What’s the difference between watercolor and gouache?

I recently started experimenting with gouache in addition to watercolor. As with my watercolor practice, I way overprepared with too many supplies to begin with, unsure what to expect from this different type of paint. I’m here to report back in case you, dear reader, are in the same position: into watercolor, gouache-curious.

Overall Look & Feel

Gouache is bolder and more graphic-designy.

Big Bend National Park in gouache. February 5, 2023.

Because the colors are opaque, the paint is thicker, and you paint from the tube, you get bolder color in one layer, with harder edges. Gouache lends itself well to graphic styles with distinct blocks of color, such as WPA-style National Park posters (which I happen to love).

Watercolor, by comparison, has a more dreamy, ethereal quality (which I also happen to love). Watercolor lends itself better to soft edges and soft focus.

Gouache is more “painterly.”

Because gouache has a similar consistency to acrylics and oils, you can borrow techniques from those media more easily than you can with watercolor. 

Fewer surprises.

Gouache paint stays where you put it; it doesn’t travel around the page like watercolor can. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. It’s possible to “draw” with gouache more, it won’t just turn into something else. But I find it a bit tiresome to place every bit of paint; it makes gouache feel, to me, slower and more finicky. For me, part of the magic of watercolor is in the way the colors blend and do surprising things in water. 

Gouache dries pretty much how it looked wet. The colors don’t have much drying shift. You won’t get a pleasant surprise, but you also won’t get a nasty one. 


You paint from the tube.

In watercolor, you can paint from the tube, but you can also paint from dry paints. With gouache, you paint from the tube pretty much all the time. While it’s possible to dry and rewet gouache on a palette, it doesn’t achieve the same consistency, and never gets as thick as it started. I sometimes reactivate dry paint from my palette to make “palette grays,” but I always start with fresh paint for large or bold swaths of color.

It takes awhile to get a hang of this: how much to dilute fresh paint, how much to mix up so you don’t run out (and have to try to somehow achieve the same mix), yet not waste a lot of extra paint on your palette. 

It’s really making me appreciate the benefits of working from dry paint in watercolor; it’s less wasteful and easier to clean up. 

You can paint light on top of dark.

One of my first gouache mini-landscapes. December 25, 2022. White clouds were painted on top of a blue sky.

This is the big difference: in watercolor you have to plan out your painting to ensure that any light foreground layers are planned ahead of time, and that you leave white for them. In gouache you don’t have to do that. You can fully paint a background, then fully paint a foreground with lighter colors on top. This gives you more options in the “order of operations,” and allows you to do things like pick out highlights. You can save a painting that has gone too dark in a way you can’t with watercolor. 

But you might reactivate a lower layer.

Twisting river from a Skillshare tutorial by Jess Chung. January 18, 2023. Too thin paint, too dry brush, and accidental reactivation of lower layers led to awkward strokes in the foreground.

Although you can work in layers (and you should), you have to be really careful that you don’t reactivate a dry layer by painting over it with too much water. Technically you can do this in watercolor too (if you are using liftable pigments), but it’s a lot harder, and many colors are quite permanent once they’ve dried. Reactivating dry layers is my #1 way to make a mess of gouache. 


Most of your supplies and setup can be the same from watercolor to gouache, except for the paint, but I did notice a few slight differences. 

Smoother, Lighter Paper

I could use the exact same paper for gouache as I do for watercolor, but I find that I have slightly different preferences. 

  • With gouache, I prefer the smooth finish of hot press (rather than the texture of cold press, which can encourage drybrush effect, and which needs thinner paint). I like cold press for watercolor because the texture encourages smooth washes and I can get cauliflowering on hot press paper, but that’s not a concern with gouache. 
  • Gouache doesn’t need paper that is as heavy because the paint isn’t as wet. I find I’m less finicky about paper, and can use cheaper brands without noticing a difference. Canson XL, Strathmore, Global Fluid, etc. all work well, and there’s no particular advantage to using more the expensive brands that I prefer for watercolor (e.g. Arches, Saunders, Etchr, etc.) 

Firmer Brushes

Gouache calls for firmer, stiffer synthetic brushes than watercolor; expensive sable is not a benefit, so save the fancy brushes for watercolor. My Princeton Velvetouch and Wonder Forest brushes work well.

Finally, a use for a flat shader

Gouache cloud. February 4, 2023. The flat shader was used for the background sky gradient, and a round brush was used for the clouds.

In both media, I use a lot of my favorite brush shape, pointed round. But for large areas like skies, I want totally different properties in my watercolor and gouache brushes. Instead of holding a lot of water, like my petit gris soft mop, I want it to slap on a lot of paint in a large flat area. I use a ¾” flat shader for a sky, or a ½” flat shader for a small postcard-sized sky or other medium-sized areas. 

