Gouache vs Watercolor – Two Wonderful Mediums!
Both of these mediums are a delight to use, and have their pros and cons. It’s probably best to pick ONE and work with that medium for a long time before you try switching back and forth because they act just enough differently from each other to drive you bonkers! Seriously, trust me, pick one.
So to help you decide, let’s explore how they are the same and how they are critically different from each other.
Features In Common
- Both only need water to thin the paint or to clean your brushes
- Both are thinly applied, to avoid cracking or flaking off (as opposed to oil or acrylic paints which can be applied very thickly)
- Both paint on paper – at least 140 lb.
- No solvents required = very non-toxic
- Require framing behind glass (that doesn’t touch the surface) to protect the finished artwork
- Both can be rewet on your palette, so you never waste paint – you can make a larger batch of color on the palette and rewet it the next painting session to have the exact same color as before, no need to remix
- Use same brushes? yes and no.
- Both can use the texture (or lack thereof) of the paper to enhance the artwork. You’ll find my insider tips and reviews of the best papers for watercolor here.
- Both dry within seconds or minutes or can be helped along with the use of a hairdryer on low heat
- Both are not varnished when finished. Varnishing will rewet the pigment and change the lightness and darkness of the colors. Both are quite long-lasting if they are framed. (Think illustrated Bibles from hundreds of years ago)
- Both mediums are mostly lightfast. However, you need to check the lightfastness rating on exotic colors like neon pink, etc. because some of them will age into black! Always read the labels and use professional brands that will rate each of their tubes for archival, transparency and lightfastness if these features are important to you.
- Gouache is matte (flat and non-glossy) in dry appearance and Watercolor can be quite luminous, like a stained glass window. You need to embrace one or the other because trying to get a luminous effect from gouache will be difficult or impossible, and trying to get a matte, flat look from watercolor will be equally challenging and require a thorough knowledge of the characteristics of each individual tube of paint to see if it is even possible.
- Watercolor is lightened by adding more water, and gouache can be thinned and lightened with additional water, but is MOST OFTEN lightened with the use of white gouache paint (which is pretty much the whole point of using gouache…getting that matte, chalky look)
- Watercolor most often uses just the white of the paper as any white needed. Watercolor societies and watercolor purists prohibit or frown on the use of white watercolor paint altogether. If you plan on pursuing contests or exhibitions, don’t use white watercolor paint.
- Unique techniques to each medium
- Gouache excels on colored paper – even black! Watercolor requires a white paper.
- It is easier to get a great looking watercolor from student grade watercolors than it is to get a satisfactory result from budget gouache.
Here is the link to my article on the best watercolor sets, for more in-depth information!
- Watercolor requires preplanning to the max in order to preserve the white of the paper. Once the paper is painted on, chances are you won’t be able to get it back to pure white.
- It is a more serendipitous medium – not rigid control. So, once you plan your steps to preserve the white of the paper, you have more of an opportunity to let the very wet watercolor flow and create it’s own magic.
- Must be used on white paper
- Needs to be painted light to dark in order – again, that’s to maintain control over the layers.
- The pigments soak down into the paper more than gouache, creating more of a stain
- The high watery flow is part of the pleasure of working with the medium
- The more expensive and high-quality watercolor pigments are intense pigments
- You can use different palettes including little saucers to actually pour out very liquid paint
- Available in tubes, pans or ink like jars
- Easy layering
- Can utilize glazing technique
- The kind of paper you choose is very much a part of the finished look and a tool for results
- light and airy or dramatic with addition of salt, alcohol or drops of water
- Difficult to fix mistakes
- Pencil sketch lines will show through the paint
- Watercolor paints can be granulating, no grains at all, tending towards opaque, semi-opaque or transparent. The variety is like eye candy!
Here the artist allows the paper to show through, which creates a stained glass luminescence:
Preserving the white of the paper is a top priority for watercolor!
To get the best results, use strong paper to take some abuse of lifting out, scrubbing, embossing and scraping with a knife! Please read my in-depth article on the best watercolor papers here
Professional Grade watercolors of any brand are going to cost up to seven times the cost of student grade paints. In my opinion, they are worth the price unless you are painting craft-style projects like greeting cards and postcards for example. Professional grade paints are going to be packed with the best pigments and formulas. Your paint will go farther and give better color coverage and vibrant results than student grade.
