“Green Dress” Gouache on Paper

I pulled out my pan gouache set this week. Gouache is a watercolor that has white in it so that it’s opaque. It usually comes in two forms: tubes and pans. The pans are dry little circles of paint that you have to wet in order to use. You’ve seen them. They make them for kids too. I know I used pans of watercolor back in grade school. I haven’t painted with them in a while and it was almost nostalgic to do so. Pan gouache is the first type of gouache that I learned to paint with way back in the early 1990s. It’s not a fancy set. It’s made by Pelican and it’s the set that can be found in most arts and craft stores. It’s the bigger of the two Pelican sets. It has twenty four colors as opposed to the smaller twelve color set. It’s about twenty five dollars on Dick Blick. Here is the set.

I used to paint a lot with this set. They’re a nice bunch of paints and very convenient. After I learned to use them way back when I switched over to the tube gouache. There are a lot more colors in tube gouache but it’s a lot more expensive too. A tube of gouache can go for anywhere between four and twelve dollars. There are also cheap sets of tube gouache but the colors are limited in those. I used my tube gouache in conjunction with small plastic containers (cubbies). I’d squeeze the paint into the cubby so that I could use it and then seal it up for later. I’d also mix new colors from the tube colors and put them in a cubby to store. That saved me a lot of time and trouble mixing colors.

I have a bunch of brushes in with my watercolor set. There is a spot for them in the box. They’ve been there for years and years. They’re good ones too. Windsor Newton Series 7 brushes. Numbers 0, 2, 3, and 5. I use Windsor Newton brushes for both my painting and my inking but I don’t mix the brushes. Paint brushes are for paint and ink brushes are for ink. Good watercolor brushes are made with sable hair and will last for a very long time unless you use them with ink. Since they’re the best brushes around I use them with ink but then the ink eats away at the sable hair. There is a clock ticking on the brushes after they’re dipped in ink but the clock is unreliable. I’ve had ink brushes last for months or years. The brushes stored with the pan gouache set are from the 1990s and still going strong.

I think this is my second set of pan gouache but I don’t remember for sure. The pans are really worn down with holes in the middle of them where the paint was used. I know I’ve replaced some of the pans over the years. At some point I bought the cheaper twelve pan set and swapped out some old pans for new ones. I can’t even tell which ones I swapped out since they are all so used now. Except for the silver and gold. I don’t even know why those two colors are in the set. They’re like paint with glitter in it. I never use them because they don’t fit in. This is really a twenty two color set for me.

Watercolor paint is flat and transparent. That’s why watercolors are often referred to as drawings rather than paintings. Paintings have a thickness and surface to them. Drawings don’t. If you were to see a lot of famous paintings, especially modern paintings (from the Impressionists on), the paint itself plays a big part. Parts are thick and parts are thin and that makes a difference. It’s part of the vocabulary of painting. With watercolor everything is thin. There is not a lot you can do with the surface of watercolor. To paint in watercolor an artist puts down one wash of paint or layers many washes of paint but in the end it’s generally all the same thickness. Watercolor uses more of the vocabulary of drawing than of painting.

Gouache is slightly different than normal watercolor but there is still not a lot of surface to it. Tubes of gouache have plenty of opacity to them, at least certain colors, but the paint still can’t be built up like an oil or acrylic paint can be. If you build up a gouache too much the surface of the paint cracks. It’s not flexible. The pans of gouache have less opacity than gouache in tubes. Since you have to wet the paint the opacity also depends on how much water you add. Over the years I’ve used small bottles with dropper tops to hold my water. One ounce bottles that once held eye drops of some sort in them. That is I have a relatively large reservoir of water to drop into my pans. I put five to ten drops of water in each pan I’m using and then add a few more as I go. Sometimes I add too much and have to wait for some to evaporate (it doesn’t take long) and sometimes I need more water. It’s a constant balancing act but it’s not hard to do.

I made three art cards with my pan gouaches. Two faces and a fantasy landscape. In the old days I usually worked at a five by seven inch size but I wasn’t that ambitious this time around. I think I did a good job with these three and you can see my basic technique for the pan set. I used the darkest blue as a line and then used the rest of the colors in pairs or threes. There aren’t enough colors to use in three values like I normally would so I keep things simple and don’t try to model the forms. Instead I use pattern and texture.

Overall they’re nice little cards but I’m a little bored with them. Since I haven’t used gouache in a while they seem a little conservative to me. That and I’ve recently been photographing some of my old gouache paintings so I’ve seen a lot of good ones (and ignored the dull ones). I’ll have to paint some more and see if I can get something more exciting. We’ll see.


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