The Challenge of Gouache Painting

Painting with gouache can be a most absorbing occupation, providing that the student has arrived at a clear understanding of the various forms of technique associated with the medium. Conversely, to the inexperienced beginner expecting immediate success, it can be the most exasperating and frustrating of all media. Gouache painting, then, is a challenge to those who wish to excel in mastering its complexities.

Many people ask: “What is gouache?” The most fitting description is, “opaque watercolour”. This means that Chinese, or some other white, when mixed with pure watercolour, comes under the heading of “gouache”. There are several extensions to this basic idea, as suggested later in this article.

Obtaining the necessary materials presents no problems. White watercolour paper of different surface textures, from smooth to coarse grain, should be on hand, ready for use, according to the subject. For the beginner, smooth white drawing paper is admirable, as it enables the gouache medium to glide easily over the surface. The brushes commonly used for pure watercolour are also appropriate for general gouache painting. However, it is useful to have a couple of hogs hair oil brushes in order to get the texture of suggestive brush marks of a totally different character from those achieved by sable watercolour brushes. A small, closely fibred sponge must be included for sponging out certain passages of colour.

Pure watercolours, direct from the tube, are essential for gouache painting, as they remain moist and ready for mixing with white. Artists’ colourmen do not appear to sell colours labelled as “gouache”, but egg tempera colours can be obtained, which are adaptable to gouache painting; casein colours also come under the same heading – they are manufactured in the United States and until recently, were much in demand by American artists.

Woodland Scene, 15.5" x 19.5"

Poster colours also have all the qualities attributed to the gouache medium. They are inexpensive and can be purchased in large tubes. Unfortunately, they have a reputation for lacking in permanency. It would be interesting to find corroborative evidence showing for what length of time they do retain their original colours before fading, remembering that no oil is used to dilute these colours; water is the only medium for mixing and diluting gouache colours. It is generally known that oil-colour pictures fade after a long period of time – their length of permanency varies, according to the practical knowledge of the artist with regard to the durability of pigment mixed with oil. Rubens made a wise remark when he said “Oil is the enemy of pigment”. Pastel is the medium that holds the record for permanency of colour. La Tour’s masterly portrait pastels of the eighteenth century (many examples are in the Louvre, Paris) show no signs of fading. These colours remain bright and fresh, as though the artist only just finished his subject.

Before attempting to paint a picture with gouache colours, it is advisable to have some familiarity with the possibilities of glazing and direct colour treatment. I suggest a simple formula for glazing; on white drawing paper paint four separate colour blobs with pure watercolour, i.e. burnt sienna, French ultra-blue, cadmium orange and viridian. When dry, you can then have the fun of glazing over each of these four colours. The colour for glazing can be chosen at your discretion, but whichever colour you choose it must be mixed with a little Chinese or egg tempera white and generously diluted with clean water. An effective colour glaze can be made with ultramarine blue mixed with a little white. Try it over the four above-mentioned colours. The result is startling. The burnt sienna tint now looks subdued in tone and colour, with artistic benefit. The blue, although not quite so bright, retains its original colour, while the cadmium orange becomes a beautiful muted colour with no trace of hardness or crudity. The viridian loses its aggressive green and becomes more subtle in colour. Too much white mixed with colour is no good for glazing; it clouds the effect and loses the charm of luminosity. There are a great number of colours that can be used for glazing, in fact the range is unlimited. Keep your sable brushes in a state of perfect cleanliness. Mix enough glazing colour to cover the desired surface before starting to paint; a shortage of colour will ruin the picture, as it is impossible, in the process of painting, to remix the exact tint with which one started.

Direct colour painting with gouache must be executed with assurance. Tentative or timid handling of colour results in colour confusion, leaving no direct message. It is profitable to try out a few ideas on odd pieces of paper. Probably the most difficult item for the beginner is the problem of painting dark, rich colour, which ceases to be dark in tone when mixed with other colours. It is almost as effective as black, without being so opaque. Payne’s grey mixed with burnt sienna, cadmium red and a little egg tempera which makes a good deep colour, the richness of which can be intensified after drying by adding a wash of cadmium red in pure watercolour, or some other bright pure colour wash. Here again there is an unlimited field for investigation. With limited space, I can only throw out a few hints as a starting point to those who seek adventures in the fascinating pursuit of colour.