My favorite brand of watercolor is Daniel Smith, from Seattle Washington. The color choices are huge and the pigment quality is out of this world. Lots of unique granulating colors. Clearly labeled but their website is an encyclopedia of information! Sheets of sample dots are available which is an inexpensive way to sample dozens of colors .
If you know a bit about color mixing, you can mix any color with these six tubes:
Made by my beloved acrylic paint manufacturer, GOLDEN, (here in the USA) their series of watercolor paints are very high quality and highly pigmented for rich, vibrant color. Check out QoR’s line of scream’n bright reds and oranges!! Hello, floral painting!
The key here is the word ‘Professional’. There is a big jump in quality with this manufacturer between their Cotman series (student grade) and their Professional Grade. This series is still very good, I’m just partial to Daniel Smith for all the above reasons. Very nice metal tin that doubles as a palette.
Only available in individual tubes, this a great quality paint. Make sure you don’t confuse this with their student Academy line. Big. Difference.
The highly respected Schmincke company manufacturers high quality artist paints and this set comes in a metal tin that will double as a palette. Once you can roll the tubes down a bit, you ‘ll even be able to store a short handle brush in this tin for great portability. If someone were to gift me this set (big hint, Santa!) I’d be thrilled!
A well respected and quality brand of watercolors, made with natural blackberry honey as part of the binder.
Coming in at an amazing amazon low price point, Shinhan is well known and used in Asia and is a relative newcomer to the West. I have not had the opportunity to test these, but they are extremely highly rated by users, so I felt I needed to present this brand.
This version is Dr. Ph. Martins is lightfast and brilliantly hued. Don’t’ confuse it with the other lines (Radiant), which are intended for reproduction uses for illustrators and designers and are not lightfast. Ink consistency and suitable for airbrushing.
This is the series and set that I often have my beginning students use. The quality is better than most student grades and it’s a trusted brand.
The student grade of watercolor, and the best of the very budget-priced watercolor brands.
Gouache is a french word and the medium has been around at least since the Renaissance era. It was and is very popular with graphic designers and illustrators for its speed and unique properties. Because it dries matte, it is ideal for reproduction work as you can scan or photograph the finished work without any glare. If you know your art styles, graphic travel posters are often painted with gouache.
In decades past, gouache was used by illustrators and designers because they could get crazy good color in fast coverage. However, gouache didn’t used to be lightfast….illustrators would complete the work for the client then have the artwork scanned or photographed for reproduction or commercial use, and the original artwork could then be discarded, as it would fade and age into browns or black colors. Nowadays, modern materials and manufacturing have eliminated that dreaded characteristic from gouache.
Here’s the link to my article on the best Gouache paint brands. A very in-depth article!
Gouache and Acryla Gouache are two different beasts! Acryla Gouache is matte and flat in application and finish, BUT it has acrylic binders which means it is unwettable once dry. So you CAN NOT reactivate the colors on your palette or paper once dry. It’s best used for when you want to layer gouache, but don’t want any chance of the under layers reactivating with additional layers.
Acryla Gouache also can adhere to many different surfaces that gouache can not.
Trust me with this: buying a cheap set of gouache will frustrate the heck out of you and make you doubt your abilities. That is because gouache relies on a heavy content of pigment and chalk to make the colors vibrant and dense enough to have opaque coverage. Budget brands will need many layers of paint to get the same level of opacity as one stroke of quality brand pigment. I’ll recommend mostly great brands and I’ll include at least one budget brand, just in case you want to experiment and not break the bank!
Here’s a sample of the brands in my set. I included a few of the acryla-gouache tubes on the right, so you can see how easy it is to confuse the two mediums. I keep the acryla-gouache in a separate box in my closet so that I don’t accidentally grab a tube when I’m trying to stay pure gouache.
Gouache has large particles of pigment that sit on top of the paper.
Gouache is available in tubes or pans or even little cups like jello!
It takes a bit more effort to get the paint off your paintbrush than with watercolor. Some brushes (like fat sable brushes aren’t the best for gouache, and are best left for very wet watercolor use). Rounds and flats synthetics will give you the opaque coverage you’re looking for with gouache.
Gouache will contaminate watercolors, so keep them separate on your palettes.
It used to be not very lightfast and the colors would change with time and exposure to sunlight. Nowadays, manufacturers have greatly improved the permanence of the colors. Many landscape painters favor gouache for field studies and sketches. It’s a good idea to check the lightfastness on the tubes of color that you buy. Some are still fugitive!
