Watercolor Wonder: Watercolor vs. Gouache

A Guest Post by Cassia Cogger

“Knowledge is power. Information is liberating.”

—Kofi Annan

How does watercolor differ from gouache? What are their individual characteristics, and how might each best be applied to a mixed-media art practice?

These very questions got me thinking, I wonder what would happen if I painted the exact same picture with each material; how might they differ?

Mixed-media explorations allow the artist to engage and experiment with materials in many different ways; to find new ways of using materials. Before one can find new ways of working with a material, however, one must first know the material’s basic characteristics.

Watercolor and gouache—two paint types often sharing an aisle in the art supply store and often applied in similar ways. A common answer I hear to the question “What is gouache?” is “It‘s opaque watercolor.” Is it really?

Watercolor and gouache are both made of similar materials (pigment, gum Arabic, possible additives), call for similar application and the same cleanup. Watercolor by nature is transparent and often loved for its fluid washes. Gouache, however, has a much higher pigment content and the pigment is ground into larger particles than watercolor. This is what makes gouache opaque and prevents it from granulating, and leads to the finished matte appearance—characteristics very different from watercolor.

The bigger question becomes, why do we care? Because knowing the qualities of each can open up a wide variety of applications in all of your mixed media work.

watercolor vs gouache materials

Watercolor paints and gouache paints

Materials Used

  • gouache paints, Turner Acryl Gouache: Opera Red, Fresh Green, Chocolate, Japanese Pale Yellow, Aqua Blue
  • palettes for mixing paints
  • pencil for sketching
  • watercolor brushes, Royal Aqualon round 4
  • watercolor paints, Holbein: Opera, Leaf Green, Cadmium Yellow Pale; Winsor & Newton: Cerulean, Caput Mortem
  • watercolor paper 90-lb Arches natural cold press and hot press

For this exploration, I used a mix of Holbein and Windsor & Newton Artists’ Watercolors and Turner Acryl Gouache (this paint has an acrylic medium as a binder and dries permanently). I did my best to choose similar palettes in each medium. I drew two images— a traditional floral study on rough watercolor paper and a bold graphic on smooth watercolor paper. I painted one of each drawing with watercolor and the other with gouache.

Exploring Watercolor and Gouache – Wet on Dry – Hot Press

watercolor vs gouache example 1

First I created a bold floral graphic and drew it on two sheets of hot press watercolor paper. For both pieces, I applied the paint using a wet-on-dry approach, hoping for flat washes of bold color. I allowed the first layer of each to dry completely then went back over each section applying additional patterns.

watercolor on hot press

The watercolor went on very fluidly. I allowed each section to dry completely before painting the neighboring section. The watercolor was slow to dry. I was surprised by how well the second layer of pattern held up. The colors dried with a satin sheen, due to the heavy application. Some brush strokes are visible and the green details over the brown base are not as bold as I would have liked, though they are bolder than I would have expected.

gouache on hot press

The gouache had a very draggy sensation as I applied it. Just as I did with the watercolor, I allowed each section to dry completely before painting neighboring sections and the gouache dried more quickly. I was amazed by how bold the second layer of pattern appeared with just one layer. Brush strokes are not visible. Even the green details over the brown base are incredibly crisp and opaque.

Exploring Watercolor and Gouache – Wet on Wet – Cold Press

watercolor vs gouach exploration 2

Next, I created a traditional peony graphic and drew it on two sheets of cold press watercolor paper. I applied the paint using a wet-on-wet approach to explore how the gouache would react. I allowed the first layer to dry completely then went back over each section applying a single contrasting shape to test the translucency of the paint when applied evenly over a clear wash.

watercolor on cold press

As expected, the watercolor went on very fluidly spreading across each wash area. I allowed each section to dry completely before painting neighboring sections and as with the previous drawing, the watercolor was slower to dry. The Cerulean Blue cloud shape is a strong pigment with a heavy application but given the wet-wash application, it still maintains a lot of transparency.

gouache on cold press

This is where I was perhaps most surprised. The gouache behaved almost identically to the watercolor for most of the wet-on-wet application. It went on very fluidly and spread easily across each wash section onto which it was applied. I also allowed each section to dry completely before applying a wash to a neighboring section and the gouache washes were faster to dry. Even with the wet-wash application, the Aqua Blue cloud shape is completely opaque as a second layer.

What have I taken away from this and how will I apply it?


I believe gouache is better suited for flat, colorful shapes. It also dries more quickly. I can see using this as a first layer on multi-layered works or as my go-to for single-layered, bold, shape-based pieces. Gouache also dries with a very attractive matte finish.

I believe watercolor works for flat, colorful shapes but it requires a stronger skill set to achieve an even application. It is perfect for multiple layers, allowing the story of what came before to show through. When applied heavily it dries with a satin sheen.

Cassia Cogger—artist, teacher and author of Creating Personal Mandalas—is inspired to create artworks, creative courses and experiences that allow individuals to enter into greater relationships with their surroundings, becoming present to that which is essential. As much as she is excited by color, shape, pattern and beauty, she is more excited by what the creative process reveals.
Her work has been featured at the National Academy Museum of Design in NYC, in Watercolor Artist magazine as a rising star as well as in a host of other galleries and private collections.
Learn more about Cassia and her work at www.cassiacogger.com.

To see a technique for using gouache in action, watch this short video featuring Jean Haines


Source : artistsnetwork[dot]com