Talk Like an Art Head: Gouache


Giclée wasn’t the only foreign word that puzzled me when I started working at Eduardo Alessandro Studios, the contemporary Scottish art gallery in Broughty Ferry. While I came to learn that giclée refers to a printing method for high quality prints, there was another mysterious word beginning with the letter ‘g’ that also eluded me: gouache.

In fact, when I first came across this term, describing the medium Ron Lawson works in, “watercolour & gouache,” I misread it for “watercolour & goulash.”

Goulash, of course, is that wonderful Hungarian stew of beef, potatoes and vegetables, traditionally simmered over an open fire to perfection. I grew up on the stuff, my Hungarian father determined to bring up his American daughter the right way, and I can’t help salivating at the thought of this scrumptious meal.

But at the moment all I could think about was the image of Ron Lawson dipping his watercolour brushes into a pot of goulash. I should have stopped there, recognising this for the absurd image it is, but my brain doesn’t work that way.

What a waste I thought sadly, shaking my head. Why would Ron sacrifice such a tasty meal for the canvas? Surely he wouldn’t do this. Perhaps Ron eats goulash while he paints in watercolour. Now that makes more sense, I thought. Surely a bright, talented man such as himself would know a meal fit for kings when he saw it.

Then I heard something rumble and looked down to discover that it was my stomach. It occurred to me then that Ron Lawson might not work in “watercolour & goulash” – perhaps I was just hungry. So hungry, it seems, I was becoming a little delusional!

So what is this gouache then?

On my first day at the gallery I asked my boss how Ron Lawson achieves the almost luminous effect that makes his paintings appear almost collage-like. “Well you could ask Ron, but then he’d have to kill you,” was Sandro’s cryptic response. Not wanting to anger this great goulash eating painter, I can only suggest that part of his secret must be gouache.

Gouache (pronounced like goulash but without the ‘l’) is pretty neat. It’s similar to watercolour paint but more opaque due to its higher ratio of pigment; the presence of white pigment creates its opaque quality. This means that unlike watercolours, which are translucent, gouache can be used on a dark surface. It also allows for thick, flat coatings of paint, creating a matt finish, that would be difficult to achieve with watercolours.

And herein lies a piece of the puzzle: it is gouache that is responsible for Ron Lawson’s dark brooding skies. Against this heavy, uniform backdrop of gouache, Ron’s white cottages and sheep emerge from the page with striking immediacy.

Ron isn’t the only fan of gouache. My artist colleagues here at the gallery gush about the medium. One colleague works primarily with gouache because it dries quickly, a quality it is widely known for. Artist forums are also full of praise for gouache as an “all-purpose” medium – with the opacity of oils, water-solubility of acrylics (without drying out brushes) and the easy set-up of watercolour, not to mention its matt finish that makes gouache paintings conducive to photographing as well as making prints from. Sounds pretty awesome! Be careful, however, unless you use a fixative, gouache remains active after drying and is actually rewettable. This means you can go back years later, rewet and rework a painting!

Quite a dynamic medium, if you ask me, perfectly suited to be paired with goulash – that peasant dish that has risen to princely prominence. I would quite like a world in which food was paired with art medium. Perhaps we could sample certain dishes as we view artworks for an added experience. “Oils and moussaka,” “Mixed media and pad thai.” Perhaps I’ll suggest it to my boss. Or perhaps it’s just dinner time!