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9 Questions About Gouache, Answered

I recently had a conversation with an artist who won a free consultation with me after watching my recent free webinar. I wanted to share part of the conversation here with you because I feel like they can help a lot of other artists and pick up some tips from reading it.

  1. The main problem is that I can't mix enough paint to cover the area that I need to cover. And I just can’t mix the same color twice. But I still just really can't get enough paint on a mixing palette to make enough paint. How do you do that?

A lot of times, if I need to make a thicker shape of paint on the paper, I'll just layer it.

If I'm not able to put enough paint on the first stroke, then I'll just take some more paint and add an extra layer.

It is a little bit of a slower process because you do have to wait in between each stroke to dry.

I’ve found that if there's any moisture in the paint, it's going to pick up a lot of what was already there, so you have to wait until it's dry enough, and then you have to put it down in a way that's not going to disturb the layer underneath.

The difference between too much and too little water in gouache is so narrow sometimes.

Sometimes you just need to add a little bit of water to make it more pliable, but I try to use as little water as possible. 

  1. Doesn't gum arabic make the gouache paint kind of sticky? 

Yes, that's why I only use like just one drop. If I use any more than that, then yeah, you definitely get some issues with it, but also what happens is while it's drying, it still keeps its ability to move around a bit.

So, especially with the paints that dry out quickly for me like Holbein paints, gum arabic is a great way to keep it from doing that. I use about two drops of the Winsor Newton blending medium, a drop of the gum arabic and about two or three drops of water.

The ratio of paint to medium in my box is close to 95% paint to medium/water ratio.

  1. I'd like to be able to paint gouache outdoors but sketchbooks are limited in size. So is there anything bigger that you can paint on such as a canvas board?

Some people like to use the Ampersand gesso boards. 

Personally I love the feel of watercolor paper so what I do is get some acid-free glue and just glue sheets of watercolor paper to a board, so that's almost like having like a canvas board to paint on except it's the paper I want.

The nice thing about that is that you can use whatever paper you want. A lot of times I'll just take scraps of leftover boards when I'm making oil painting panels. I'll take some of the old scraps and just recycle those by putting some scraps of watercolor paper onto them, and I'll use those as little plein air painting panels.

And every so often I'll actually grab a 9x12 piece of watercolor paper and just paste that to a board.

That's how I go about it for plein air events, especially if I'm doing gouache in a plein air event.

I will prepare my panels by getting a couple sheets of watercolor paper and then just using some acid-free glue and pasting them to the board.

Get some paper from the art supply store or wherever you get your supplies from. You don't necessarily have to put it on wood panels. You can even paste it on gator foam or anything like that, such as foam core; really probably any surface besides metal.

I personally like just using sheets of wood panel, like MDF, from Home Depot.

  1. If you're out plein air painting, how do you keep your paints from drying up?

I pretty much just have to stay vigilant about keeping the paint wet on my palette or in my paint box.

When you're outdoors, it's going to be drying your paint out at a rate that's way quicker than it would be indoors. You just have to be a little bit more conscious of that. You do have to spray your paint periodically with a little cheap spray bottle, like you could get at the dollar store.

You just give it a couple of spritzes just to coat the top surface of the paint in the box so the sun evaporates that layer of water instead. It becomes a protective layer of moisture, and once that dries I just give it another fine misting.

You do that every so often, depending on how hot it is outside, every like five minutes or so.

  1. The good thing about gouache is you can pick up any layer underneath with water, you can just wipe it off. So that's good, but how do you have control over it while you’re painting?

I've learned to kind of take advantage of that a bit. I do some version of mixing on the surface itself.

What I do a lot of times when I'm painting is I'll put down a base color that's probably similar to the local color of the subject that I'm painting.

If I'm painting green grass, for example, I'll just put a base layer of green down, and then my next layers, I'll just use different versions of green on top of it.

Sometimes different colors altogether; I'll do some yellow ochre or, cadmium yellow or something like that, and knowing that I have that base layer that's going to be picked up a little bit I'll actually use that to my advantage and let the paints layers mix with each other a little bit.

  1. A lot of times when I’m painting outdoors, my colors end up looking a bit garish. How do you achieve your nice muted colors?

I mute my colors down by mixing the opposite colors of each other on the color wheel, just sneaking in reds and browns and other colors into my greens a lot of times.

I only save the most saturated clean colors there for the very like highlit areas the areas where the sun's really coming through. The rest of the time I'm muting it down with browns and reds and even grays.

I have one color on my palette that's kind of a secret weapon color: Holbein gray number #2. It helps neutralize a lot of mixtures and unify colors within a range. Gray is going to make cool colors warmer, but also warm colors cooler. Sometimes I will use that when I'm fixing the color temperatures of colors that I've put down.

What I like to do is think of all my colors as steps toward each other. So a gray color or mixing gray into something is going to make a small step toward the opposing temperature.

That's why I find it a little difficult to work with saturated primary colors because I have to work a lot harder to just neutralize a color.

But if I have a lot of neutral colors already on my palette, it makes it a lot easier to change things around.

Using muted colors will not only help to give you a nice look of unity to your paintings, but it also gives you a lot of control through subtle changes in values and colors next to each other. Muted colors give you a lot more flexibility because you're not making a big leap in between colors. You're just doing small steps in between.

  1. What do you think of using watercolor brushes with gouache?

What I found with watercolor brushes is that they carry a lot more water in the hairs. I think that makes its a little bit more difficult to control the amount of water when you know that your brush is soaking up a lot of water. I do have some but I mostly use them for putting down initial washes and tones.

I've tried all sorts of different brushes, and my favorites right now are actually the the Princeton Summits. They're white nylon brushes, and they're really soft, but for some reason when you wet them with water, they hold their shape pretty well. They tend to not put a lot of water from the brush onto the paper. They hold their shape really well, so I would recommend trying those. They've become my go-to brush for a lot of things.

  1. Can you use bristle brushes with gouache?

You know, I always heard not to use them, but if you're familiar with Tommy Kim, he's a really good plein air  gouache painter. He exclusively paints, believe it or not, with a bristle fan brush and he gets fantastic results with it. So therefore, it's just a matter of just playing around and seeing what somebody else's does and see if it works for you.

If it still stays stiff, when it absorbs water, then it will be a good gouache brush. If a brush starts to get floppy with water, then it's probably not a good gouache brush. I found that the stiffness of the brush gives me a lot of control, which is why I like those Summits because they are soft brushes, but they stay fairly stiff.

Brushes that are meant for acrylic tend to be the ones that work for gouache the best, such as the Princeton Snap brushes. I don't think they're necessarily marketed toward gouache painters, but they work perfectly fine for it. They're cheap and you can find them just about anywhere, even Michael's, so they're easy to find.

I mostly use flats because of the way I like to make shapes. I like to have really precise edges a lot of the time. I have found ways to be really versatile with flats, so I would say 80% of the time I'm using flats.

  1. Do you ever use toned paper?

Sometimes, yes. I have a Strathmore toned paper sketchbook and a pad of Kraft paper pad, and that works alright.

The only thing is, I don't love the smoothness. For me, the way I work with gouache, especially when I, when I'm getting into edge manipulation, I like using the texture of the paper to give me a little bit of softer edges. When I'm using smooth paper, I find that a little bit more difficult to do. What I’ve found to get around that is just using thicker paint so it creates its own texture to layer on top of. It's a little bit of a different way of working for me than I'm used to, actually. I like cold-pressed watercolor paper and rough paper instead.

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