When asked as a child what I’d like to be when I grew up, my answer was, unflaggingly, “an artist.” I relished crafts of all kinds, prized my art supplies, and was often complimented on coloring in the lines. I still remember the thrill of upgrading to a 64-box of crayons, in its splashy, two-tiered glory (so long, plain-old blue and violet; hello, cerulean and purple mountain majesty!).
Alas, I’m all grown up now and not an artist—at least, not professionally—but I did feel that same new-crayons buzz when I recently encountered a new medium: gouache.
Effectively a hybrid of watercolors and acrylics, gouache (“gwash”) has characteristics of both. It can be mixed with water for a washed-out effect, but without water it’s as opaque as acrylics—perfect for dry-brushing and layering. In many ways, it feels like the best of both worlds, and its versatility makes it a forgiving medium for amateur painters like me.
But while I’ve appreciated how I can fix my (frequent) mistakes by painting over them or reworking them by adding a bit of water, seasoned artists love the medium for its aesthetic appeal.
“I love the velvety look it has on paper,” Utah-based artist Kate Birch—who posts a new gouache painting on her Instagram account every day—told me. “There’s a richness you can get with the colors that’s unlike any other medium.”
If you’re new to painting—or simply looking for a new medium—read on.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of products out there, especially if you don’t already own brushes and watercolor paper.
But don’t let analysis paralysis keep you from getting started. You’ll want a range of thickness in your brushes and enough paper that you feel free to experiment and make mistakes, but you probably don’t need to invest a lot of money until you’re both more familiar with your personal needs and more discerning in the quality of the products you use.
As for the paint itself?
“If you’re new to gouache but don’t know if you want to invest a lot of money in expensive paints like Winsor & Newton, which are my favorites, I’d say try the paint set from Arteza,” Birch advises (find it here). “They’re inexpensive, but good quality and will give you a good taste for whether or not you like the medium.”
But whatever brand you choose: “I’d recommend avoiding acrylic based gouache paints,” she warns. “They are made with synthetic materials that will dry fast and make blending impossible.”
You’ve got your brushes, your paint, your paper—now what?
“I never really know what’s going to spark creative joy, so I try to stay pretty open to inspiration,” Birch says of the subject she chooses for her paintings, which feature everything from lemon slices to playing cards to cocktails.
I often find myself simply scrolling backward through my camera roll, looking for a simple shot that might translate well to paper—the shadowy silhouettes of my family on a walk, for example, or a four-leaf clover I found in our front yard.
Gouache is opaque enough that it can hide any light pencil marks you make to guide your strokes, and sketching your subject before you pick up your brushes will do a lot for the final product. My best drawing tip is to check your work in a mirror as you go. (For whatever reason, any oddly proportioned pieces seem to jump out at me when I look at my sketch’s mirror image.)
Of course, we all have different goals when we turn to a hobby like painting. Some of us may aim to sell our work eventually, while others just want a creative outlet. Either way, leaving ourselves room to grow may make it a more fulfilling (and less frustrating) practice. I also often turn on an audiobook, podcast, or album while painting; for me, it’s a surefire way to enjoy myself, even if I end up a little disappointed by the outcome of my efforts.
“Don’t worry if it’s not as good as you want it to be right at the beginning,” Birch encourages. “You’ll get there.”
I have no plans to sell my work, though I have deemed some of it good enough for the walls of my own home. But even if I never hung a single painting, the hours I’ve spent without a care in the world beyond the paint on my brush are worthwhile in and of themselves.