Acrylic Gouache vs. Traditional Gouache

Gouache has been a favorite medium for illustrators and designers for more than a hundred years, and more recently, fine artists have rediscovered this versatile, expressive medium, both in its traditional forms and as a new type of paint called Acrylic Gouache. So, what does modern, fluid acrylic paint have in common with traditional, opaque watercolor, and how do they differ?

Similarities of Acrylic-Based and Traditional Gouache

The similarities start with the name. Acrylic-based and traditional gouache share a common name, which originated in medieval egg tempera techniques. The word “gouache” comes from a term used for an Italian egg tempera painting technique called “a guazzo”, which meant “in the water”, or “splashing in the mud”.

Image (left): Morning, Going to Work, tempera and gouache, attributed to Van Gogh

Gouache and Tempera Paint

Like egg tempera, gouache is considered a type of tempera paint, a category of water-based artist’s colors that includes casein and distemper as well as poster paints and school tempera. And, while acrylic paint is now considered its own separate category, when it was first introduced in the mid-20th century, acrylic paints like Utrecht New-Temp were originally presented as “next-generation temperas”.

Image (right): Paula Modersohn-Becker, Self-portrait, 1897. Gouache on paper

The word tempera refers to the act of “tempering pigments”, which according to Renaissance painting treatises meant preparing them with a water-borne binder. The binder used in traditional gouache is Gum Arabic, a water-soluble plant gum used in paint since Ancient Egypt, or sometimes dextrin, a vegetable starch. These binders allow gouache to re-wet again and again, so leftover paint can be reconstituted. This also allows layers of gouache to intermix, and lets dark passages show through lighter layers.

Image (left): Paint box, Ancient Egypt

What is Gouache?

Gouache is often described as “opaque watercolor”, but while it shares basic ingredients and professional-grade pigment concentration with watercolors, gouache has its own set of unique properties and techniques that set it apart from its transparent cousin. Mixed with white directly on the palette, gouache is formulated for use in a combination of translucent and fully opaque techniques, applied in a range from thin washes to broad, thick layers. It has a shine-free, matte finish for a soft, substantial appearance with glowing color, especially in mid-tones and darks. A self-leveling, flat surface makes gouache a favorite of illustrators and graphic artists, for a finish free of reflections which could interfere with reproduction and photography. Many fine artists also appreciate this non-reflective surface, both for its attractive appearance and for displaying art without glare.

Image (right): Roses, Catharina Klein, gouache on paper, 1910

How to Use Traditional Gouache

Traditional gouache works best on porous, absorbent supports like paper and illustration board. It isn’t flexible enough for use on stretched canvas, and doesn’t adhere well to acrylic-painted surfaces. Like watercolors and similar works on paper, traditional gouache paintings are generally best displayed under glass.

Image (left): Fritz Schnitzler, Winter Landscape, gouache on paper. Before 1920

How to Use Acrylic Gouache

Acrylic Gouache, however, is compatible with a wider range of supports and display techniques. It’s a special type of acrylic paint designed for the same appearance and painting techniques as gouache, with additional, desirable properties of acrylic polymers. Like traditional gouache, it has low viscosity, matte finish and a low-relief surface, but with a synthetic binder that imparts superior flexibility, adhesive power, and easy layering. Acrylic-based gouache is compatible with other acrylic paints, and can be used on a wide variety of supports, including canvas and panel. Paintings in Acrylic Gouache on durable (non-paper) supports can be varnished for display without glass.

Layering Gouache

Traditional gouache intermixes between layers, each of which partially re-wets the previous one. It typically dries a shade different from its wet appearance. Some artists consider the tendency of gouache to intermix an advantage, and incorporate the color shift into the painting process. However, because not every artist appreciates these properties, acrylic gouache can be an important alternative for artists who want the appearance of gouache with the easy layering and color mixing of acrylics.

Acrylic Gouache overcomes issues with intermixing because each layer seals itself when dry, preventing reactivation of ones beneath. This allows light colors to be placed over dark ones without bleed-through or staining. The tonal shift from wet to dry with acrylic gouache is minimal, more or less like typical acrylic paint.

One limitation of Acrylic Gouache is that, unlike traditional gouache, dry paint on the palette can’t be reactivated with water. Any unused acrylic gouache should be kept wet in lidded containers or on a palette with a tight fitting lid and sponge insert, and used up promptly.

In Conclusion

Acrylic gouache is an important alternative for artists who want the same look and feel of gouache, but whose work requires a wider range of supports and better compatibility with mixed media. It’s also a great way for acrylic painters to access the unique self-leveling, matte appearance of gouache without migrating from their primary medium.

Image (left): Masterson Sta-Wet Premier Palette

Ask the Experts is intended for entertainment and/or informational purposes only. Dick Blick Holdings/Utrecht Art Supplies makes no warranties of any kind with respect to the information or any use of the information provided herein, and is not responsible for any losses or damages of any kind incurred as a result of the use, misuse, or reliance upon the information and content herein. Any action taken in connection with or reliance upon the information provided is strictly at your own risk. Observe all product package instructions and warnings. © Copyright 2024 Dick Blick Holdings Inc. All rights reserved.