Saturday, August 8, 2015

Gouache- A fascinating and underappreciated medium

pic of a portrait in gouche
An older gouache painting using mostly
 Daler Rowney Simply brand with some
help from L&B black and white
 Daler Rowney Simply Gouache
I love gouache! If you have never heard of it, gouache is a water media paint made from pigment and a binder like gum arabic or honey. Many people call it opaque watercolor or tempera, but let's not confuse gouache with the poster paints we used as kids. Well, the good gouache is not like that, anyway. Bad gouache is a real bummer, and it can make an artist hate the medium after a few brushstrokes. While some brands are pricey, the good news is that you can make do with just the primary colors and white (lots of white). I did not include black because most painters avoid straight black paint. You just mix your three primaries and you have a rich, adjustable dark shade that will not look flat like regular black.

As with transparent watercolors, gouache is packaged in tubes and pans, but some brands also offer larger jars of the medium. You can buy colors in sets or open-stock at art shops, and popular web stores like Dick Blick and Jerry's Artarama offer numerous brands. So far, I have only tried Lefranc & Bourgeois (Linel), Daler Rowney and Lukas brands, which I will review below.

pic of different brands of gouache
Here is my group shot of all  three
 products, which I have reviewed below

Lefranc & Bourgeois Fine Artists Gouache

amazon pic of Lefranc and Bourgeois Fine Gouache
pic from Amazon product listing
 Out of my three brands, the L&B is by far the best for its consistency and finish. The white is outstanding for mixing and bold highlights, and the colors are just divine. I have the five piece set of designer primary colors (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow) along with black and white. There are larger sets and single tubes available as well. I bought mine from Jerry's Artarama a few years ago, but they do not carry this line any more. Dick Blick and Amazon do have them, however. The set I use is in the pic at the right.

Lukas Nerchau Opaque Watercolor Set of 24

According to many fellow artists, Lukas makes high quality oil, acrylic, watercolor, and gouache paints, but I have only used the opaque pan watercolors. They are cheap- I only paid seven bucks for the 24 pan set at Jerry's. As you can guess, they are meant for scholastic use and are not artist-grade; however, that is no reason to pass over these little gems. While they do not lay down truly opaque color like the L&B paints, they layer beautifully, and you can achieve some rather brilliant effects with them.  I love the ease and convenience of pan paints, and I have had a lot of fun playing around with the Lukas set.

pic of gouache painting in progress

I made this sketch using mostly Lukas opaque watercolors, along with touches of the L&B white and yellow paints. The pan set comes with a small tube of permanent white for mixing, which is okay, but I had to use the L&B to get those bold white highlights. This is a totally imaginary building, and I had no preliminary sketch first, hence the warped doorway and uninspired architecture. I like the colors, though, and I wanted to show readers how gorgeous these paints look.

pic of Lukas pan gouache set
amazon pic of Lukas Pan gouache set in box

It seems like the product pictures for the Lukas pan set are pretty lame (Amazon photo above left). My set no longer looks fresh and new (above right), but it is loved. The pans are lovely, and you can pop them out of the case to use solo or to rearrange the colors the way you prefer them (I have color palette OCD big time). The only catch is that the colors are labelled (in German) underneath each pan on the case. That bothered me enough to keep them in their original spots, but others may not care.

Daler Rowney Simply Gouache

I have no art supply or craft stores within 40 miles of my home, and I would have to drive through the main shopping areas in Fayetteville to get to those, so I order most of my supplies online. I can get decent graphite pencils, sketchbooks, and papers from the local Walmart and Office Depot, however. Walmart has mostly Daler Rowney products- all from the cheapo "Simply" line. I like the other DR lines like AquaFine, Georgian, and System 3, but the Simply products are not in the same category as these others. They are cheap and definitely not artist grade, but some items are fine for studies and doodles.

 I have a set of Simply tube watercolor and a set of Simply gouache, and it is hard to tell them apart on paper. The color payoff is not bad in most cases, as long as you do not add too much water as the gouache is not really opaque. The upside to this is that they do not dry to a chalky finish like other cheap gouache brands, and they mix well with other paints. However, the Simply paints do not "feel" like real gouache, and I suspect that the company merely thickened their Simply watercolors a tiny bit and then labelled them "gouache". In fact, aside from the writing on the labels, the gouache and watercolor tubes look exactly alike.

One last note on Simply: the burnt umber and burnt sienna tubes exhibit the right shades on the labels, but the paint inside both tubes is the same burnt sienna shade. This anomaly was present in both of my watercolor and gouache tube sets, but my pan watercolor sets from DR do not have the same issue. You can always add some ultramarine or Prussian blue to the burnt sienna shade to create a good approximation of burnt umber. Also, watch out for the "dud" tubes with nasty coagulated paint. I had one in each set, which kinda bummed me out because they were two really useful pigments.

Bottom line: even though the Simply paints are great for the budget, I would not recommend them to artists exploring gouache painting for the first time. I say this because the Simply gouache does not exhibit the properties of a true gouache when it comes to texture and opacity. You cannot get an accurate feel for the medium with this brand. I suggest buying a few colors from a quality line like Lefranc & Bourgeois for a better experience and to save yourself some frustration.  

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