Friday, September 18, 2020

How Do You Respond to These Images, and What Does That Say About You?

Psychologists have developed several projective tests to understand the minds of their patients. The famous Rorschach test is one of them. A lesser known test is the thematic apperception test.

Subjects are shown a series of illustrations of ambiguous but emotionally powerful situations and asked to supply the story behind them.

The subject is asked to make up a story explaining what led up to the moment depicted, what is going on, how each character thinks and feels, and what the ending will be. 

The examiner uses those responses to construct a profile of the observer. How malevolent or benevolent are they, and how much do they invest emotionally in relationships? 

Critics of projective tests, such as Rudolf Arnheim (1904-2007), have argued that the scientific value of such tests is limited. We may be overestimating what an individual's interpretation of such images says about the individual. The images have an objective reality of their own that people are responding to, and we deconstruct and explain images in so many ways, depending on what we expect people to want to hear.


Thursday, September 17, 2020

How They Taught Drawing to Children in 1901

In 1901, elementary schools taught drawing as a basic and necessary skill that everyone should practice. Here's an example of one of the popular drawing books: Prang's New Graded Course in Drawing

A specific exercise written at the top of each page, with a small printed drawing as an example. 

Let's look at one of the assignments. Note that "he" is used as the genderless inclusive pronoun.

"Exercise IV. REPRESENTATION.—Cube or Cubical Object.
Let each pupil draw the model or object as he sees it. Notice how the upper surface, when seen in a position like that shown in this illustration, appears narrowed. Try the placing of the model in other positions; watch this upper surface; sketch."

That's a helpful tip. They also have the student copy repeating patterns, focus on a bunch of grass, and build geometric study models from stiff paper. There's no talk of expression, personal creativity, or copying the styles of great artists of the past. 

Instead, "Drawing is used as a means of training the eye and hand and as a language by which the pupil not only expresses but impresses his thought." 

Drawing is seen as a cognitive skill. In the Preface, the authors say that the "course of instruction presents a means of mental development indispensable in the education of every child." 

But the writers of the book also recognize that drawing is not a purely objective activity. There's a personal dimension, too, that's an inevitable part of human visual perception. 

Here's how they put it:
What a Picture is
"A true picture shows not only how an object or a group of objects appears, but it tells also something of the one who has drawn the picture. It tells how the objects looked to him ; it tells not only what he saw,_ but also what he thought about the objects. For whoever draws a picture indicates, or tries to indicate, in the drawing, what parts he cared for most."

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Hubert von Herkomer's On Strike

Hubert von Herkomer (1849-1914) was a German-born British painter. In the 1891 Royal Academy, he exhibited this painting of a worker on strike and his family. 

Hubert von Herkomer On Strike (1891) 2280 mm x 1264 mm

The painting is a monochromatic brown except for the red clothing on the baby, and the figures are life size, giving them a monumental feeling.

The winter leading up to the painting was a hard one, with severe blizzards and gale force winds that sank ships in the English channel.  Reviewers suggested that the extreme weather was reflected in this painting and in much of the rest of the exhibition. Although there had been a few worker strikes before this time, they were a lot of them in 1890-91, with major strikes of dockworkers and millworkers in Britain.

This painting doesn't try to show the challenging working conditions, but instead shows the resolution of the striker and the effect of the work stoppage on his family. According to the Royal Academy: A Chronicle: 

"Herkomer’s painting On Strike introduces a different element to the plight of workers. It is less concerned with illuminating bad conditions than in the direct action that could change them. In the Victorian era, when the work ethic was idealised as a means of stability and prosperity for the family, the withdrawal of labour was shocking to many."

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Emily Dickinson's Home Poem #440

Rita asks: "Please tell me the name of the Emily Dickinson poem about going to the old home" from the new TRIADS video.

Rita, the Emily Dickinson poem is known by the number: #F440. Here it is, quoted from the website PoemHunter.

"Years I had been from home,
And now, before the door
I dared not open, lest a face
I never saw before

Stare vacant into mine
And ask my business there.
My business, - just a life I left,
Was such still dwelling there?

I fumbled at my nerve,
I scanned the windows near;
The silence like an ocean rolled,
And broke against my ear.

I laughed a wooden laugh
That I could fear a door,
Who danger and the dead had faced,
But never quaked before.