The coloured reproduction entitled Market Day, Besançon, France, is a striking example of one of the many interesting subjects awaiting the attention of artists in this remarkable city. It is not only a city of architectural interest, but it also has a famous university which attracts students from all over the world.

Market Day, Besançon, France, (20" x 15")

This reproduction displays two definite shadows; the one thrown on the wall of the building is almost vertical in its downward direction, thus leading the eye to the horizontal shadows spreading across the lower end of the picture. The massive formation of these two major shadows – diametrically opposed to each other – constitutes the main feature of the general composition. Another feature of almost paramount importance can be seen in the brilliant, sunlit, triangular tent cloth. Its general shape is strangely emphasized by the dark wall shadow behind and a further emphasis is added by the deep tone directly underneath the tent cloth covering.

Studying the colours in the reproduction, it becomes obvious that it would need more than one coat of paint to portray the dark colours associated with the two major shadows. The large vertical wall shadow and the lower horizontal shadows caught the eye so vividly that, after a sketchy pencil outline, I ignored the usual routine of building up the subject in progressive stages and promptly laid in the foundation shadows with a mixture of burnt sienna, Payne’s grey and cadmium orange with egg tempera white. Oher colours were then distributed over the remaining portions of the buildings, such as yellow ochre, white, delicate green and a touch of burnt sienna. The shadowy section on the extreme left-hand side of the building received the same colour treatment as the two major shadows situated on the right-hand side and across the lower end of the picture Payne’s grey mixed with alizarin crimson and burnt sienna helped to get deeper intensity of tone in the circular arch above the tent cloth and the same colours were added to give deeper tone to the dark shadows underneath the sunlit tent material.

The shadows resting on the sunlit tent material were painted in the first stage with a pure was of burnt sienna. After drying, a mixture of French blue, Chinese white and a little yellow ochre, together with plenty of clean water, were superimposed on the prepared burnt sienna ground tint. Glazing – or the washing of one colour over another – should be done quickly. The original colour underneath must not be disturbed, otherwise the painting will end in chaotic failure. The experienced artist is able, with adroit handling to suggest during the actual glazing a slight variation of tone and colour, without losing the all-over breadth of tone so vital for success.

The sharp passages of unbroken sunlight in this colour illustration, clearly noticeable in the vertical wall shadow on the right were suggested by wiping out the prepared ground colour with a small sponge well soaked in clean water. The immediate effect was one of luminosity. The sponge must be kept free from any colour before each application to the ground tint. Cadmium orange, so obvious in the colour reproduction, has been washed over the sponged out portions and blended into the surrounding colours. Finally, after drying, each passage of cadmium orange received a small touch of solid paint made with white and yellow ochre, thus retaining the feeling of luminosity previously gained by sponging out the dark ground colour.

Figures depicted in street scenes are usually incidental to the general composition. They look effective, without being too noticeable, when painted with simplicity. The addition of detail to a figure is liable to attract undue attention from the main conception of a subject. The black and white reproduction of two figures, featured here, was painted rapidly with no preparatory pencil drawing letting the brush function with suavity. It is admirable practice to suggest hundreds of figures, either with pure wash or gouache. To do so, without any trace of self-consciousness, is a delightful pastime, and helps automatically towards artistic progress.

Simple painting of figures before adding detail

There are certain structural formations in nature, such as the strata on the side of a mountain, the complexities of interesting red-tiled roofs, common to the South of France, Spain and Italy, the stubble of a cornfield after the harvest, and numerous other examples, that can each be painted with a simple technique. With a small sable brush paint direct on the white drawing paper the structural lines of strata, stubble, tiles, etc., with any dark gouache colour you may fancy. When dry, superimpose local colour on the prepared ground. This can be done either in pure watercolour wash or colour slightly mixed with white. Unless roughly treated, the gouache colour underneath will retain it shape and structural formation.

