Gouache Plein air sketch of Pen Olver headland on the Lizard Peninsular, Cornwall.

Going all gouache

Over the years I’ve used, and dabbled with, all manner of media. Ive tried watercolours, gouache, oils, alkyds, water soluble oils, acrylics, acrylic ‘ink’, traditional inks, silk paints, coloured pencils, charcoal, Conte crayons, graphite sticks and pencils, and pastels. And probably a few others. My art drawers are crammed full of ‘interesting’ tubes of stuff, all are slowly fading away in the darkness, some sit alone and unloved. 

What’s your medium?

If you’d asked me a few months ago “which is your medium”, I’d have said oils without hesitation.  Today I’m not so sure, because I’m beginning to think it might be actually be gouache. Maybe…

I’ve used gouache on and off for over 20 years, but not in a sustained way. A handful of small monochrome illustrations when I worked as an illustrator and more recently for occasional plein air holiday sketches. I think over time I’ve absorbed a negative notion that gouache paintings are held in low regard as a painting medium. I’ve seen them criticized because they can produce ‘chalky’ work which is over-stylised and too graphic. Not a serious medium for serious artists then…

It was only while confined to our holiday cottage on a drizzly day in June (remember drizzle…?) that I started a ‘proper’ painting in gouache. I’d deliberately left my oils at home, so it was Hobson’s choice – pure watercolour or gouache.

The painting

And here is that painting: Towards Lloyd’s Signal Station from Pen Olver’.  It’s on 450gsm Hahnemühle 50cm by 20cm NOT watercolour paper. Looking back, I was surprised how much brighter and more colourful my gouache paintings seem compared to my plein air oils. 

I roughed in a tonal underpainting using Turner acrylic gouache. Despite its name I don’t see it as a real gouache. It’s basically opaque acrylic paint suspended in a matt binder. For me it doesn’t ‘feel’ like the real deal. However, being acrylic I could paint over it without lifting any colours. 

Now I’ve gained a little more experience I’m not sure I’ll use the acrylic gouache again. I’ll probably make my underpainting direct in Winsor & Newton Designer’s gouache. They have a lovely creamy feel, are well saturated with pigment and dry to a velvety matt finish. 

However, brushstrokes must be confidently placed and then left well alone. Prodding and poking at a newly laid wash overlying a previously layer can lead to unexpected results. Sometimes this gives rise to ‘happy accidents’, but most often it results in a mucky mess. It’s this need for confident handling which determines the characteristic look of many gouache paintings – think old railway posters. 

The more I work with them, I’ve found I can make blends up to a point, but laying a thin glaze over previous layers is asking for trouble.

Conclusion?

I am still finding my way. With my latest painting, ‘Ancient Landscape’, I feel I’m pushing against the limits of layering. Some areas sport about 10.

Gouache painting: 'Ancient Landscape'. Chun Quoit, Cornwall, West Penwith, near St Just.
Ancient Landscape

On balance I think I need to try and achieve my goal in as few layers as possible, which means cultivating and maintaining spontaneity and confidence in my brush work. More practice then!

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