I fitted to the latch
My hand, with trembling care,
Lest back the awful door should spring,
And leave me standing there.

I moved my fingers off
As cautiously as glass,
And held my ears, and like a thief
Fled gasping from the house."

There are other variants of F440, including: this one

I Years had been from Home
And now before the Door
I dared not enter, lest a Face
I never saw before

Stare stolid into mine
And ask my Business there –
“My Business but a Life I left
Was such remaining there?”

I leaned upon the Awe –
I lingered with Before –
The Second like an Ocean rolled
And broke against my ear –

I laughed a crumbling Laugh
That I could fear a Door
Who Consternation compassed
And never winced before.

I fitted to the Latch
My Hand, with trembling care
Left back the awful Door should spring
And leave me in the Floor –

Then moved my Fingers off
As cautiously as Glass
And held my ears, and like a Thief
Fled gasping from the House –

The differences apparently derive from the fact that most of Dickinson's poems weren't published when she was alive. She had kept nearly 2,000 poems  hidden away in manuscript form, and they were discovered and divided between two different collections. The editors were baffled by the many marginal notations, second thoughts, and alternate wordings, so it's hard to say which version is the one Dickinson would have wanted.

In this poem, the following stanza is written two different ways:

I fumbled at my nerve,
I scanned the windows near;
The silence like an ocean rolled,
And broke against my ear.
I leaned upon the Awe –
I lingered with Before –
The Second like an Ocean rolled
And broke against my ear –

The first version:

"Who danger and the dead had faced,
But never quaked before."

While the second says:

"Who Consternation compassed
And never winced before."

"wooden laugh" becomes "crumbling Laugh." 

Here's an interesting analysis of the poem, which suggests that the "Face I never saw before" is not the home's new owner, but rather the ghost of the writer's former self. That's a potential meeting that would fill both the older self and the younger self with trepidation.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Triad Challenge: "Sunny Still Life"

We've had such an enthusiastic response to our previous painting challenges that many of you asked for another opportunity.

I hesitate to call it a "contest" because there's no entry fee and the spirit is more about cooperation, community, and camaraderie than competition. We're all at different levels of skill and experience 

Laura Coombs Hills, (American,1859-1952)

"Sunny Still Life" Challenge
The challenge is to paint a still life in sunlight from observation with a limited palette.

The Triad
The limited palette must be a triad of your choice—just three colors plus white.  
For example, here are some suggestions, giving equal time to different companies: 
Holbein gouache: ViridianCadmium red deep, and Yellow ochre plus white
M. Graham gouache: Ultramarine blueCadmium yellow deep, and Burnt sienna plus white
Winsor and Newton gouache: Perylene maroonCadmium yellowCobalt blue plus white
Assorted makers: Prussian blue, light red, golden ochre, and white

Feel free to come up with your own triad. You don't have to follow these suggestions, and you'll probably want to choose colors that more or less fit your subject.

Painting by Vladimir Zhdanov (Russian 1902-1964)
What kinds of subjects?
You can paint any objects, such as flowers, fruit, toys, tools, products, or harvest vegetables. They can be things you arrange into a group or objects that you found in place. Regardless of what you paint, I'm looking for a colorful, sunny effect, either from light streaming in a window or direct sunlight outdoors.

On Location
Your picture must be painted mainly from observation and it must be a new painting done for this challenge. 

All traditional painting media are acceptable, such as: oil, watercolor, casein, or gouache, acrylic-gouache, or acrylic. Sorry, no dry media or digital.

It's free to enter. Please submit only one painting. You can enter as soon as you finish the piece, but no later than the deadline: Tuesday, October 20, 2020 at midnight New York time. Winners will be announced on October 27.

What and How to Enter
Shoot three image files: 1. Your finished painting, 2. A photo of the painting in progress in front of the subject, and 3. A Triad Test of your chosen gamut. Your face doesn't have to be in the photo unless you want to.

If you do Instagram or Twitter, please use the hashtag #sunnystilllife  You can also upload the images to the Facebook Group Color in Practice. If you don't have an Instagram or Facebook account, please ask a friend with an account to help you. Please include in the FB or IG post the list of the three colors you chose (plus white), and if you want, a word about your inspiration or design strategy, or an anecdote about your painting experience.

