I’m getting out of the gouache game

I like gouache and I’m glad I tried it. If I weren’t currently attempting to fit all my possessions into a few suitcases I’d probably keep my gouache supplies – at least for awhile longer. Ultimately, though, I think I’d still be on the path to switching back to watercolor-only at some point. In raising the bar for what I’ll keep, I realized that watercolor makes the grade for me, and gouache does not.

Here’s why.

Signs that gouache is not my medium (and watercolor is)

I buy watercolor paintings/prints, but not so much gouache.

In general, on a purely aesthetic level, if I’m choosing between paintings to buy from a skilled artist (so leaving my own skill level out of it), I would pick most watercolor over most gouache. Some gouache artists are virtuosic, but generally I feel that my favorite gouache paintings don’t really look like gouache; they looks like oils or acrylics or, yes, watercolor. Meanwhile, I like watercolor paintings that really look like watercolor.

Some of the things I like most about watercolor don’t apply to gouache.

When I first started this blog, I made a list of things I loved about watercolor. I hadn’t tried gouache and was not thinking in opposition to gouache at that point, so it’s not a list that’s influenced by my current dilemma. Some of the points I listed also apply to gouache or other forms of painting:

  • It’s hands-on (i.e. traditional media)
  • It’s colorful

But most of them are actually specific to things I love about watercolor in particular.

  • Convenience – both are convenient (as opposed to many other artistic hobbies such as oil painting or pottery or woodworking); you don’t need large equipment, a dedicated home studio, or noxious solvents. But in my opinion, watercolor is more convenient. Being able to paint from dry pans rather than wet paint makes cleanup easier and allows you to paint on-the-go more easily. You don’t have to worry about stay-wet palettes or mold. Plein air watercolor equipment can get down to backpacking micro size.
  • Unpredictable/random/water does some of the work – Unpredictability is one of the aspects of watercolor that many people find frustrating but I like to offload some of the work to water and randomness. One of the things I complained about when I started goauche was “you have to paint everything yourself.” That is, if you want six square inches of blue sky, you need to put paint on each of those six square inches of blue sky. In watercolor you can just slap down water and put paint near it and see what happens.
  • Fast – Gouache can be fast but for reasons related to the point above, I find it a bit more more fussy. Because it’s opaque, you can theoretically keep working away and adding layers and changing things once it’s “done”, which many people like, but I find it nerve-wracking because the fact that you can keep working implies that you should. I like the permanence and unfixability of watercolor because it means that when you’re done you’re done.
  • Luminosity – I know watercolor isn’t actually like stained-glass because the paper you paint on is opaque, so light can’t actually shine through the paint itself. But something about the transparency of watercolor, the way it glazes and grades, gives it a light-filled look that is just amazing to me, and that opaque media can’t match.

Gouache feels like homework, and watercolor feels like recess.

This ultimately is the biggest reason.

Did you know that I initially started my U.S. National Parks project as a gouache project? I envisioned using goauche to make something like those colorblock, WPA-inspired posters that one often sees for National Parks. I did Big Bend first (before switching to alpha order), then four more paintings in gouache. Then, I got to Badlands, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and I thought, “These would look great in watercolor.”

As I began to alternate between watercolor and gouache, I noticed that I would often feel a bit reluctant to take on a gouache project, while I would tend to feel more excited about those projects where I “had an excuse” or “got to” do them in watercolor.

I thought at first that my preference for watercolor might be because I’m more experienced in it and understand how to use it better, and that I’d eventually gain more proficiency and comfort with gouache and it would feel less like work. But I don’t think that’s really it. I am in other areas of my life a novelty-driven person who typically chooses anything new over anything old, so the argument doesn’t really hold up.

Also, my rate of gouache using is getting lower, not higher, over time. As you scroll down the page, you’ll see that more and more of the paintings are in watercolor. So far, my ratio of gouache to watercolor for Canada National Parks is 1:10.

When I look at my behavior, given free choice, I tend to choose watercolor. That’s all there is to it.

1 thought on “I’m getting out of the gouache game”

  1. I really liked your gouache work, but it’s so freeing to let go of a whole medium. But then it’s also so exciting to explore a new medium! I oscillate like this

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