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Painting in Gouache

Gouache is a water-based medium, closely related to watercolour with which it can be mixed. It is much misunderstood and misused but is a most exciting and versatile medium the “basics” of which are quite easily mastered.

This article is based on one I wrote in 1991 when I lived in Auckland, New Zealand. I describe my approach to this versatile and exciting painting medium.

In the article the challenge of working within the landscape as it changes is described. Its advantages are discussed over oil painting. The article ends with the stages described, with illustrations, of a painting produced in New Zealand.

1. Introduction to Painting in Gouache

When I first came to New Zealand in May 1991, I was unaware of the profound effect the country would have upon me. I returned to England after a month, with a very different view of the world and a deep urge to come back here with my family and paint the landscape. We returned in December 1991 and, having established my studio on Auckland’s north shore, I have begun to paint the landscape and coastline of this part of the island.

New Zealand is unbelievably beautiful. Its mountain ranges, winding rivers, lush farmland and native bush sparkle beneath cloud-filled skies. Aotearoa, “the land of the long white cloud”, is a place full of natural wonder, of nature on a grand scale. New Zealand’s numerous indigenous shrubs and trees provide unending greenery.

There are days when, after a shower or winter frost, the sun shines through clear air to highlight the leaves on trees for miles around. The visual impact is deeply inspiring. Across the east coast bays of Auckland, the subject of my first New Zealand paintings, wide expanses of shimmering sea change colour beneath the sky, reflecting in turn crimson, purple, turquoise, emerald green and many shades of blue.

This is indeed the landscape of one’s dreams, a paradise still largely untouched and unspoilt by the activities of man. The beauty here is beyond words but not beyond painting, and is my greatest artistic challenge to date.

2. Painting Using Gouache in Two Different Environments

I brought with me to New Zealand many paintings of my native Suffolk, much of the equipment used in over 30 years of painting in England, and all the learning achieved in the Suffolk fields.

This is the foundation upon which to build my approach to painting a very different landscape, and already there are notable changes to my technique and palette. Firstly, the scale of the New Zealand landscape has demanded important changes. In Suffolk, I worked on a more intimate scale, on smaller paintings of specified areas of landscape. A view of the east coast bays will encompass many miles and always a huge sky. Landscape here is on a grand scale, and in consequence paintings will become larger. Secondly, my palette is changing and I am introducing more colours.

I am using a range of paints produced in Australia by Art Spectrum which includes colours with names like Tasman blue, Flinders blue violet, Australian leaf green and Pilbara red, designed for use in the southern hemisphere. Thirdly, I am using greater quantities of paint, not simply because of the larger scale of the paintings.

The subject matter itself, a view of the native bush for example, with its vast array of plant forms, demands the applications of thick layers of paint, often with a palette knife.

I work mostly on site in front of the landscape, a practice which presents problems I did not meet in Suffolk. It is not always easy to get into the New Zealand landscape. The often wet and windy sub-tropical climate of this part of New Zealand will impose its own limitations. There are no extremes of temperature, but it rains a great deal and the sun is powerful throughout the year. The bush itself is often impenetrable and is approached by mud tracks which are difficult to negotiate when carrying bulky art equipment.

However, the studio is no substitute to working in front of a living and vibrant landscape. It is not difficult to find a quiet place to work. Even in the suburbs of Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, there are areas of native bush where it is possible to work undisturbed from dawn until dusk, finding a peace of mind and in turn concentration which I always yearned for in Suffolk.

3. Oil or Gouache ?

I work in two media, oil and gouache.

However, there are times when oil painting is impractical. Perhaps a landscape is too remote or unsettled weather makes a long painting session impossible. Gouache is ideal in these circumstances. There is less equipment to carry, and since gouache dries quickly, there is not the problem of transporting a wet painting.

Gouache is ideal for recording the fleeting effects of light shimmering on the sea and the wistful skies above. Its wide colour and textural range, much wider than that offered by watercolour, can be readily explored in front of the landscape. A gouache painting can be worked at for any length of time, varying from the essential speed required in capturing sky effects through to the meticulous detail of foreground rock formations, grasses and wild flowers.

Gouache paintings completed on site become records of intense sessions of work, capable of being taken back to the studio to exist in their own right or to become resources of ideas for larger-scale studio canvases.

The versatility of gouache makes it an ideal medium for working in the rugged New Zealand landscape.

The site chosen for the painting is a view across the bays of the dormant volcano Rangitoto which dominates Auckland’s skyline. It is a site reached by means of a rigorous cliff walk through the pohutukawa trees which figure strongly in the painting. It has become a practice of mine to return to the same sight and work throughout the seasons.

The deep knowledge thus gained of the site is built into the paintings which become records of the landscape as it changes.

4. The Stages of How to Paint Using Gouache

Drawing begins our creative journey; it opens the door. ‘

As a session ends any fear within participants will be ended to be replaced by eager anticipation and an awareness that this is just the beginning.

Drawing in itself is an activity with great potential to be explored in its own right; but it can also become the foundation to exploring, with confidence, other aspects of visual art. An exciting creative journey has begun, one that we can travel for as long and as far as we choose.

2. A one inch brush is used to place a wash of sky colour across the paper.
This is done quickly on the damp paper and allowed to dry. Upon this wash is superimposed the structure of Rangitoto. At this stage the main compositional elements are established. Work is done quickly and allowed to dry (see above).
3. The area of the sea and the foreground are brushed in next.
It is always a relief to cover the white paper! More work is done on Rangitoto including the texture of the distant bush which covers the island (see above).
4. At this stage I apply foreground detail.
This is established with a fine brush. Once I have achieved the correct balance I have completed the compositional structure (see above).
5. Work continues on the sky and cloud structures and foreground detail.
There is no set pattern to this. If a cloud formation moves into the picture whilst work is in progress, I will include this if appropriate, whilst continuing to build foreground detail and the textural qualities of the sea. In effect, work continues on the whole picture area (see above).
6. I continue with the foreground forms of the pohutukawa trees.
These beautiful evergreen trees catch the sun and produce wonderful sculptural forms. Gouache is an ideal medium for building these forms as the light changes and catches each leaf.
The colour is mixed, allowed to become sticky in the palette and dragged across the paper with a damp brush. The paint is picked up by the texture of the paper and the previous layers of paint.This is exciting, fast work, particularly if done under a strong sun when the paint dries very quickly (see above).
7. The painting is nearing completion.
Much effort has been placed into building the sky and the sculptural forms of the pohutakawa trees (see above).
8. The grasses in the foreground are ‘drawn’ in with thin colour and a small brush.
These give additional depth to the painting and provide a framework for the distant forms (see above).
9. The completed painting could now exist in its own right ‘
or become the basis for a larger studio painting (see above).