The Flooded Cavern subject came about by experimenting. Selecting a small piece of white drawing paper, I painted several bright colours, both light and dark in tone, covering the whole paper with meaningless daubs. With no conception of any sort of picture, I decided to stimulate the imagination by sponging out some of the colours. Looking at the results and hoping some motif would be visible, I discovered a faint suggestion of flooded-cavern. This gave me a clue for a definite subject, where I could improvise with artistic freedom with no responsibility to others or to myself. The black and white reproduction shows how I eventually evolved a picture from a unique source.

The Flooded Cavern, 16" x 20"

The reproduction of A Back Canal, Venice, makes a striking composition of dramatic force. There is no subtlety of delicate tone against other delicate tones. The whole composition is a straight-forward rendering of dark versus light, the former occupying the greater amount of space, thus making the smaller quantity of light more valuable through contrast. The picture was started without any pencil or charcoal lines for guidance, thus allowing plenty of liberty for free and decisive painting. On the other hand, it requires a certain amount of courage to paint with so bold a technique, but with gouache as a medium mistakes are easily remedied. Any noticeable drawing seen in the reproduction, such as the distant sunlit buildings and the windows and doors of the buildings on each side of the canal, was indicated in the final stages of the painting. I find it useful to make a miniature colour sketch before starting the actual picture to plan or allocate the relative positions of light and shadow, particularly when tackling a powerful subject.

A Back Canal, Venice, 19.5" x 14"

The dark buildings in shadow on each side of the canal were painted in the same manner as the darker shadows in the Besançon picture, viz., a solid coat of burnt sienna mixed with Payne’s grey and Chinese white. Later, cadmium orange and various passages of grey were superimposed on different parts of the dark buildings. With the help of plenty of water, the two opposing colours were allowed to blend when necessary, without losing their identity.

The first painting for the walls and roofs of the central sunlit buildings consisted of delicate washes of grey mingling with yellow ochre. The combined tone of these two colours gave substance to the walls. After drying, it was comparatively simple to suggest brilliant sunlight by painting solidly over the prepared ground tints with yellow ochre mixed with egg tempera white. The roofs were painted with touches of light brown, cadmium orange and warm purple.

Detail of a dark-toned crumbling wall surface

Ancient walls with crumbling surfaces invariably interest artists. The Venetian canal reproduction gives ample evidence of broken texturous walls. Without being too obtrusive in a picture, they can be painted with enough skill to attract attention, but not at the expense of the main subject. The black and white reproduction of a crumbling wall surface conveys a clear idea of simple handling. It is painted in two tones, one light, the other dark. The ground tone colour was painted first. No further explanations are necessary, as the reproduction demonstrates the final answer.

A Typical French Market, (15" x 19")

A Typical French Market, like most market scenes, is a subject of animation and lively interest. In this particular instance there is an all-over feeling of scintillating light. Even the shadows breathe of the sunny atmosphere so prevalent in the outdoor scene. The composition had to be organised in order to give precedence to the striking effect of sunlight. Although nature can be lavish with suggestions of light and shadow, the artist is the judge of where he will eventually place different items to suit his own creative outlook. The dark-coloured figures are given a decided emphasis against the delicate surrounding tones. The vertical hanging tent cloth on the left side – somewhat ragged in places – gives a picturesque background to the two dark figures in front. The sunlight breaking through the holes in the cloth and spreading over some of the vegetables on the stall was most interesting to paint, while at the same time demonstrating the practical value of gouache as a medium.

One can either paint a solid picture direct with gouache, rather like a thin oil painting, or glaze lighter colours over a dark ground tint. Occasionally, both techniques can be used with advantage in the same picture and when desirable, certain passages of pure watercolour afford a pleasant contrast to surrounding gouache colours.

The painter who has mastered the technique of gouache possesses a medium of many potentialities which can take him a long way towards fulfilment in art.


This article is taken from volume fifty seven of The Artist which covers March 1959 - August 1959

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