The Art Medium Gouache

With deliberate use of color, painters compose nuanced images that captivate, compel and challenge viewers. Color, one might argue, is the foundation of artistic painting, and improvements in techniques and materials allowed for a more striking and sophisticated application of color. The continual enhancement of methods and materials gave artists greater freedom and purpose. One such improvement was the recognition of gouache, the opaque form of watercolor. Simple watercolor mixtures, first used in primitive cave paintings, ultimately emerged as a visual art form. Gouache resulted from the eventual distinction between transparent and opaque watercolors. However, gouache techniques were used long before any acknowledged distinction.

In ancient Egypt, the binding of pigments with honey or traganth glue created a form of gouache, and by the Middle Ages, it appeared on illuminated manuscripts. Without formal recognition, gouache continued its growth. In the landscapes and nature studies of Albrecht Durer, such as “Pond in the Woods” from 1496 and “The Large Turf” from 1503, gouache proved effectiveness in providing compositions with a deep finish and a soft glow. In 18th-century Europe, gouache became popular with artists seeking its pearly, pastel tones. François Boucher’s “The Birth and Triumph of Venus” from 1743, captures the radiant glow of gouache, and a century later, in J. M. W. Turner’s “Fish Market on the Sands” from 1840, gouache created the soft canopy of fog in the morning sky.

Also known as body color, gouache is not only significant because of its long history and continued use, but also because it reveals the connection between art and science. The early uses of simple chemistry formed new, improved materials, which allowed for increased precision and purpose by artists in express their intentions. In this way, gouache is an example of art’s evolution. Even into the 20th century, it suited many artists’ needs. In George Rouault’s “Circus Trainer” displays the material’s affect on a piece of art, as the gentle incandescence of the color clashes with the grotesquely abstract figure of the performer.

By the mid-20th century, Henri Matisse used gouache to create his renowned series of Blue Nudes, and today, artists still use gouache, sometimes in concert with materials like oil, ink or watercolor. Throughout artistic painting’s history, better materials have been sought and embraced to produce the precise effects that artists were seeking. With the continual development of new materials, from oils to acrylics to even latex primer and paint pens, gouache serves as a reminder of the important connection between art and science in meeting the creative needs of visual artists.