PAINTS – b) Gouache: 1. Paint

To celebrate and colour the body, ochres and clays are all that was and is needed. Mixed with water, these will -for a little time at least- stick to bodies, to hair. To increase that bond, they can easily be mixed with fat, resin, blood… all sorts of glues, Nature offers generously and were probably easily discovered by men. That simple mix is pretty close to a watercolour, i.e. pigment + a binder (glue). The prehistoric cave artworks were made thus and Egyptians decorated with a simple watercolour paint or wash- a sort of secco fresco painting- all their mud-plaster walls, engraved stone walls and artifacts. That same “watercolour” was used, in combination with a black ink, to write the elaborate signs of hieroglyphs unto papyrus. The precise nature of the binder in the Egyptian watercolours is uncertain: gum, size, or some similar material was used, or perhaps all of them, and the colours were applied with crude fibre brushes. It is assumed that gum arabic, a slightly acidic watersoluble gum from the acacia tree, was in greatest use. These watercolour paints have survived well in the dry climate and sealed tombs of Egypt but are still watersoluble and may be entirely destroyed by passing a damp sponge across the surface!

Mud wall painting egypt
I use the word watercolour but probably all along it was gouache because to obtain a transparent watercolour (what we refer to as watercolour these days), you actually need to grind your pigment ultra fine so that little clutters of pigment don’t explode on your page! Gouache, on the other hand, is an opaque watercolour made in pretty much the same way, but the paint becomes opaque by the addition of precipitated chalk to the vehicle. Because extremely fine grinding is not necessary to produce a good gouache that covers well and can be applied smoothly, it is much more easily home-made and probably what was used from antiquity to the 19th century… all over the world!

Spanish gouached manuscript
Extract from a Spanish manuscript “The Book of Fire” painted in gouache
A XII century Chinese gouache and ink portrait
A XII century Chinese gouache (and ink probably) portrait
Indian miniature
Indian miniature painted in gouache
Aztec codex using gouache
Aztec codex using gouache

And so, although opaque watercolours, aka gouache, are probably the oldest “paint” in the world, true watercolours are a rather recent invention… they appeared at the same time as machines capable of grinding that fine (although a few dedicated artists like Durer did that by hand) but also when paper became easily available.

A very fine drawing by Durer drybrushed in watercolour
A very fine drawing by Durer drybrushed in watercolour

Because finely ground transparent colours really needed that accomplice, paper, to reveal their true nature… When that happened and both became easily accessible, these paints became the rage of their time. All well brought up (in the XIX century) English young ladies would dabble in the medium… including Queen Victoria (don’t know about you but I have a bit of a hard time reconciling the stern lady and the happy colours!) and, of course, some serious artists too.

The beautiful light of transparent watercolours
Singer Sargent playing with the beautiful light of transparent watercolours on rag paper

Gouache became second best, since then mainly considered and manufactured as a cheap paint for kids and beginners…

My aunt paintingUntil perhaps quite recently, when illustrators have begun asking for good quality gouache and a few artists, happy with their mat finish, seem to have taken them seriously again! Anyway I like gouache, it’s a no fuss paint, watersoluble of course, easily mixable with watercolours and inks (you should play with them on the same quality paper and with the same brushes), more interesting and versatile than what it’s been reduced to recently… definitely check gouache out if you don’t know it already! (in a artist quality brand of course)

Brands I can recommend (at this stage): Sennelier and Holbein.

Sennelier‘s extra fine gouache is a classical and limited range of colours made with high quality natural gums (I believe they might be the only company still using these). They produce a deep opaque mat effect and most of the colours are very lightfast. Sennelier suggests the range can be applied with an airbrush or quill but I haven’t tried either so give it a go if you will. They also produce a gouache varnish (Talens too).

Holbein, as you would know from the name, is a venerable Japanese watercolour company. It has brought out a few years ago a range of “Antique Iridori colours” based on those used by traditional artists in centuries past. Some of their colours are really lovely and delicate. Highly saturated, these gouaches will granulate more freely and tend to be a bit more opaque, in the true Asian fashion. Mixed with a little gum arabic but not too much because of their exceptional pigment density, they have no ox-gall added as this chemical can impede brushwork and decrease vibrancy of the washes. Irodori is mat and flat and will dry hard so squeeze only what you need from your tube!

A beautiful Japanes gouache circa 1760 by Ito Jakuchi
A Japanese gouache circa 1760 by Ito Jakuchi… so beautiful, fresh and modern isn’t it?

Now you can go for more info to

  • III. b2) Mediums
  • III. b3) Varnishes

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