Landscapes in Gouache

Anthony Atkinson describes his working methods with his favourite medium – “extremely convenient and flexible”

Gouache has been a favourite medium and painting technique for me since my student days at the Royal College of Art when the process seemed the most natural water paint complement to oil colour, which was the predominant medium used in the painting school in the late 1950s. This was, of course, a long time before acrylic paints and computer-based imagery were available.

Gateway at Grillon, gouache, 17½ x 12¾”

The main attraction was the opaque nature of gouache which enabled me to make major adjustments to a composition in the same way as oils. It is also an extremely convenient and flexible medium. If used in objective painting out of doors, it requires only minimal equipment, and at the end of a session completed work can be transported with ease, unlike oil sketches.

Finding the image

With my own work, on the other hand, I do not actually paint on the spot but prefer to make quite elaborate drawings with a very personal form of colour notation and then take this back to the studio to translate into a painting.

Poppies near Caromb, gouache, 12¾ x 17½

The image is the all-important thing and is the result of a great deal of moving around the selected area until something comes together visually for me. What I look for is a composition framed within my field of vision which I endeavour to see in very broad simplified terms whilst being conscious of the three-dimensional depth from the foreground to the middle and far distance.

The qualities of gouache

Gouache has a very particular quality which makes it quite different from watercolour. The opaque nature of gouache enables it to be applied to almost any form or tint of paper and card; however, differing types of paper will change the painting’s overall tonal characteristics but without reducing the luminosity of the colour. For example, working on an absorbent watercolour paper results in matt pastel-like tones whereas a good quality cartridge will cause the paint to dry with little or no change to the colours as mixed.

Gouache is produced by a number of manufacturers and generally sold as designers’ gouache colour in tubes. The pigments are the same as those used in oil paint but, contain some filler, and white is an essential element in the palette. It is wise to select the classic named pigments in preference to unusual contrived ones but all the well-known manufacturers indicate clearly the degree of permanence of each colour. In fact, if you stick to the most reliable colours, gouache does not alter over the years (providing of course that gouache paintings are kept out of direct sunlight) and it does not become transparent with age like oil paint.

Gouache technique

I tend to work in broadly the same manner or technique in both gouache and oils. For example, I prefer to use a piece of plate glass on a white-surfaced painting table rather than a hand-held palette and I lay out my colours in a traditional clockwise manner from darkest cold colours to white, then palest warm to dark. For example, the first colour on the left-hand section could be Prussian blue followed by ultramarine and then cerulean, moving on to the greens prior to permanent white, which would be followed by lemon yellow through orange, red , the ochres and umbers towards crimson.

May Morning in Provence, gouache, 17½ x 12¾”

Of course, with gouache it is sensible to put out modest amounts of paint as it will generally dry out by the end of a working session and be wasted, whilst oil paints can be left on the palette and although they will form a thin skin through oxidation they will be perfectly usable the next time.

One discipline that I always stick to is cleaning the palette at the end of the day as it makes more work to try to clean up part-dried oil paint or gouache after 24 hours.

Vines in the Cotes du Rhone, gouache, 15” x 22”

It is important to be well prepared before starting to work on a painting. I remember being told as a student that the whole business of painting is difficult enough without adding to your problems by being disorganised. So little things like having a number of clean water pots and easy access to a further supply make all the difference. Plenty of paint rag is another essential as it can be used as a painting tool for rubbing or scratching a line as well as keeping brushes clean.

The development of a painting

I start my gouache paintings rather as I work in oils, with a simplified lineal base. The difference, however, is that in oils I use a warm grey turpentine thin paint, and in gouache I either use a soft pencil translation of the original drawing or work directly onto the study which will have been drawn in black Conté chalk.

Small bridge near Langham, gouache, 15” x 22”

The first phase of the process is to work broadly and vigorously with colour, endeavouring to keep the ‘bones’ of the composition firmly stated. The colour is used as a first indication, which will become more subtle in the next phase. It is vital that the painting develops in an even way and I avoid becoming involved in one particular part at the expense of the whole design. There are certain key elements which will be defined, such as a window or door in a building, and the line of the horizon, but this is not the same as becoming distracted by some piece of detail.

I use a limited number of watercolour brushes which are square-ended and about 2cm wide but capable of producing a line, and continue with these until the final stages, when I will add some detail with a pointed brush such as a number five. I adopt a similar procedure when working in oils, using two large filbert hog bristles at the beginning and continuing with further large size brushes throughout with only limited use of a pointed sable brush. In this way, you stand a better chance of controlling the design of the painting and avoiding the use of obsessive detail.

Road from Suzette, gouache, 15” x 22”

The aim in both technical processes is to try to retain the original energy of the first impact of the selected image and to steer clear of overworking the paint. My method is to have several paintings in progress at the same time which I will switch to if I begin to detect those potentially fatal signs.

Gouache is, in my view, an excellent and versatile material which has a far wider range of applications than is generally appreciated.

This article was originally published in the July 1999 issue of The Artist

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