Using Gouache Effectively

Michael Coates looks at specific settings and explains his method of capturing them, often combining the characteristics of gouache with complementary media.

Most of my painting takes place on the East Coast, primarily because of my love of boats and all that goes with them: the beautiful morning light on a small group of boats at anchor in some small deserted creek, or the busy hustle and bustle of the brightly dressed weekend sailors, offset by the subtle colours of the beaches and wharves. When painting inland, it is the same elements that attract me: lovely old buildings, usually in towns and villages where they invariably surround the local market place which provides bright colour with its stalls, their produce and merchandise and the clothing of the shoppers as they wander from stall to stall. In these settings I always try to note the hoardings, signs and the like, as these all lend themselves to the gouache technique.

People who know my work will have realised that I am also extremely fascinated by skies. Skies can present problems when working in gouache for, unlike industrial scenes and townscapes, where you have a certain amount of leeway in terms of your colour, subtle shades are essential for capturing the atmosphere and mood of the days for which our English climate is well noted. For this reason I would suggest that you make your first venture in gouache painting a town scene which includes a fair amount of local activity.

When you have chosen your subject and have begun to paint, you will appreciate the importance of organising your palette beforehand, as colour mixing in gouache can be rather frustrating. The wrong shade can materialise without you realising it, so it is important that your preparations make conditions conducive to getting it right first time.

Whether you paint wet or dry depends to a large extent on your subject matter. You will note that the beach scene in my article in last month’s issue was an excellent example of using gouache to full advantage, and thus gaining the best of both worlds; that is, the wetness of the beach and the dry approach in the sky giving contrast where needed.

When working in this manner on white paper it is advisable to tone the paper first with a wash of pure watercolour (Raw Umber, Terre Verte or something similar), making it darker than ultimately required, as this will enable you to judge more accurately the tone and strength of gouache worked on top. When working the medium in a dry state on heavy textured paper, a certain amount of difficulty in covering the surface may be found from the outset. This can be due to using too small a brush, or too little paint having been applied in the first place. Do not hesitate to be adventurous in application, and don’t be concerned if the initial wash shows through, for I have found the effect to be quite acceptable.

A Leicester Scene (sketch). Gouache, 9½ x 12¾

The sketch (above) drawn on Ingres board needed only the odd touch of gouache here and there to emphasise the source of light and the colour of people’s clothing. Here again, gouache is ideal as it dries quickly so you can make numerous sketches without being hindered by fussing over still-wet work. You can see how dramatic the contrast appears when using a board as dark as this. The sketch was the prelude to the final painting, A Leicester Scene. Note how the darks have been self-created quite strongly, thus continuing to the dramatic effect throughout.

A Leicester Scene. Gouache, 12 x 16

If you wish to paint a landscape in gouache, it is best to attempt it in the spring or early summer as gouache cannot be used to its best advantage in very hot weather. By using gouache in the manner described, you will be able to capture the atmosphere of a showery day with the imposing effect of cloud formation casting ever-changing lights on the landscape.

Moving from the beauty of painting sunlight, let us consider painting a townscape on a murky November morning, which can be beautiful in its own right. The painting method is the same, but more problems may occur in mixing the correct colour as you will, in the main, be dealing in middle tones with just little touches accentuating the highlights. If you find that you are having difficulty in this respect, don’t despair, for in gouache, as is true of all media, practice makes perfect, and you can learn through your mistakes as well as from your successes.

Old Quarry. Gouache, 18½ x 13½

As you get more familiar with gouache, you may find that other avenues of technique open up. With constant use you will realise that gouache can be used with many other media, as I have done in the Old Quarry. In this painting I used ink, gouache, watercolour and candle wax worked on heavy Bockingford paper. It is advisable to outline the subject in pencil first, or, as I did here, a green felt-tip pen. This will help you to control the different areas you wish to portray, such as girders or textured wall surfaces, as the wax is transparent and rather difficult to see on white paper. If you tone the paper as previously described, the wax will reject the watercolour and appear white. If gouache is used in its semi-dry state, it can usually be worked over the top of such textures, thus creating the ‘lost and found’ effect needed when portraying light and shade. Before attempting a subject in this manner, it is of paramount importance that you consult your sketchbook on a number of gouache studies to help you determine just how you intend to approach your subject. By so doing, you should achieve a successfully crisp painting.

Another approach you may wish to consider is experimenting in textured surfaces. As long as the material on which you are going to paint is of a porous nature, your choice is practically unlimited. For instance, I have often used the back of heavy wallpaper, or coated cardboard with grey or a similarly coloured emulsion, adding a small amount of scouring powder or any of the ‘do-it –yourself’ filler products. In this way it is possible to create your own degrees of texture, but remember, the heavier the texture, the more difficult it is to work over in gouache. These textures are best suited to the gouache being used in a semi-dry state, but some interesting results can also be achieved by using the gouache as fluid as watercolour. Once you are familiar with gouache, experimentation can lead to very satisfying results.


This article was first published in the August 1979 issue of The Artist


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