Bigger Mixing Palette

With watercolor I like to use a palette that has mixing wells so I can mix up liquid color in different dilutions, but in gouache it’s better to mix on a plain, flat surface. I also find that I need more mixing space, but it’s less important that it be ceramic because the paint’s not as watery. My watercolor mixing palette is a fancy handmade Sugarhouse Ceramics Travel Palette, but my gouache mixing palette is an $8 plastic Mijello peel-off palette.

Different Paint Brands

Not every watercolor brand that I love makes gouache, or has a reputation for it. Here are some general patterns I noticed with consistency: 

  • M. Graham Gouache are on the runny side, which I found annoying to work with, and they dry a bit streaky. 
  • Schmincke Horadam Gouache are all over the place, with some being runny and some being amazing. They tend to have a nice, matte finish. 
  • Winsor & Newton Designers’ Gouache is a good workhorse brand. 
  • Holbein Artists’ Gouache are on the firm, creamy side, and dry nice and flat. These are my favorites.

I started with the Holbein Primary set, which I truly recommend. It comes with cyan, magenta, yellow, white, and black, so it’s a great modern mixing set. 

Fewer Colors

I find myself feeling more fully set with fewer colors in my “color library” with gouache. Watercolor paints are more different from each other in more ways – opacity, granulation, and other handling properties – where gouache tends to differ mainly only in hue. (Some gouache is granulating, but it’s pretty rare; most gouache seems to paint out in a pretty flat, smooth, matte, opaque color.) So, I find I need fewer gouache paints; I don’t end up tempted to have two colors nearly identical in hue with different opacities or textures, as I do in watercolor. 

Different Colors

I find that I use not just a subset of my watercolor colors, but different ones. Some colors that I valued for their transparency in watercolor are simply not important/not as good in gouache. In watercolor, I really love the Phthalo and Quinacridone colors, neither of which are especially good in gouache – they’re too transparent and don’t build up that great opacity. Meanwhile, some of my gouache favorites are colors or more opaque/semi-opaque pigments that I don’t use as much in watercolor, such as Hansa Yellow Light (PY3) and Yellow Ochre (PY42). 

Cheaper pigments also seem fine in gouache. In watercolor, costly pigments are sometimes prized for their granulation or the way they create a particular unusual hue without the chalkiness of adding white. Gouache doesn’t really granulate and you’ll add white to everything anyway. I don’t see an advantage using costly cobalts, for example; you can make a remarkably similar hue with cheaper pigments (for example, a Cobalt Blue hue with Titanium White and Ultramarine Blue, or a Cobalt Turquoise hue with Titanium White, Phthalo Blue, and Phthalo Green or a smidge of Lemon Yellow.)

Lightfastness is also less of a concern in gouache because all paints are used in masstone. Pigments such as PY74, PY83, and PR176 that are durable in masstone but fade in tints may be ones to avoid in watercolor, but are likely to give you better long-term performance in gouache. With that said, I do think brands take this too far by using fugitive pigments with abandon (such as fluorescents like BV1), so keep an eye on those pigment labels. 

One of my first gouache mini-landscapes. December 25, 2022. Both the violet and magenta paints used here had fluorescent ingredients.

My Gouache Palette

Here is my current gouache collection. At 16 paints, it’s much smaller than my watercolor collection (recently down to about 25 from over 50), but it feels complete.