I'll pick one Grand Prize and five Finalists. All six entries will be published on GurneyJourney, and all six will receive an exclusive "Department of Art" embroidered patch. In addition, the Grand Prize winner receives a Gurney video (DVD or download) of their choice.
Own the 90-minute feature "TRIADS: Painting with Three Colors" for only $17.98
• HD MP4 Download at Gumroad 
• or HD MP4 Download at Sellfy

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Revisiting Your Childhood House

When I started painting this house I could tell that it was uninhabited from the dumpster next to it. I was halfway through the sketch when a car drove up. 

A man from the city got out and told me that was the house he grew up in. The house had sold and he wanted to take one last look at it and relive his memories. 

I captured the moment in my new 90 minute Gumroad tutorial, "TRIADS: Painting with Three Colors.”

The video is on YouTube  
Check out TRIADS from Gumroad and Sellfy.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

TRIADS now available

Painting a high-chroma still life outside with just three colors forces you to keep your mixtures pure and your brushes clean. That's just the first painting exercise in my new tutorial "TRIADS: Painting with Three Colors." 
Watch a sample video on YouTube of the painting of this teapot.

Download the 90 minute tutorial from Gumroad and Sellfy 

Friday, September 11, 2020

Sunday YouTube Premiere

What happens when you use secondary colors (orange, violet, and green) as primaries? I set up in front of an abandoned house to find out.

Then something amazing happens! The guy who grew up in the house randomly stops by to share his memories. 

Don't miss the free YouTube premiere (with live Q and A) on September 13 at noon, California time. Here's the link. It's all part of my next painting tutorial TRIADS, which releases tomorrow, Saturday, September 12. You don't have to join LightBox Expo to watch, but I recommend it because LBX a good virtual hub for a lot of artistic activity this weekend. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Mat Board with Pencil and White Gouache

Here's an art tip: Ask your local frame shop for unwanted scraps of gray mat board. It makes a great surface for studies in pencil and white gouache. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Zorn's 'Breakfast in the Garden'

Anders Zorn (Swedish) painted the dealer Adolf Magnus in the model's garden.

Anders Zorn ”Frukost i det gröna” (Breakfast in the garden, 1886 /
Wholesale dealer Adolf Magnus) Watercolour 38 x 56 cm.

I like to imagine Zorn telling his friend, "Keep talking," and getting out his watercolor box to start painting as they picked at the remnants of the morning meal.

Mr. Magnus would stop to puff on his cigar or to make a gesture, and return his hand to rest on his leg.

His eyes and mouth are full of animation and movement.

The breakfast table is indicated with a few well placed strokes of watercolor, with some white gouache for the silver and glass vessels in the back.
Thanks to Sascha Karschner and Bukowski's Auction

Monday, September 7, 2020

Should Young Artists Study Nature or Past Masters?

Should students study composition? Should they make copies of old masters' paintings? 

According to the influential art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) they should study only from real life. He believed that all learning happens from the student's own direct encounters with nature, and that it was the job of art students to draw from life as truthfully as possible, not to copy the work of other artists or to study composition as a way of improving on what they see.

William Trost Richards, Conanicut

Ruskin wrote that "from young artists nothing ought to be tolerated but simple bona fide imitation of nature . They have no business to ape the execution of masters . . . Their duty is neither to choose, nor compose, nor imagine, nor experimentalize; but to be humble and earnest in following the steps of nature, and tracing the finger of God." 

There's a lot of truth to what Ruskin says, and if I were to choose between studying art or real life, I would opt for real life. But previous masters provide a path into the wilderness, a frame of reference, an example of what is possible. 

I disagree with Ruskin that young artists should not study from previous masters at all. I would suggest that they take inspiration from many eras and styles, and avoid focusing on the style that's current at the time. Students can draw inspiration from examples of visual art that inspires them, be it paintings, sculptures, movies, animation, posters, or comics. I recommend alternating between studying from nature, from past masters, from theory and philosophy, and sketching from memory and imagination. 

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Announcing TRIADS Next Saturday

Can this outdoor still life be painted with just three colors plus white? If so, which colors? 

Can this still life be painted with just three colors plus white? If so, which colors? Find out on my next Gumroad tutorial TRIADS, which releases September 12. I'll present free videos as YouTube premieres (with live Q and A) on Sept 12 and 13 at noon, California time. 