- Can be applied with no brush strokes showing, very flat. It’s much more difficult to accomplish this with acrylic and oil paints take a day or more to dry
- Opaque paints with more binders than high-quality pigment with added calcium carbonate or chalk to contribute to the matte, flat appearance
- Cheap brands use poor quality of quantity of pigment, which makes it difficult to learn
- Easy mixability and blend-ability
- Cover up mistakes with another layer = very forgiving, but more difficult to get a lovely layer on top of an earlier layer
- Because it rewets so easily, you can’t glaze after the layer is dry
- Use a more deliberate and less experimental paint technique
- Can be used on colored paper, even black to striking effect
- Order of light to dark doesn’t matter
- Can be used on lighter paper-like sketchbook paper because often use less water to mix than watercolors
- Layer opaquely
- Can be intermixed with transparent watercolor – but use a separate palette for each medium! Be prepared to understand the drying characteristics between gouache and acrylic! Gouache dries slightly faster, as you use less water with Gouache.
- Gouache dries darker (or lighter in some cases) than it looks when wet. Combining the two takes experience.
- Dries matte and flat colors are slightly chalky – a challenge to not make it too flat…the flat matte definitely is a taste thing. I had to adapt my thinking to appreciate its unique look. It’s very old-poster appearing.
- Covers black paper completely with high-quality paints with one stroke. So fun and dramatic!
- Easy to layer- start thin and make each subsequent layer thicker but…
- Add too much thickness and paint will crack
As I said before, I always recommend using professional quality brands because the coverage is soooo much better and the density of the paint is very good. I trust the lightfastness as well, because each color and tube has been tested and labeled, so you know just what to rely on. I’ll be honest here, in gouache, I’ve found the biggest differences between professional grade and student-grade. The student-grade gouache convinced me I hated gouache. Once I made the switch to professional-grade, I was hooked.
M. Graham is top quality and has honey in its mix, which makes for a different experience while painting that many artists rave about. Available in larger tubes, artists will pick and choose their most used colors, rather than buy in a large set.
The highly respected Windsor and Newton Company of England has been making artists’ paints for well over 100 years. This is my go-to brand for a balance of quality and color options. Sold in individual tubes. Called “Designer’s Gouache” because the line has many premixed colors that designers can rely on for being exactly alike from tube to tube. So that when they specify a color for a client, they can use that color for all the clients needs and it will be consistent in hue and value.
Don’t confuse this with the popular Holbein Acryla Gouache (see below), this set is professional-grade gouache. Holbein is manufactured in Japan and makes professional artist paints and supplies.
A high-quality brand and a trusted paint.
Made with a unique dextrin-based binder, it flows on and mixes much smoother than most brands. This unique binder is also cheaper to manufacture, making this quality professional grade paint a little more affordable. 60 extremely opaque colors in individual tubes are available.
These new inventions in jelly cups are getting rave reviews by owners! This would be a fun experiment! Comes with three brushes and a small palette.
NOT made in the USA, this company manufactures a wide array of budget art supplies
This budget-priced set is perfect for craft creating like stamping and greeting cards.
A good, craft quality gouache paint.
Acrylic liquid polymer paint. Thins with water and reacts like gouache, but it is insoluble when dry, much faster drying than gouache. It can be painted on a variety of other surfaces as well. Acryla Gouache is going to dry imperviously on your paintbrushes! Make sure you keep them wet and thoroughly wash them when you are done painting. Honestly, I don’t see much point to acryla gouache. It doesn’t dry much more matte if you use thin layers than regular acrylic.
I only use cheap, synthetic brushes like these with anything having to do with acrylic:
A professional-grade will give a quicker punch much easier than a student-grade. Packed with pigment and less filler, you can often get total opacity with one stroke! I always jump to the professional brands after I experiment (in frustration) with the budget brands.
This brand is professional grade and will give excellent coverage and vibrant colors.
Also highly respected and used by professionals is the Liquitex brand. These are in larger jars.
A more affordable option with a ton of colors is the Arteza set. This company is newer on the market, but the users report great results.
The price point between the classroom and Holbein Professional isn’t all that different!
In addition to paints, you will need palettes designed for liquid media that will have mixing areas as well as slanted ‘wells’ where you can thin your paint down with water.
If you are using gouache or white watercolor paint, keep it well away from your colors or you will end up with a chalky mess. I use a separate little palette so that the white is very intentional and I can’t inadvertently mess things up!
Tutorials and Inspirations
Demo of watercolors vs gouache
Woman fantasy portrait in watercolor AND gouache
Gouache landscape painting demo