Thursday, 19 July 2012

Elephant No. 291: Gouache

In an art store a couple of days ago, I came across an inexpensive set of gouache paints in tubes. When I took them to the checkout, I asked the clerk what the difference was between gouache, poster paint, tempera and watercolour. She seemed to know about as much about gouache as I did, which is essentially this: gouache is like opaque watercolour or thick poster paint. She added that it has a finished texture similar to acrylic paint.

This made me curious about gouache—which I've actually never (knowingly) used before—so I bought the paints to use for today's elephant.

In the process of trying to sort out the differences between gouache, watercolour, poster paint and tempera, I got rather confused. For anyone who may be as confused as I, here is a quick cheat sheet:

Poster paint is the cheap, thin-bodied paint used in schools. It is often mistakenly (including by me) called "tempera" and comes in either cakes or pre-mixed bottles. It consists of pigment in a glue- or gum-based binder.

Tempera is a highly durable paint made from pigment mixed with a water-soluble binder, such as egg. Artists often mix their own tempera using pure pigments and the binder of their choice.

Watercolour is a translucent paint made of pigment and a water-soluble binder. It is produced in both cakes and tubes. It is translucent because it has very few fillers, and can only be made fully opaque by adding a pigment such as China white. China white includes fine particles of china clay, which is what blocks the light and provides opacity. Most sets of good cake watercolours do not come with white for that reason.

Gouache is pigment bound with gum arabic and inert material, such as china clay and other substances, to help with opacity. Although similar to watercolour, it also has a greater proportion of pigment, which adds to the opacity.

The word "gouache" (sometimes "guache") derives from the Italian word guazzo, which is variously said to mean "place where there is water", "pool", "puddle" and "muddy pool". Art historians prefer the terms "opaque watercolour" and "bodycolour".

Guazzo originally referred to the sixteenth-century practice of applying oil paint over a tempera base. It wasn't until the eighteenth century in France that the word guazzo was applied to a water-based paint, and given the name gouache. The water-based technique, however, had been used in Europe as early as the fourteenth century.

Near Corsicana, Texas (2010)—gouache landscape by Ralph Parker.

Gouache is not only heavier and more opaque than watercolour, but also changes to a different colour value when it dries. Lighter tones, for example, are generally darker when dry, and dark tones generally dry lighter. This makes it difficult to match colours over several painting sessions.

Because of its ability to cover things quickly and completely, it is often used for outdoor paintings, and was favoured by artists such as J.M.W. Turner. Henri Matisse also used gouache for his paper collage paintings.

Jazz—Le Cheval, l'écuyère et le clown ("Jazz: The Horse, the Rider
and the Clown"), 1947.
Henri Matisse (1869–1954)

Today, gouache is most often used in highly graphic forms such as posters, illustrations and comics. Interestingly, most twentieth-century animation used watercolour paint for the backgrounds in individual cels, and gouache for the opaque central figures.

Animation cel from Disney's The Jungle Book, 1967.
Mowgli has been painted with gouche against a background
originally painted in watercolour.

Since gouache is often used in posters, I thought I'd paint a poster for today's elephant. I took my inspiration from advertising posters of the early twentieth century.

This is the set of mid-range gouache paints I bought, which cost me all of eight dollars.

I decided to work on bristol board, and made a light sketch for a mythical brand of tea. The sketch was too light to photograph well, so I haven't included it here.

I started by painting the elephant. I expected the gouache to be more opaque, but discovered that, to make it spreadable, the paint also had to be somewhat watered down. When I added more layers, I ended up reactivating the layer below, so it was a bit weird to work with. I didn't dislike it, but it's not like watercolour, and it's not like acrylic, so it just took some getting used to.

I painted the lettering next. I'm told I have pretty handwriting, but I still find it difficult to do lettering of any kind. It always looks misaligned and weird. For this style of poster, however, I don't suppose it really mattered.

After this, I added all the other colours, sticking to a fairly vibrant palette. The photograph below shows what it looked like when I was finished painting.

I liked this okay, but I thought it needed a bit of crispness, so I added some black outlines and such with a fine pigment liner. The photo below also shows the general opacity of the gouache when it's thin enough to spread reasonably well, but still thick enough to cover. The blue areas have two layers in some spots.

Once I got the hang of it, I rather liked gouache. It's almost as vibrant and opaque as acrylic paint, but still has many of the properties of watercolour. And although it's not technically "poster paint" it still smells exactly like the poster paint we all used as kids.

It also has an interesting surface texture when dry, which feels a bit like a blackboard. This made it kind of fun to draw on with the pigment liner.

I'm actually quite pleased with my first gouache poster, and I liked the paints well enough that I'll definitely try this again.

Elephant Lore of the Day
As tea plantations expand in India, elephants are losing more and more of their habitat and traditional travel corridors. This forces them into increasing conflict with humans, as they run through plantations, raid crops and sometimes kill people.

Occasionally, however, man and beast come together. As you'll see in the video below, when an elephant became wedged in a ditch on a tea plantation in West Bengal, workers did everything they could to rescue him. They even brought in a backhoe, which finally did the trick, and cheered when the elephant was freed.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India

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