Thursday, March 23, 2017

Gouache: Tubes or Pans?

Today let's take a look at some questions that blog readers often ask about gouache.

Do you use gouache squeezed out of tubes, or dried in pan form? Secondly, how do you reactivate the gouache after it dries on your palette?
It is possible to use gouache in pans, since gouache is water soluble. It has the same binder as transparent watercolor does, namely gum arabic, which will reactivate when it gets wet again.

It used to be more common to find gouache manufactured in pan form, but there's at least one company that still offers it that way. Caran d'Ache offers a 15-pan set of pan gouacheMore about their gouache line on this previous post

If you want the ability to rewet your gouache, don't use any of the various "acrylic gouache" products, such as Acryla Gouache, which has a closed surface after it dries, meaning water won't dissolve the dry paint.

Can you use watercolor and gouache together?
Yes! In fact, transparent watercolor and "artist's" gouache aren't that different, because these days most quality manufacturers don't add a lot of whitener or filler to their gouache, as they did in the old days when it was called "designers" gouache.

Gouache and watercolor from reputable manufacturers such as M. Graham, Holbein, or Winsor and Newton tend to be pigment-rich and relatively transparent, unless the natural pigment tends toward opacity, such as Venetian red. Because of their close kinship, gouache and watercolor mix well with each other. So if you decide to work with pure gouache, you can achieve transparent passages, and those transparent passages are less likely these days to have that chalky, dull look that they had in days of yore.

Thomas Moran

Alternately, you can use a set of transparent watercolor for the colors, and just bring a tube of white gouache with you when you need opacity. That's what a lot of 19th century watercolor painters did, and they often called the result "body color." They commonly used zinc white, usually called "Chinese white," which is less opaque than titanium white, but often lovelier in tints.

Adding white is desirable for the following reasons:

1. You can paint over another passage opaquely.
2. A more opaque mixture can give you an absolutely even, flat layer, such as for a sky.
3. It allows you to work on tone paper, a technique with a venerable tradition.

Nathan Fowkes's gouache palette
Some painters I greatly admire, such as Nathan Fowkes, use this method. They bring their watercolors in pan form, squeezed earlier from tubes, along with a live tube of white gouache brought into the field and mixed with the regular watercolor to make them opaque. 

Filling your own pans
Whether you use gouache or watercolor, you can squeeze them from tubes into an empty pan set. This saves money in the long run and allows you to refill colors when you run out of them.

I recommend the straight-sided plastic paint wells called "full pans," which snap into the standard sized grippers inside the paint box. Or you can use smaller "half pans" for specialty colors. Full pans are better if you like to use larger brushes, but the smaller half pans will allow you to make a tinier kit. I like to mix full pans with small pans. You can buy a whole whole set of plastic full and half pans and prepare them yourself with tube paint. They'll fit into an empty metal watercolor box or a larger one, which will hold 24 full pans.

If you prefer working on large paintings, you can also use a large pre-made watercolor palette such as the venerable John Pike palette.

Fill the the pans just halfway up in the first squeezing, tap them against the table to get them to settle, then top off the pans with more paint. If the paint starts to crack, you can add more gum arabic to the mixture to give it more binding strength. Also, you can infill the cracks with more paint to lock it in place.

Note: don't use one of those round, dimpled plastic palettes. Those palettes are not designed to hold dry paint. They're for mixing large amounts of watercolor washes. If you use them for a portable palette, the dry paint is apt to break off and rattle around in your box as stray chunks.

Reactivating your paint.
As you start your sketching session, begin reactivating your paint by putting a drop or two of water lightly on each pan of color. You can use a soft brush for this, or a baby nasal aspirator or an artist's sponge. Get this started even before you start the drawing, so that the paint is softened up and ready for you when you need it.

Gouache from tubes
When it comes to gouache, I prefer to use it squeezed fresh from tubes because it gives me plenty of paint of the right juicy consistency.

I generally bring about 10 tubes of gouache at a given time in my small belt pouch, sometimes fewer. I like changing the assortment that I bring with me on a given outing, limiting my blue to just Prussian blue, for example, then switching that out for another blue such as Ultramarine. That way I stay away from color mixing habits, and I often discover weird combinations of colors that way.

For a flat mixing surface, I often use the steel lid of a colored pencil box painted with white spray enamel primer. I squeeze the paint onto a layer of damp paper towel if the humidity is very low and the paint risks drying quickly. A few spritzes of mist from a mini spray bottle can keep the paint active longer.

In some of my videos you'll see me mixing my gouache on the side flanges of my small watercolor box. That's just because I forgot to bring a simple empty palette. 
Previous posts on GurneyJourney:
More about Caran d'Ache's line of gouache 
Gouache Ingredients: Info from Manufacturers

Teaching Resources
Own the 72-minute feature "Gouache in the Wild"
• HD MP4 Download at Gumroad $14.95
• or HD MP4 Download at Sellfy (for Paypal customers) $14.95
• DVD at Purchase at (Region 1 encoded NTSC video) $24.50


Jared Cullum said...

I just got back from Philadelphia to see the American Watercolor in the time of Homer and Sargent exhibit.
First- It was remarkable!! Over flowing with stuff from Sargent, Eakins and Homer and all the heavy hitters from that era.
One of the coolest parts, to me, was that they had Eakins and Homers paint boxes and a room of sketches and sketch books. It was mind blowing to see how they worked on sketches. They had a Thomas Moran sketchbook which he had taken little color notes on all over which I thought was fascinating.
Homer wrote out the names of his colors on the white mixing area by the pans which I thought was kinda funny.
I like the old winsor newton box Homer carried. I just recently built a box out of brass replicating it from photos in a book of his watercolors I have(super-nerd). It was neat to see it in person.

