first instalment of this four-part series.
G ouache is a wonderfully versatile medium and is used in everything from fine art, concept design and animation background paintings. You can achieve a number of effects from soft gradients, textured drybrush, to painstakingly detailed fine lines.
That being said, it does have some idiosyncrasies that often put people off. For example, lighter values often dry darker and darker values become lighter, making working over multiple sessions a bit of a challenge. In addition, if the paint doesn’t dry completely between applications, bottom layers can even lift and muddy the colours applied on top!
But don’t let this discourage you – gouache also has many advantages. Number one for me is that its matte finish and vivid colours means that it reproduces easily, making it the medium of choice for anyone working in illustration or design. It’s also portable, fast drying and has great opacity, which is why many artists also choose to use it for painting outdoors. Unlike oils, which require the use of abrasive solvents, gouache is water-soluble, easy on your brushes, and perfect for working in smaller spaces.
Gouache is also incredibly variable and can be watered down and used like watercolours. Yet unlike watercolours it can be built up in thicker, painterly layers.
In my opinion, it’s versatility and portability far outweigh its finicky nature. True, this medium comes with some challenges, but I promise the end results are worth the effort.
1 Getting started
Pictured here is is my basic setup. I have a few different palettes that I like to use: a small, portable one for travel; a medium palette for working on smaller-sized pieces; and finally an open tray for mixing larger quantities of colour. And of course, I always keep a paper towel, rag or sponge handy for controlling the moisture on my brush and paper.
2 Choosing your brushes
There are thousands of brushes to choose from. Since most painters work coarse to fine detail, it makes sense to have a variety of brush sizes. For water-based medium it’s good to use soft, natural hair brushes such as sable, although many synthetic brands are good, too. A stiff brush such as Hog’s Hair will be hard on your paper and won’t hold paint as well as a softer brush.
3 Palette basics
I keep a fairly limited palette when working. I like to use a couple of variations on primaries. Cadmium yellow is a deeper, richer shade, compare with the high chromacity of Cadmium yellow light. This enables more variation when mixing greens. I use a lot of Prussian blue when mixing shadows and Primary blue when painting sky panels.
I generally try and keep my palette organised according to warm/cool light/dark, but they can sometimes wind up looking like a bit of a dog’s dinner. This example palette isn’t indicative of how I work – rather, it’s an example of the variations you can achieve with limited primaries.
4 Choosing a suitable painting surface You can work on literally any flat surface you want. I’ll often use a sturdy masonite drawing board, sometimes a clipboard or even the surface of my desk. Right now I’m using an adjustable drawing easel, which I can set up anywhere in my studio.
I find masking tape works just fine for stretching watercolour paper. I’ve never had an issue with buckling or tearing, and it’s cheaper and more widely available than artist tape. The smaller roll of liner-tape is fantastic for masking out areas on the painting, similar to frisket paper. Blotting materials. Larger travel palette (also good for studio work!) Gouache is pigment bound in an emulsifier, usually gum arabic or dextrin. Whenever possible, avoid student-grade paint, because they often contain talc, calcium carbonate or marble dust that add opacity but reduce saturation. I use M. Graham & Co and Windsor-Newton gouache, which obtain their opacity from pigment rather than fillers.
Once I have my colours blocked in, I do 90 per cent of my fine-tooling with this brush. It holds a surprising amount of paint and still comes to a fine point. I use a palette knife to mix colours whenever possible. This keeps paint from getting into the ferrule of my brushes and spreading out the bristles. When an image calls for an extra fine amount of detail, it’s time to bust out the liner brush. Ideal for painting eyelashes on a background figure, or the rim light on a cat’s whiskers. This is what I do the brunt of my painting with. The flat edge offers good coverage for broad areas of detail, while I can still use the narrow end of the chisel for a finer line. When painting clouds or soft gradients, I’ll sometimes use this big softie to blur edges. I use a two-inch flat sable brush to lay down my initial wash and block in large areas of colour. Large flat brush Soft sable Chisel brush size 0 sable brush Liner brush Palette knife
mix using my blues and red. I add my black to tone things down. I’ve mixed a “pure” green from Cadmium yellow light and Primary blue, with a warm and cool mixture to the right and left of it. I can then work off these three blobs, mixing in my subtractive black. I keep a worn-out brush handy for mixing colours that have dried on the palette. I do use one secondary colour in my palette: Magenta! This is more vivid than I would be able to Orange is a mix of Cadmium red light and Cadmium red. I’ve also added the black mixture to lower its intensity. with my black to tone it down. I can use this mud mixture with my primaries and secondaries to create different undertones. I use Prussian blue, Magenta and Cadmium yellow to create a neutral black. I test out the mixture on a separate piece of paper, laying it on transparently to make sure that it’s not leaning too far over into the warm or cool spectrums. The idea is to make neutral dark tone that I can add in to my secondaries. This warm brown is a mixture of Cadmium yellow, Red and Prussian blue. I also mix it in
Having proper lighting is important too, especially if you’re in a position where you have to paint at night. Most light bulbs cast a warm, yellow light that can make achieving accurate colours tough. Here I’m using an LED daylight bulb, which casts a cool, neutral light. The most important thing when working in a water-based medium is to make sure you’ve properly stretched your paper beforehand. I use Arches 300lb watercolour paper, which needs to soak in water for 15 to 20 minutes before taping it to the easel. Then I let it completely dry before I wet it again and start painting. I keep a couple of rulers handy for painting straight lines. I’ll sometimes use a mask directly on the surface, but as you inevitably build up thicker layers, tape and frisket paper will flake off the paint. Running your brush along the edge of a ruler is a quick and easy way to produce nice, crisp edges. Doing a colour comp before starting a painting saves a lot of decision making. Since you’ve done all the brainwork beforehand, you can focus on craft and execution.