The Characteristics and Versatility of Gouache Paint

Box of Holbein Artists' Gouache
Holbein Artists' Gouache. Photo credit: Lisa Marder

Gouache (pronounced gwash) is an opaque watercolor. It is made of the same dry pigments of transparent watercolor with a binder of gum arabic but in a greater proportion of binder to pigment. This makes the paint film thicker and heavier, and not as ideal for washes, For this reason, the dry pigments are not ground as finely in gouache as they are in watercolor. Like watercolor, gouache is water-soluble and can be reactivated when dry, even years later.

Higher quality paints, such as Winsor & Newton's Designer Gouache (Buy from Amazon), have a higher proportion of dry pigment. Lesser quality paints use an inert white pigment such as blanc fixe or precipitated chalk that makes the gouache opaque and increases its smoothness and brightness. Higher quality gouache paints achieve their opaque quality by the very high proportion of pigment. Some pigments are naturally more transparent than others, though, some manufacturers may include some inert pigment even in higher quality paints.

See Artists & Illustrators article, Best Gouache Paints, for a list of gouache paint recommendations.

Small amounts of glycerin and preservative are added to tube gouache to help retain moisture and prevent bacteria growth. Some gouache contains a wetting agent (oxgall) that makes the paint easier to spread. Some paint also contains a plasticizer that improves spreadability and prevents drying out in the tube.

For information directly from paint manufacturers about the ingredients in their gouache, see Dinotopia creator James Gurney's blog Gouache Ingredients: Info from Manufacturers.

High-quality gouache gives strong, bright, matte, opaque colors that dry flat with a velvety surface, is easy to work with, blend well, and are easy to photograph and reproduce, thus making them popular with designers and illustrators.

Gouache may vary somewhat in ​permanence (lightfastness), coverage, and finish depending on the particular manufacturer. 

Read about the history of gouache at

Characteristics of Gouache 

  • Gouache can crack or peel if painting impasto or applied too thickly, especially on a thin support.
  • Gouache tends to dry lighter than it appears when it is wet.
  • Since gouache is opaque, the brightness of the color of gouache comes from the pigment and surface of the paint film rather than from the white surface of the paper as it does with transparent watercolor. Therefore you can use gouache on toned or colored surfaces such as papers used for pastel and it will retain its intensity of color. Painting on a colored paper is a good way to unify the painting. 
  • Other good painting surfaces for gouache are watercolor paper, illustration board, cardboard, museum board, good heavy-weight drawing paper, wood, and primed canvas (as long as it's not greasy or oily). 
  • Gouache is available in tubes, pans, and jars. Gouache in small tubes (14ml-15ml) has an average shelf life of 3 to 5 years. 
  • Gouache is portable and easy to clean up.
  • Gouache dries quickly, like acrylic, but since it is water-soluble, it does not ruin brushes or clothes, and can be re-activated on your palette with a little water.
  • Because gouache dries matte, gouache paintings are easy to photograph without the problem of glare.
  • Gouache can be used like watercolor, laid in washes by diluting with water, or used like oil or acrylic more thickly and opaquely. 
  • Because of the higher proportion of binder to pigment, gouache sits on the surface of the support and can be wiped off more easily than watercolor, which often sinks into the paper leaving a stained appearance.
  • Gouache is good for mixed media work, mixing well with colored pencils, pencil, ink, india ink, and acrylic.
  • Gouache has good covering power, so a little paint goes a long way. 
  • You don't need to preserve the white of the paper as the lightest light as you do in watercolor. Since gouache is opaque, you can paint from dark to light, with good coverage over areas that you've already painted, and mixed with white to create tints.
  • You can use both softer watercolor brushes with gouache as well as nylon bristle brushes depending on the paint application and textural effects desired. 
  • Gouache can be mixed with acrylic glazing medium or acrylic matte medium and used like acrylics, creating a paint that is flexible and water-resistant, allowing you to paint layers without causing the underlying paint layer to lift off. 

Gouache paints are very versatile and gouache paintings can take on many different appearances depending on the style of the artist. They can resemble oil paintings in thickness and blending of paint, particularly if a varnish is applied, or they can be more like an illustration with flat bold color, or more like a watercolor with soft washes and glazes. Because they dry fast and are portable they are perfect for doing quick studies and sketches in your sketchbook or art journal. Give them a try! 

Further Reading and Viewing