Lessons from Ruth Wilshaw’s Classes

I recently took a pair of classes by Ruth Wilshaw on Domestika: Atmospheric Landscapes in Gouache and Fantasy Landscapes in Watercolor & Gouache. Without spoiling everything in the classes, I wanted to keep my notes on what was personally meaningful to me.

Atmospheric Landscapes in Gouache

This course focused more on the foundations of gouache and is a great option if your goal is to learn more about this medium.

Pay attention to consistency

Since I’m new to gouache, it was helpful to have Ruth’s description of different dilutions or consistencies of gouache – from thick/right out of the tube, to “sweet spot” (slippery like dish soap), to watery, to watercolor-like. I realized that I usually use my gouache too thick.

Paint thin to thick

Following from the mastery of consistency, an “a-ha” moment for gouache is to paint thin (thinner than I think I need to!) on lower layers, and build thicker consistency on top layers. This minimizes reactivating lower layers (which happens when try to paint thin-over-thick and introduce water into a dry layer).

It also goes along with the watercolor method of painting less-to-more detail. A more liquid consistency makes soft blends easier, especially on textured paper, whereas thick paint can be used for pops of detail like flowers.

Grass practice for Ruth Wilshaw’s Atmospheric Landscapes, March 12, 2023.

Try texture studies

A useful exercise that Ruth introduced was “texture studies,” blocking off your paper into tiny squares and making little mini-paintings on a theme. For example, here are my six mini-paintings on “The Ocean.”

Ocean texture studies, for Ruth Wilshaw’s Atmospheric Landscapes. March 13, 2023.

This is a great exercise because it lets you experiment without a huge commitment of time or effort. You can work on them all at once in a sketchbook without waiting for previous ones to dry, since they’re all on the same page.

Some of the squares I like better than others, but even the less successful ones work a part of the collection. Some of the better ones I’d like to try again, bigger!

Silhouettes are perfect for two-layer paintings

I’ve said it before about watercolor, but it was validating to hear again about gouache: silhouettes are a shortcut to a satisfying yet simple painting. A good “starter landscape” is a two-layer painting consisting of a gradient background and a silhouette foreground.

A gradient background sets the stage for a simple black silhouette foreground. March 11, 2023.

You can do a lot with three layers

Working on gouache pieces in three layers – background, midground, foreground – is a good way to balance simplicity and complexity. You can get pretty complex in three layers, but it’s also fairly straightforward to plan. Here’s our “final project” for Atmospheric Landscapes, which consisted of a background layer of waterfall and trees; a midground layer of grass and small plants; and a foreground layer of silhouette tree trunks and fireflies.

Magical Waterfall – final project for Ruth Wilshaw’s Atmospheric Landscapes. March 18, 2023.

Fantasy Landscapes in Watercolor & Gouache

The technical skill in this class is combining watercolor and gouache; because it’s a short class covering two media, I’d say that the tips about actual use of watercolor and of gouache were things that I’d covered before or already knew. However, the real value of this class is the amount of time and attention that Ruth spends on the mental and emotional side of fantasy artwork. The technical skills will come with practice, but why do you want to be doing fantasy artwork? What makes you feel magical? That’s what will inspire you.

As a person who’d never done fantasy artwork – typically I do loose landscapes from references – this was a stretch for me, in a good way! I had to really think about my inspirations.

Gather inspiration with a mood board

Ruth encourages you to spend time getting in touch with your influences and inspirations: the scenes or other artworks that you find magical and that inspire in you the types of feelings you want to express in your art. I did a round of adding things randomly to my board, then I categorized them to find themes.

Mood Board 2023

Many of the images on my Pinterest mood board are types of landscapes, but I also have some sections for types of artwork or aesthetics that inspire me.

I found it hard to articulate what type of “fantasy” imagery inspired me before the class, but after investing some time in curating joy, it feels like finding magic that was already there.

Use watercolor for the bottom layer

Ruth’s general formula for a watercolor + gouache painting is to use watercolor for the bottom layer, and gouache for subsequent layers. This is a logical extension of the gouache practice noted above of working thin-to-thick: watercolor is even thinner than watery gouache. Watercolor’s transparency can also be more effective at capturing light, which is helpful when the first layer is something like a sky (which it frequently is). And finally, watercolor is great for a bottom layer because, once it’s dry, you generally won’t disturb it by adding another layer, especially with staining pigments like phthalos and quinacridones.

Work intuitively

The bottom/watercolor layer doesn’t need to look like anything in particular and you don’t need a plan. You can make swishy marks with watercolor and then decide after it dries what it “is,” then use more detailed gouache marks to draw that out. This is similar to the way I worked in the post No Plan, No Problem: Intuitive Watercolor Without Planning Ahead, so it appeals to me!


I always find it worth it to take a class when I’m new to a medium, and I especially like “Atmospheric Landscapes in Gouache” for its attention to gouache technique. Combining watercolor and goauche is also a powerful technique with a lot of potential.