I get asked this question EVERY time I exhibit a gouache painting in a show and a customer sees it written on the tag. I hope to educate you on this wonderful painting medium. First of all, how do you pronounce it? I have heard all kinds of interesting pronunciations based on its spelling. It is pronounced ‘Gwash’. The word itself is French from the Italian ‘guazzo’ which meant ‘puddle’.
Gouache is a form of watercolor. Traditional watercolor is transparent.
This means that the white of the paper can be seen through the applied color. This is what gives traditional watercolor its trademark glow. Gouache, on the other hand, is opaque. Light does not pass through it to the paper below. The technique of painting in watermedia using opaque color goes back hundreds of years. It was a medium seen in miniature portrait painting, as early as the 9th century. It was historically made by mixing transparent watercolor with Chinese White in order to make the color more opaque. Today, gouache paints are available ready to use in tube form.
Gouache dries to a very flat matte finish. Before computers became the mainstay of the graphic design industry, artists used gouache to paint images for reproduction because the matte finish made it very easy to photograph for reproduction. I have used it several times to paint my annual Christmas card because it reproduces so well.
Gouache is not a heavily used medium in today’s modern art world. So why do I use it? I just like the effect I can achieve. It is water soluble like traditional watercolor, so I can re wet when necessary to blend color. If I get interrupted while painting I can re wet the paint on my palette and pick up where I left off. It dries fast, so I can build layers of color. It is great for working small. And I LOVE the incredible detail that can be achieved. Its biggest disadvantage is the accidental splash of water! There is no fixing of the blotch that water droplet will create on a smooth area of dry color.