My Gouache Palette
  1. SH Titanium White (PW6): Incredibly important in gouache, mostly irrelevant in watercolor.
  2. HO Primary Lemon (PY3):  In watercolor I tend to use transparent yellows, but in gouache, PY3 (Hansa Yellow Light) is a the perfect bright pop lemon.  
  3. HO Primary Yellow (PY3/PY74): A bold yellow that came with my Holbein Primary set. It’s nice having a warmer yellow than lemon, but it is a bit similar to Lemon since it also contains PY3. When this runs out I might replace it with Holbein Canola Yellow, which is just PY74. 
  4. HO Marigold (PY83): A lovely deep/orangey yellow. 
  5. SH Vermilion Hue (PR255): My favorite Schmincke color I’ve tried (aside, I guess, from white), a bold scarlet with a beautiful matte finish. 
  6. WN Permanent Rose (PV19): Lovely and pinky, I like this in gouache for the same reason I like it in watercolor; it’s a workhorse mixer that I also love on its own.
  7. HO Primary Magenta (PR122): Initially my primary magenta; as with watercolor, I prefer Permanent Rose, but this remains a good purple mixer.
  8. WN Ultramarine Blue (PB29): With white, it becomes a perfect sky blue. Unlike its watercolor counterpart, it’s not granulating, which I think opens it up to more realistic skies and a wider variety of mixing uses.
  9. HO Primary Cyan (PB15): I’ve been disappointed with some of the transparent, streaky Phthalo Blue or Turquoise gouaches I’ve tried, but this one is fairly flat and matte for a transparent pigment. Nice mixer for bright greens, turquoises, and sky horizons.
  10. HO Permanent Green Deep (PY3, PG7, PB15): Even though I paint a lot of landscapes, I don’t think green is strictly necessary. I can mix greens with Lemon Yellow and Primary Cyan (which are indeed two of the ingredients of this color). But this is a good convenient starter color for mixed greens, and I like its deep blue-toned hue. I don’t recommend PG7 alone as a gouache color because it is too transparent; the single-pigment PG7 gouaches I sampled were streaky. 
  11. WN Yellow Ochre (PY42): A crucial earth mixer, especially for gold-toned greens. Before I got this, I tried mixing my own earth yellows with Marigold and blue, and it just wasn’t the same. In watercolor I tend to use transparent Raw Sienna (PBr7), but Yellow Ochre is more opaque and better suited to gouache. 
  12. WN Burnt Sienna (PR101/PY43): In watercolor I would use Transparent Red Oxide (PR101). This is a bit more opaque and orangey. As in watercolor, a useful mixer for a variety of earth tones, as well as a base color for red rocks. 
  13. WN Burnt Umber (PBr7): A serviceable earth color. Not really one of my favorites.
  14. MG Prussian Blue (PB27): Super-dark in gouache, makes wonderful dark blues; I use this as I would Indigo in watercolor. 
  15. MG Payne’s Grey (PBk9, PB29): I like to use this in place of black to darken colors. It’s an easy mixer, and less stark than plain black. 
  16. WN Perylene Black (PBk31): Known in watercolor as Perylene Green. Another great black alternative. 

The Watercolorist’s Gouache Shopping List

Thinking about taking up gouache from watercolor? Here’s what I’d recommend you get to supplement your watercolor supplies:

  • Midrange smooth (hot press) watercolor paper, especially if your typical watercolor paper is textured and/or expensive.
  • Inexpensive firm synthetic watercolor/mixed media brushes, especially if your typical watercolor brushes are soft, expensive, and/or natural-bristle. Make sure to include a ½” or ¾” flat shader, or both. 
  • A large mixing palette, if you don’t have one. Doesn’t need to be ceramic.

If I were to recommend a more minimal palette than the one I have, I would say: 

  1. Titanium White for sure
  2. either Payne’s Gray, Perylene Black, or just plain black for darkening
  3. Some kind of bright yellow
  4. Some kind of magenta/cool red, e.g. magenta, rose, Permanent Alizarin Crimson 
  5. Some kind of cyan/green-toned blue for skies and mixing greens. I use Phthalo Blue for this usually but it’s a bit streaky in gouache. Prussian Blue could also be used, though in gouache it tends to be quite dark – you’d have to lighten it with a lot of white. Sarah Burns uses Cobalt Turquoise as a primary cyan.
  6. Ultramarine Blue is an all-star, especially for skies.
  7. Yellow Ochre is nice for landscapes.
  8. Burnt Sienna is nice for landscapes.

The Holbein 5-color starter set is a good place to start, easy to turn into a landscape set with the addition of Ultramarine Blue and a couple of earth tones.


Watercolor continues to be my primary medium. There is a magic to it that gouache just can’t match; besides, it’s great for lazy people like me because water does half the work. But I’m enjoying interspersing my watercolor practice with the occasional gouache scene. I find gouache to be a better match for certain types of landscapes (e.g. colorblock National Park art, anything with light-colored flowers in the foreground since I hate masking). 

It’s nice to have two media because I feel like it lets me play to the strengths of each one. Instead of trying to force watercolor to be gouache – by using opaque paints, keeping the paint consistency pasty, and/or masking out specific shapes to maintain hard edges – I can just use gouache, which is easier and more effective for poster style painting. And instead of trying to force gouache to be watercolor by over-diluting it, I can simply use watercolor when I want a dreamy, soft-focus look.

It’s also just nice to stretch my brain and do something a bit different! They’re convenient media to use together because there’s so much overlap in supplies, and they can be used together, but they require different ways of thinking about and seeing the world.

1 thought on “What’s the difference between watercolor and gouache?”

  1. That gouache cloud is GOALS! I don’t like when gouache has that clip-art paint-by-numbers look; it was the main thing keeping me from it for so long. But your cloud has the look that I want to capture in gouache: pastel with body and it looks like paint, not MS Paint.


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