How to Paint with Gouache on Canvas

You’ll find different types of paint available in art and craft stores depending on what your medium will be. Porous bases like paper are good for watercolors, while acrylic is for bases that aren’t as porous as cardboard. But have you ever heard about gouache, the paint that looks and feels like a cross between acrylic and watercolor?

Gouache paint works well on canvas. Unlike other paints, its properties make it one of the few paints that wouldn’t work well in a canvas primed with gesso. Why is that? We explain this and everything you need to know about painting with gouache on canvas.

What Is Gouache?

Gouache is best described as a cross between acrylic and watercolor paint. It’s also known as body color or opaque watercolor, in case you won’t find the term “gouache” in your local arts and crafts store. It is a type of paint made with color pigments, binding agents like gum, and white pigments like chalk or acrylic paint, depending on the brand you buy.

The effect of gouache on canvas can be best described as similar to watercolor, but heavier and more opaque. At the same time, it’s not as opaque as actual acrylic paint. So, if you’re looking for a balance between the two, gouache is your best bet.

While acrylic paint doesn’t require water and watercolor needs water to get the desired effect on your base, gouache needs water, but not too much or it will look too much like watercolor. However, unlike either acrylic or watercolor, it is normal to put a thick layer of gouache on canvas.

Because of its properties, it is best used for small canvases where you’ll want vibrant and opaque colors that watercolors can’t provide but acrylics are too bright and thick. You can use gouache for paintings, but it is impractical because you’ll be using thick layers of paint. Instead, it is more practical to use acrylic.

When it dries, gouache has a matte finish and has no texture on the surface. It’s why artists and other designers opt to use gouache as either a paint later on its own or as a superficial layer over a base layer of paint.

History of Gouache

Gouache paint dates back over 600 years. The term comes from the word “guazzo” which, aside from being the Italian term for the same method of painting, is the Italian word for “mud.” By the 16th century, Italian painters would apply oil paint over a tempera base for a matted output. However, the practice dates much earlier than this.

In the 9th century, it was used in Persian miniature paintings, which then spread to the rest of Europe by the 14th century. After the 16th century movement in Italy, it became popular once more in 18th century France as the term “gouache” was used to describe opaque wet media. However, it was used in mixed media which was added into pastel-based paintings.

How to Use Gouache

Use a minimal amount of water on gouache paint. Using too much water can lead to the opaqueness being effective and looking more similar to water color. For best results, use a raw canvas without primers like gesso. Avoid pre-primed canvases because you’ll want the canvas to absorb to the surface of your canvas easily. Unlike when working with acrylics, you’ll want the gouache to be absorbed by the canvas easily.

Gouache can have a different tone and can change when it is wet or dry, which may make it difficult to color blend. However, because of its opaque properties, it is much faster to create a smooth matte opaque look compared to painting with watercolors. However, it is also possible to achieve a rougher texture through a technique called “scumbling.” By using a dry brush with gouache paint, there are sure to be some gaps over the stroke, which creates a generally rough-looking texture that looks good for certain art styles.

Tips on Handling Canvases and Brushes with Gouache Paint

Because of the wetness of gouache paint, it may be more difficult to handle than acrylic paint. For example, because of too much water, the tendency for some canvases and papers is to warp, buckle, or ripple when it gets too wet. To solve this, choose a canvas board or stretched canvas that is built better to handle wet media like gouache and watercolor. Avoid priming the boards with gesso, though, since it will be more difficult for the paint to absorb with a layer of acrylic.

To avoid mixing colors, always keep your brushes clean by having a cup of water ready. Gouache paint can be easily washed with water, so keeping it wet can help remove the excess color stuck on the brushes. After painting, rinse your brushes, palettes, and other art materials with water.

When used properly, gouache paint can be used to create a good effect on canvas that is the middle ground of both watercolors and acrylic. However, before you can begin painting, it’s best to get a canvas that is raw and ready to absorb paints without warping like other media.

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