I have worked with watercolors for decades. It’s my first love next to drawing. Gouache, which is more or less a cousin to watercolors, never piqued my interest until I saw what other artists were doing with it.
2021 is my transitional year. Since I made the bold move to end my tenure as a full-time graphic designer working on projects for clients, I knew I wanted to devote a portion of my studio practice to pure experimentation.
Instead of buying up an expensive gouache set, I settled with an assortment of Artist’s Loft tubes. The first rounds of experimentation left me deflated. Then I started poking around YouTube for a bit of instruction.
Then I started to breathe. I remember the quote from Ira Glass from “This American Life,” who said something to the effect that you are not satisfied with your efforts at first it’s because you have taste. Your taste drives you to keep practicing, and through practice, you will reach the level of your taste.
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” — Ira Glass
I settled on my experiment. Since I knew watercolor and what it would do when paint hit paper, I would create a comparison painting with gouache. I chose a simple subject, our Christmas Cactus optimistically sprouting pink buds. I would paint the cactus first in watercolor and then in gouache.
At first, I thought I would be bored painting the same subject twice. (I never do that!). It turned out to be a good exercise. For one, I had been doing large-scale detailed drawings for some time and had such a limited color palette it was liberating to get back to a lot of colors.
After those earlier terrible first stabs using gouache, guess what? I like the gouache version of the Christmas Cactus best, enough to use it in a thank you card.
A couple of practical notes: It’s a good idea to paint a swatch set of your colors – no matter what medium you use. You’ll have a visual reference of what a color looks like on paper, which can look different than what the color looks like in the tube. Make a note of whether the paint color is transparent, semi-transparent, or opaque is helpful, too.
Your results are so much better if you don’t use color straight out of the tube when painting with gouache. Mix your colors and establish a color palette for your painting before you put brush to paper. You’ll be so happy you did.
What to do with the results? Make a greeting card, of course! Hope you enjoy it. What mediums are you experimenting with these days? Jot your questions or comments below. I’d love to hear what you are working on.
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