Monday, May 18, 2020

How do you paint portraits in gouache?

Daniel asks:
"I have been drawing portraits for some time, then chose gouache as my painting medium, not oil, because I have a very cramped apartment.... I would definitely like to mimic the opaque properties of oil in gouache, though know that is not totally possible.

My issues are that the color value changes slightly when put on paper vs when on the palette, and also about the fast drying nature of gouache. I have tried paper towels and stay wet palettes, but found it not good for me. Moreover, I know that gouache reactivates with water, but when I go to my dry paint after about 10-15 minutes, it has a more crusty and undesirable feel compared to first when out of the tube.

I would like to blend and do transitions better. I would also like to do a more classical style, with a first drawing, then a grisaille Underpainting, then adding color layers on top for the portrait. I could perhaps even glaze with thin layers. Is trying to mimic a traditional indirect oil process somewhat futile in gouache, do you think? Should I attack the paper surface more directly Alla Prima style? Is gouache conducive to multi layers like oil? I think I want to know more about the nature of this gouache medium.

I have bought a few painting courses, which have been very helpful, but none have been in gouache. So I was wondering if you could just give me a few tips on a better way to paint portraits in gouache? (I will always start with a drawing at first, at least for now. I love the drawing part). Your portraits in the wild course might be a start. 
Answer: Gouache can be used for portraits, but it presents all the problems you mentioned if you try to use it in the slow, indirect way of grisaille and glazing.  


The issues that you're facing with its fast drying time are really unavoidable. You've just got to work faster. Speed of execution can be gouache's virtue in painting from life. I show several examples of directly painted gouache portraits on my Gumroad tutorial "Portraits in the Wild."

Here's a sample of the new video "Color in Practice" which shows a portrait of a Greg at his workstation in an auto repair shop. (Link to YouTube)

You can always use pastel to get controlled gradations, following the example of Maurice de la Tour, who did the one above. Pastel lets you work at whatever speed you want, but de la Tour worked quickly to avoid tiring his sitter. The advantage is that he achieved a sense of fleeting, momentary expressions. 

You can use acryla gouache if you really don't want to pick up previous layers. But I like having an open surface because it allows me to soften blend later if I need to. With regular gouache, you can place a wet stroke over a dry passage if you have a very light touch and don't mess with it. 

You can also varnish it to recover the values of the darks. I would only recommend varnishing if it's a very dark-keyed painting.

Adolph Menzel, Senior Privy Councillor Knerk,
portrait study for the painting The Coronation of Wilhelm I in Königsberg, 1863/1865,
watercolour and gouache over a preparatory sketch on vellum paper

I would practice painting vegetables first until you're familiar with the medium. If you try to figure out the properties of a type of paint while handling the immense subtlety of a portrait, you're inviting frustration.

I hope that gets you started on the path,
James G.


Virginia Fhinn said...

This is all really good advice, thanks for posting it... the Portaits in the Wild video was excellent, I recommend it to anyone. I recently discovered what a huge difference the paper I was painting on made for watercolours and gouache... with all this lock down time, I dug out all the different types of papers and did tests on all of them with gouache and watercolor in black. I discovered that the Strathmore watercolour journal I was using really paled in comparison to the Pentalic journal, and there were some cheap papers that took the paint completely differently from a decent block of paper like the Arches. The dispersion of pigment and even the colour could vary with the content of the paper... one cheap paper turned the black into a blue! Painting on a better paper really transformed my experience of the paint, and I think now I am going to be a bit of a paper snob. No wonder I was so turned off at the start! Now, off to dig through the blog archive about paper quality and content....

Elizabeth J said...

I work in gouache and love it, but what would you recommend to vanish it? I've been using a spay that seems to work well, but I'm always curious about alternatives.

I've also begun to experiment with water-soluble oil. This may be a possibility for the questioner. It cleans up with water so there's no need for solvents, but it has a fairly long drying time and has many mediums available to slow or hasten drying or transparency.