Gouache is a type of water-soluble paint characterized by a high degree of opacity. Its final texture is matted, thick, and more covering than watercolor and it does not surface the paper support. The opaque effect is achieved by adding to pigments other white inert pigments such as chalk or white lead and traditionally mixed with gum arabic. The term gouache now refers to both the pigment, the painting technique, and the artworks executed with this type of water-soluble paint.

The French word gouache was first used in France in the 18th  century to refer to water media in which a white pigment was added to obtain opacity. However, the term is an adaptation of the Italian word guazzo, derived from the Vulgar Latin aquātio, ‘provided with water’, and probably merged with the term guado, literally ‘ford’, ‘mud’. The etymology, therefore, reflects the method of preparation of the gouache technique.

Examples of Gouache Paintings

History of Gouache

Gouache paint is a technique similar to watercolor but with an opaquer result, making the effect more akin to oil painting. Traditionally gum Arabic was used as a binding agent, even though from the end of the 19th  century a cheaper and mass-produced mixture with yellow dextrin was introduced.

The use of gouache has an ancient tradition. A primitive form of this pigment was already in use in Ancient Egypt, where it was obtained by mixing it with honey, tragacanth gum, or other binders. Gouache was also widely used in medieval Europe to create illuminated manuscripts and was the predominant technique in Persian and Moghul miniatures as well.

However, it gained popularity in 18th-century France thanks to Vedutists and other landscape painters, although it was already in use in the making of preparatory sketches for oil paintings of the 16th century. In fact, gouache was used during Renaissance to create preliminary drafts of frescoes. In the 18th century, it became famous among the landscape painters, such as Xavier Della Gatta, Pietro Fabris, Alessandro d’Anna, Salvatore Fergola.

Later, in the 19th  century, the Impressionists discovered its potential but also its limits. The gouache in fact suffers significantly chromatic transformations once dry. Specifically, lighter tones tend to darken and vice versa. In addition, it should be employed quickly and applied in layers that are not too thick, characteristics that made it ideal for en plein air paintings. It allows obtaining effective results even used directly on colored paper, as Turner did, or combined with watercolor to give highlights to the composition. Its versatility allows artists to achieve a fast water-soluble pigment, like watercolors. At the same time, it allows a vivid rendering, similar to oil painting, being extremely bright and having a characteristic pearly color.

In the 20th century, gouache was also used experimentally. The French artist Henri Matisse created gouaches decoupées using the collage technique. The series of Blue Nudes is an example. Matisse used white paper and gouache to create these cut-outs. Gouache was also used by modern abstract artists such as Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Jackson Pollock, and even Alexander Calder. Also, Fernand Leger and Jean Dubuffet experimented with this medium.

In the contemporary, gouache is popular in creating scenery and decalcomania.  Thanks to its speed of drying and quick execution, it is also used in commercial art, such as comics, posters, illustrations, and animation, particularly for painting backgrounds.

Notable Artists who used Gouache painting

  • François Boucher (1703-1770), French
  • Adolph Menzel (1815-1905), German
  • M. William Turner (1775-1851), English
  • Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), French
  • Henri Matisse (1869-1954), French
  • Marc Chagall (1887-1985), Russian-French
  • Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985), French
  • Alexander Calder (1898-1976), American
  • Sol Lewitt (1928-2007), American
  • Agnes Martin (1912-2004), American
  • Anish Kapoor (1954), British-Indian

Related terms

  • Watercolor
  • Acrylic Painting
  • Oil Painting
  • Tempera
  • Decalcomania
  • Landscape Painting
  • Miniature Art
  • Abstract Art
  • Impressionism
  • Bodycolor
  • Poster paint

About Cinzia Franceschini

Cinzia Franceschini is an Italian Art Historian specializing in the History of Art Criticism, with a second degree in Communications and Sociology studies. She studied in Padua, Brussels, Turin as well as anywhere with an Internet connection. She works as a guide in Museum Education Departments and as a Freelance Writer. She writes about Contemporary Arts and Social Sciences, and how they intertwine.