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Gouache Workshop: Part I

Today I spent the day in Philadelphia taking a class at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, learning how to use a type of paint called gouache (pronounced like "gwash," rhymes with squash). This is the second class I've taken at the Academy, the first being one on encaustics.

If you've never heard of gouache don't feel bad, I hadn't either until I was in college. I had run out of white oil paint and found this strangely named stuff in the school store so I tried it out... only to discover that trying to mix oil paint and gouache would be a big mistake. Why? Because gouache is a water-based paint, specifically an opaque watercolor. The opacity of gouache makes it unique because unlike traditional watercolor, which is translucent and must be layered light to dark, lighter colors can be layered over darker colors and toned surfaces without losing their vibrancy. It therefore has a more velvety texture to the finished product that is similar to acrylic paint, without the sheen that acrylics can sometimes have.

I thought that having some previous experience with watercolor paints would make learning how to use gouache fairly easy, but it was a bit of a challenge. My first attempt at a still life of an orange left me a bit frustrated because I had to get used to trying not to blend the paint like I would with traditional watercolor but rather layer little patches of color a bit at a time to create the right colors and gradations. At first it was looking like a muddy mess but I managed to salvage it so that you could see the green mottled over the orange rather than a big brown blob.

For my second attempt I really tried to focus on the technique the instructor used when doing her demonstration - working on almost sculpting the forms by blocking out sections of color, then layering different shades over top to build up the surface. If you take a look at the second still life you can see my process in three stages. It's not entirely finished yet - I will do that tomorrow in the second part of the class - but I think this attempt was much more successful than the first. By the end of the day I felt I really felt like I had grasped how the medium worked and was much more comfortable using it. I look forward to continuing in the learning process tomorrow and will post again with more pictures!

Have you worked with gouache before? Let me know what you think of it if you have!

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