Whether you consider yourself a contemporary artist or a traditional one, gouache will deliver beautiful, soft, rich and vibrant colours that are adaptable to any style. The finish that can be achieved with gouache is unique from any other media. It can be applied very thinly and transparent, like watercolour, but it also gives you the flexibility to build up colours in layers, like oil paint.

Hampton Court Gardens, gouache, (43x34cm)
You probably won’t need to use much black, as by mixing the darker colours you can achieve very rich near-black tones. Indigo blue, alizarin crimson and viridian green make a beautiful dark green. Replace the indigo blue with black if you need to go really dark.

A good starting point

Whether you work from home or studio, or paint en plein air, a good pencil and watercolour sketch will help you sharpen your observation and lay the foundation for a well-composed composition.

Once you have a sound structure and established your format, you can make a start on the harmony of your colours and the all-important darks and lights. Acid-free board gives a good surface to work on, but a heavy watercolour paper is also satisfactory.

Laying down your initial colour foundation can be daunting to even the most experienced of artists. You can start by working on your basic colour scheme, using the gouache very thinly then building up the colour as you would when painting with watercolour.

Another good technique is to include watercolour pencils, which are fun to use and contrast well with the thick gouache paint, particularly if you are looking for an interesting mixed-media effect.

Pigeons in Regent’s Park, gouache, (48x33cm)
Gouache is similar to using oil or acrylic, in that it works well to start with stronger colours and establish a dark colour foundation. You can then build on this rich colour base with lighter tones of the same colours, leaving your lights until last. This technique will help you create the connection between light and dark tones.
Light and Dark

Unlike acrylic paint, gouache dissolves as soon as it comes into contact with water, even when fully dry, which enables you to make a lot of alterations without too much over-painting. This is also a good technique for rebalancing and blending your colours. However, be careful, as the ability to dissolve quickly can work against you, especially if you want to change a colour completely, rather than just the tone.

If you apply a fresh layer of paint, the original colour will dissolve and blend in with your new colour mix, turning it into the dreaded muddy tones.

In this case, the best solution is to paint a thick layer of white over the top and leave it to dry completely before adding the fresh colour. The dry white acts as a barrier to the under-painting. Although the white will loosen, at worse it will just lighten your tone. Since gouache always dries to a darker shade, it should not affect the final colour too much.

Autumn Lake, The Savill Garden, gouache, (58x43cm).
Like most painters, I tend to stick to my favourite colours, but occasionally add more, depending on my subject. Here I added a lot of cadmium orange and a little flame red to my palette.
Colour choices

We all have our own colour choices that we are comfortable with and enjoy using. If you are thinking of giving gouache a try for the first time then you will probably want to use similar colours to your more familiar media. If you are experienced with watercolour painting, for instance, the big difference in painting with gouache is the frequent use of white, in particular zinc white for mixing, which helps to soften the overall look of the painting, and permanent white for stronger coverage.

My own palette usually comprises Winsor & Newton colours: lemon yellow, cadmium yellow, viridian green, alizarin crimson, Prussian blue, cerulean blue, cobalt blue, burnt sienna and a large tube of white. I might add other colours occasionally, depending on the subject and mood of a painting.

Try to stay with as few colours as possible to ensure you really get to know them well and can achieve maximum colour effects. However, at times you might want to move away from your comfort zone and try new colours and ideas.