You don't have to join LightBox Expo to watch, but I recommend it because LBX a good virtual hub for a lot of activity next weekend.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Inspiring Story of Young Nigerian Artist

(Link to YouTube) A young Nigerian boy named Waris Kareem has been creating a sensation with his large realist portrait drawings. It's refreshing to see how he has applied himself to his work and how he has been nourished by support from his family, community, and government.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Walter Shirlaw's Studies

Walter Shirlaw (1838-1909) was a Scottish-born American, a painter, banknote engraver and teacher. 


His painting "Toning the Bell" (1874, Chicago Art Institute) shows the foreman striking the bell with a hammer, while the violinist plays a reference note. 

The faces, hands, and postures of the two main characters show that they have different personalities and that they come from different worlds.

This page of studies shows the construction of the violin, how the left hand needs to finger the strings, and a couple options for the bow hand. 

It looks like he contemplated having the foundry man rest his left hand on the bell, and then changed his mind and brought the hand back into the shadow in front of his stomach.

This appears to be another quick study to figure out the pose of the violinist. Studies like these are just a step in the process, but a very necessary step.
Walter Shirlaw on Wikipedia

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Space Shuttle on a Hellish Planet

A space shuttle stranded on a hellish planet leaves its crew of five in a dangerous predicament. This image introduces William Greenleaf's 1982 science fiction novel The Tartarus Incident. 

It was also my first paperback cover as a freelance illustrator. After finishing the background paintings for Ralph Bakshi's Fire and Ice, I turned down an offer from Disney Animation and decided to take the plunge as a freelance illustrator, painting paperback covers and sending the paintings by overnight mail to New York.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Questions about Dinotopia from the Bruderhof

The editor of the Plough Quarterly asked me some interesting questions about Dinotopia. The Plough is published by the international Bruderhof community. There are 23 urban and rural settlements around the world, each renouncing private property and following the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. 

1. The society you portray in Dinotopia has, obviously, captivated a huge audience. What about it do you think has been so compelling? What about that world, that alternate social reality, is compelling to you?
What people tell me most often is that they like the sense of immersion that they feel when they read the book. Some of that feeling comes from it being an illustrated book, which sketches out so many dimensions of an alternate universe. The reader's imagination adds at least 50% to that act of conjuring, filling in the spaces between the pictures and the words. What I find compelling is trying to make the impossible seem inevitable—whether it's a city built on a waterfall, or a dinosaur philosopher.

2. One striking thing about the world you create is its relationship to technology. It is in no sense a “primitive” society: they have diving machines, hot air balloons, etc. But they seem also to be selective in what they adopt and are drawn to. What is the nature of the Dinotopian approach to appropriate technology?
As the son, grandson, and great-grandson of tinkerers, engineers, and inventors, I've always been fascinated by technology. In particular, I'm interested in how every obvious benefit of a new technological invention is counterbalanced by an invisible cost or compromise that may take a generation or two to recognize. There are so many examples. Even the invention of writing undercut the palaces of memory that preliterate societies once had. If there was a period of history when we might have really taken stock and considered the future more judiciously, it would have been at the advent of electricity, mass-production, automobiles, airplanes, and modern communications: in other words, about 150 years ago. It's still recent enough and familiar enough to relate to, but it puts our modern dilemmas in some context. We're at a similar crossroads now with the advent of robotics and A.I., and I think living intentionally with technology will become even more important. I created the prequel of Dinotopia: First Flight to explore those questions from a dystopian point of view. I love the idea of a utopian world that arrived at that place after having survived earlier times of struggle and suffering.

3. In a similar way, Dinotopia is an urban world, but has many of the characteristics that I associate with the rural: integration, beauty, balance. Tell me about how you’ve chosen to portray cities in these books.
I think those qualities of integration, beauty, and balance can exist in urban worlds as well as rural ones, especially if you start by doing away with cars. I tried to include in Dinotopia everything from crowded urban life to small towns to remote and wild environments. The design of the cities is inspired by the medieval urban design of old-world cities, with their organic street grids and vernacular architecture, rather than the top-down design of more highly professionalized societies. I was also inspired by exposition architecture, such as the 1893 Chicago Exposition, which was a temporary expression of the highest ideals of the American Renaissance.