Karl Smith said...

Thanks for another informative post on Gouache. I tried the Nathan Fowkes watercolour + white approach on a sketch this morning, then got back and tried a recently purchased caran d'ache gouache set.
I must admit to being sceptical about pans- I find it hard enough getting intense colour mixes with tubes- but have been impressed with how easy it is to get opaque colour from the caran d'ache pans.
Incidentally Jared, I just checked out your brass paint box on your blog- very impressive!

jeff said...

I'm into tubes, best way to go. I wonder what people think of the Holbein metal palettes. I own the 500 and I have been trying to find a 1000 which has a larger mixing area. I have seen people use small magnets to attach full size pan, but that seem like a lot of work.

Glenn Tait said...

Jeff, sticky tac or blu tac has worked quite well holding pans in place with various metal palettes I have used.

Suzy Pal Powell said...

I have mixed white gouache with my watercolors for a long time. I like it because the gouache colors seem way strong or something. I like the white look. Probably the chalky look.
And I can't stand them if they dry up. I use a possum palette to keep some gouache in and Dip out what I need. They stay wet forever in the little cups. Thanks for all your awesome information!

Roxy said...

My tube of Holbein gouache have dried and I'd like to reactivate the paint. Do I break open the seal on each tube...add the crumbled up the contents to individual containers along with water to bring them back to their normal consistency? I sure don't want to waste all that expensive paint! Please help! Thanks in advance.

Suzy Pal Powell said...

i bet you could put them in a small plastic container and add some water and let it set a couple days. I think his info said add some gum arabic? I don't like to put mine in a palette because it just becomes hard and brittle. That's why i use the seal-able containers that keep it wet. The possum palette is great. it will not dry out. They are little containers with lids.

N C Freeman said...

Another thought on extending the drying time of tube watercolor or gouache on your palette- glycerin, available at any drugstore, seems to be an effective 'medium' for water-soluble pigments.

Patricia Wafer said...

I paint with watercolors and gouache in the field and for gouache I have had good luck keeping it from drying out using a cheap Mijello Fusion Airtight palette (it is NOT airtight) but if I use the Masterson Stay Wet sponge and palette paper I can cut it down to size and it works great. One 1/3 piece of sponge and one 1/3 piece of paper (each 16 x 12 in) exactly fits the palette and lasted a whole season so it is very cheap too. I put it all in a zip lock plastic bag for transport in my back pack and I never made a mess of it. I wasted much less gouache paint than ever last year. I do the watercolor paint with white, too sometimes but sometimes I like to put the gouache on pretty thick so I like using it from tubes. Thanks for another interesting post and for all the good comments. Wish I could go to Philly for that show!!!

James Gurney said...

Jared, thanks for reminding us about the watercolor show in Philadelphia. That sounds like it's worth a trip down there.

Patricia, good tip. I've been experimenting with making my own stay-wet palette, but have only taken it into the field a couple of times.

NC, I've heard of using glycerin, but haven't tried it yet. Does the paint dry all the way with glycerin mixed into it?

Thanks, Suzy. I'll check out those palettes.

Glenn, I've got some Elmer removable tac -- kind of orange in color, and use it with my stop motion puppets.

Jeff, I haven't seen the Holbein metal palettes yet. I just have their paints in cardboard boxes.

Shropshire, thanks for the info about the Caran d'Ache pan gouache.

Lys said...

Maybe it's a silly question, but I can't figure how to mix white gouache with watercolours without polluting the pans with gouache. Isn't it an issue?

James Gurney said...

Lys, not a silly question at all. I have the same problem when I use my gouache with my watercolor set. When I want to go back to pure watercolor, I use a damp paper towel and remove the top layer of paint.

Caroline Bingley said...

I am adding gouache to my watercolor repertoire. I bought several daniel smith tubes and put them on a plastic palette. But they fall off of it after they dry. i tried sanding the palette first. any recommendations?>

CUSCUS said...

I'm using gouache for the first time. I deliberately squeezed them into open pots, thinking they would be more useful as water colours. From what I read here I made a mistake. Does this just mean more patience using them or should I start again? Cheers.

James Gurney said...

Cuscus, you can use gouache in pans. It just may take a bit more time to activate them. Put a drop or two of water on each paint color before you leave home on your painting trip and it should be ready for you.

Maria said...

Which white gouache is "reactivateable"? Certainly not Schmincke's academie gouache.... any tips?

James Gurney said...

Hi, Maria, I've noticed that all my brands of white gouache are more resistant to reactivation than other pigments are. Not sure why that would be and haven't tested various brands for comparison.

Sierra said...

@sierrafenton_art I've recently heard of mixing propylene glycol into gouache paints to extend drying time. From what I understand it is added to acrylic paints for the same effect (as well as a food additive and e cigarettes). I've very recently tried this method by premixing my gouache and propylene glycol in a Transon airtight travel palette. Seems to work for the purpose of keeping paint wet in the palette while saving time not having to squeeze from the tube every session. (I have 2 small kids so quick setup is key!) Just curious if anyone else has used Propylene glycol for this purpose and noticed an effect on the longevity or quality of the paint over time? Thanks for any insight!