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An Oil painters approach to Watercolour and Gouache combined

Watercolour combined with gouache is a painting approach that seems to appeal particularly to oil painters. Turner and Sargent are two of my favourite examples of oil painters who also worked with both water based mediums combined. Their paintings have a dynamic range of both transparent watercolour washes and opaque gouache marks that are reminiscent of the way oils are often applied- from lean to thick. The two mediums combined have the ability to create a wide range of textural effects that can achieve a wonderful sense of depth.

Young Gull peering into the incoming Tide. 5’’ x 7’’. Watercolour and gouache on 300gsm paper.

For this piece I began with a sketch and simple watercolour washes. I used the wet into wet technique for the wave in the background. This softening effect helps to achieve a greater sense of depth in contrast with the foreground waves where I used gouache dry brush techniques for a sharper focus. I applied gouache to the Gull, lending a greater opacity to the Gulls warm sunlit feathers. I also used gouache for the brilliant blue sky reflections and bright orange seaweed on the foreground rock.

Why try water based media?

Working with water based mediums ‘en plein air’ is a great way of lightening and simplifying your painting equipment. This frees you up for more adventurous excursions into the landscape. With a lightweight palette, filled with all the paint I need, some sheets of paper and a couple of brushes- I’m ready to go! A simple set up allows for quick ‘emergency paintings’ as Sargent put it. Having work dry on the spot also means multiple studies may be churned out for more explorative exercises and for time spent getting to know a subject.

The coast is one of my favourite places to paint but is perhaps one of the most changeable environments to paint in. The light, weather, tide and wildlife are always on the move!

Learn the characteristics of the two mediums:

When discovering the exciting ways in which watercolour and gouache can work together, it is best to start with learning how each medium behaves on its own first before you can achieve some success in combining the two.

Water colour is a more delicate medium that creates wonderful transparent and glowing washes, often with beautiful granular effects. It is best worked with a big brush, in as few layers as possible. For this reason, it can seem very unforgiving at first to someone who is used to working with oils. Watercolour teaches you to let go and let the mediums unpredictable nature work its magic, when used outdoors, the weather will often contribute to the end result.

Gouache on the other hand is an opaque, matt and velvety medium. It is the most dominant of the two, with a higher pigment to binder ratio, making it ideal for foreground elements or areas that require a thicker body of colour.

Combining gouache with watercolour lends a greater freedom and flexibility, since gouache is ideal for reconstructing areas. New layers may be added and areas can be rewetted to make adjustments or to blend colours. Gouache also dries much faster that watercolour which makes it ideal for using in the latter stages of a painting, so you don’t have to wait long for the whole piece to dry.

I use with the same palette of pigments for both watercolour and gouache that match my oil palette. This means I'm already familiar with my pigments which is essential for when painting ‘en plein air’.

Both pigments consist of colour particles suspended in gum Arabic. Gouache particles are larger and more tightly packed together, giving them that opaque and solid colour. Watercolour on the other hand has smaller pigment particles, allowing light to bounce through to the paper and create that luminosity.

Black-headed Gulls, Evening Light. 5’’ x 7’’. Watercolour and gouache on 300gsm paper.

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