4. J.R.R. Tolkien described the imaginative work that artists, and particularly fantasy artists, do as “subcreation:” his idea was that we create because we are creatures of a creative God who has made us in his image. Does this idea have resonance with you?
I hadn't read that idea about Tolkien. My understanding (and I may be wrong) was that he saw himself not so much as a creator or a subcreator but rather as a kind of lowly transcriber of some ancient text that already existed. Thinking this way allows the author to take himself or herself out of the position of creator. That relieves one of the burden of playing God. If you believe your fantasy world already exists, it makes the ideas come more readily to the imagination.

5. The sense that one gets about the world that you’ve made is that you love it: you don’t just love the characters, but the place itself. Can you talk about that love? What is it like to love something you’ve made?
Yes, I love the characters with all their flaws and I love the place with all its history. I once printed up some travel tickets to Dinotopia that I give to people. The only problem, I tell them, is that those are one-way tickets. My publishing mentor Ian Ballantine, who published Tolkien and a lot of imaginative fiction, was very adamant that the purpose of fantasy literature is not to escape, but rather to engage. It's fun to involve my imagination with a place that doesn't exist, because it makes me appreciate our own world even more.

6. There is conflict in Dinotopia-- but it is a utopia; it’s a place where harmony reigns. What is the nature of that harmony? What does the kind of interesting, non-passive, daring peace you’ve presented there mean to you?
When I was researching post-Darwinian 19th century travel journals, I was struck by the view of the natural world that early explorers came back with, especially from Africa. Gorillas, whales, and even elephants were routinely called monsters and beasts. The more we get to know them, the more we discover how compassionate and sophisticated they are. Dinosaurs were and are ready for such an imaginative transformation. Some of that comes from the science, as Jack Horner and other paleontologists discovered how parent dinosaurs took care of their young in nests. We humans are discovering that we can learn something from animals around us. Dinosaurs are my vehicle for that journey of discovering the harmony of nature. I have noticed that earlier nature writers like Alexander von Humboldt often speak of harmony, so maybe we're returning to that.

7. The Code of Dinotopia holds that “Weapons are enemies, even to their owners.” Can you talk about this explicit pacifism? Is that a code you share?
That was an old Turkish maxim that I found somewhere. I needed a saying that started with a "W," so that, reading down all the initial letters of the lines in the Code of Dinotopia, you could read the additional maxim of "SOW GOOD SEED." I like the Turkish proverb for the way it upends so many assumptions on various levels. I've always been inspired by the non-violent examples M.L. King, the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, and of course Jesus. But I focused on that maxim more as a reaction to the militarization of fantasy and science fiction in so many fantasy worlds that I had grown up with, including Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. The endless battles became frankly too predictable and boring. I found it to be a much fresher and more difficult challenge to envision a world that had figured out how to live peacefully.

8. Dinotopia is, among other things, a separatist society: Dinotopians know what’s going on outside but choose not to be in contact with the outside world. Have you considered the ethics of Dinotopian separatism?
I hadn't thought of Dinotopia as being deliberately separatist so much as having developed within an impassible region of storms and reefs. I didn't want to deal with trade and colonialism and invasion and other sorts of mass culture contact. I just wanted to have occasional individual shipwrecked arrivals. The inspiration is from reading James Hilton's Shangri-La and Heinrich Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet. I am still fascinated by societies that are cut off from the busy interconnected world, societies such as the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island, who to this day have had only fleeting contact with the outside world. What do they make of jet flyovers and ships and plastic bottles? What did the ancient Maya know that we have since forgotten?

9. Dinotopia is, above all things, perhaps, civilized. That contrasts with the incivility of some characters, and of other societies either portrayed or implied. What does “civilization” mean to you?
Well, to me, "civilization" means the Greek ideals associated with being a member of a city. When I was working as an illustrator for National Geographic, I was inspired by research trips to Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem, where I could witness the physical record of how people collectively contributed to something greater and more lasting than what the individual can accomplish.

10. The vision the books seem to conjure up is one of beauty and strangeness and adventure and harmony, both ecological and social, all at once. What would it mean to be inspired by these books to live in a different way in our world?
I'm always amazed by how people of so many different ideological perspectives have embraced Dinotopia, from fundamentalist Christians to evolutionary biologists, from socialists to old-school capitalists. That may be because I largely dodged questions of politics, religion, and economics in the book, and focused instead on pragmatic issues. I didn't have a political or religious message driving the story. Instead the characters (with all their flaws) and the adventure is the focus of the story. I don't have a moral to the story. People hopefully are inspired in various directions, and that's as it should be.
More about the Bruderhof at their website
You can get Dinotopia on Amazon or signed from my website 

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Last Painting by Van Gogh Paired with Postcard

Researchers paired an antique postcard with the very last painting made by Vincent Van Gogh before his untimely death. Careful study of the tree roots and rocks clinched it. This was the exact spot he painted from on that fateful day—Rue Daubigny in Auvers-sur-Oise, 20 miles north of Paris. 

Read more on ArtNet News:  How an Old Postcard Led Art Historians to the Spot Where a Distraught Van Gogh Made His Final Painting

Dinosaurs Dancing with Accordions


Let's dance. We'll never go extinct.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Quoting an Art School Professor

When I was in art school I stayed sane by drawing my professors while they gave critiques. I also wrote down exactly what they said. 

This is Joel Bass (1942-2019), who taught a class called "Visual Form." He looked at my picture and said: "We're alienated from this design. We're thrust in a domain that's totally alien to what we had before. We're in a situation of no more intimacy. When we put color down we materialize the decision-making about the physicality. There's a sense of closeness. There's a sense of intimacy. It's a giving source. The opaque domain will begin to happen if we can get information about the most simplistic relationships that are existing. The density confronts the density of other things. Push for more convincing densities."

As I listened to him talk I was lulled into a stupor by the smell of solvents and the buzz of the fluorescent lights. My head began to vibrate in unison. I felt the magnetic poles in my head shifting. Meaning became meaninglessness. Form became formlessness. All at once he made perfect sense. I've been pushing for more convincing densities ever since.

Art school days. That's me on the far right posing for photo reference for cartoonist Paul Chadwick (left), as Thomas Kinkade looks on, center.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Can We Reconstruct Vision from Brain Activity Alone?

Scientists have scanned the visual brain while a person is looking at something to figure out if there were recognizable patterns in the brain that corresponded to the image the subject was looking at.

Researchers then took information from the scan feed and input into an image generating network (Deep Neural Network) that went through a series of iterations to match the inputs coming from the brain. (Link to YouTube) The resulting video of the evolving iterations is paired with the original target image.

The flickering, abstract video seems to put special weight on symmetry, heads, and eyes.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Jess K. Recommends Some Art Books

(Link to YouTube) Thanks to Jess Karp for shouting out a recommendation for Color and Light: A Guide for Realist Painters and Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist along with some other intriguing books. 

Check out Jess Karp's YouTube channel. Her sketchbook tours are inspiring, and I look forward to reading her book one day. 

You can also get my books signed from my webstore

Friday, August 28, 2020

How Insects Fly, Shot in Slow Motion

Insect flight involves coordination and effort that can only be appreciated by slowing time. Taking off often requires precise movements of wings and legs to get the wings far enough off the ground.

This video is filmed at 32,000 frames per second, with narration that helps us see what's going on. Insects shown include stone fly, moth, firefly, mayfly and lacewing. Link to video on Youtube 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Cheap materials for priming / underpainting

Flame Boy asks: "I paint in gouache and I don’t have either acryla gouache or casein to prime with and a very limited budget. I have watched a fair share of your videos and you always seem to prime your canvas. Is it possible for me to reach a similar result to you without priming beforehand?'
Answer: Yes, you don't have to always prime your surface. You can paint right on the white paper or board. Or you can just get a couple tubes of acrylic (say Venetian red and Ultra blue) to tint your gesso or your acrylic matte medium. Acrylic gesso is pretty cheap. You could even prime your surface with a matte acrylic house paint. If you want to build up some impasto-like texture and you're working on a board, you can use modeling paste.

Steve asks: "How do you keep gouache from cracking and flaking?"
A: Here are some suggestions: Use rigid board, not paper. If you have thick gouache on thin, flexible paper, flexing the surface will cause it to crack or flake off. The surface should be matte & absorbent, not shiny. A glossy surface is less receptive for later layers to adhere to. Be sure not to use oil priming under any water media. Avoid impastos in paints like gouache or casein which have a weak emulsion strength. If you want the thick-paint impasto look, you can prime with modeling paste or other acrylic texturing which dries with a tough glue-like emulsion. As always, experiment first.

Previous post: Priming for Gouache