how to paint with gouache on paper

Gouache and paper are a match made in heaven.

When you get the paint-to-water ratio just right, the end result is a highly-pigmented paint layer that dries into an opaque, chalky surface.

In this post I'll highlight 3 different techniques for painting with gouache - each one gives a slightly different result, and it's worth having a go at all 3 to see which suits your painting style best.

I first started painting with gouache a few years ago, where for the most part I was creating small-scale illustrations, and was looking for paint with a bit more substance than ordinary acrylic.

It seemed as though acrylic and watercolour were just okay. They still made for interesting paintings, but neither packed the punch of colour that I was craving. Gouache is somewhere between the two, combining both the heaviness required to provide vibrant colour, and the liquidity to create a smooth, flat surface (there's no claggy-ness as there sometimes is with acrylic).

It seems to me as if gouache is overlooked as a medium. 

When I first started painting with it, I followed lots of designers and illustrators on Instagram who used it, too. Their work was great, of course, but I didn't see many visual artists using gouache, and especially not in large-scale paintings.

Perhaps one of the benefits of being self-taught is that I feel zero pressure to work in a certain way. I don't have any fear of making mistakes, or making work that turns out crap, because it's all part of the learning process.

This sense of freedom lead me to try using gouache on larger paintings - both abstract and figurative - and the result was a rich colour spectrum that was unlike any other medium.

Gouache & Mixed Media on Paper

So, here's how to paint with gouache, in the simplest possible terms. Set aside an afternoon, crack open a new sketchbook, go wild.


1. Treat It Like Watercolour

Essentially, gouache is intensified watercolour. It contains the same water-soluble colour pigment, but has a higher concentration of a binding agent like white pigment or chalk to create a much thicker consistency. 

Gouache is designed to be an opaque medium, but you can water it down to act more like watercolour, giving the paint a looser texture.

In a palette, mix a blob of gouache with about 1 teaspoon of water, and go from there, adding a little water at a time until the paint gets to your desired texture. It's worth keeping in mind that gouache can change in colour and texture as it dries (which is part of its beauty) so do a few test paintings first, and see how the dried result measures up. 

A painting made with gouache that was watered down to create a loose texture with overlapping shades

2. Mix It With Acrylic

I'm not sure why I started mixing gouache with acrylic - they're two very different mediums - but it just seemed natural. A little bit of gouache, combined with acrylic, goes a long way, and since gouache usually comes in teeny tiny tubes this method makes your paint go way further.

Start off by mixing a small blob of gouache with a little water. You don't want it watercolour-texture this time. Here you just want to add enough water to make the paint smooth and mixable.

Keep in mind here that when you add in acrylic, the colour of the gouache will be diluted and the shade will lighten. I see this as a good thing! Usually gouache paints come in punchy, vibrant colours, which is great, but a bit irritating when you're after more natural tones. Mixing it with white acrylic results in more subtle, pastel tones. 

Anyway, back to the painting.

When you've got your gouache to a nice smooth texture, add in double the amount of white acrylic, with a tiny bit more water. As you play around with the amount of acrylic, you can dictate the exact shade of the end result. 

This does take some trial and error. Like I mentioned before, sometimes the pigment can develop as the paint dries, so it's up to you to conduct a tester first. Also, not all gouache is created equal!

Some colours seem thicker than others (I assume this is down to the different pigments used) and some brands can go weird and grainy if you add in too much acrylic. Again, it's just about experimenting until you find the combinations that work for you.

A simple painting of gouache mixed with white acrylic - giving a pastel pink result

3. Mix It On The Brush

If confident, expressive brush strokes are your thing, have a go at layering a bit of gouache over some acrylic, straight onto your paintbrush. Then, without hesitation, make your brush marks on paper, and see what you create.

You'll see that the bristles of your brush take up the paint in intermittent blobs, and as a result the paint gets distributed in a way that looks completely intuitive and organic. You won't have the same level of control as with techniques 1 and 2, but the result will be that much more interesting because of it. 

This would also be a great time to try out some different tools - the image below is a painting I made using a small sponge. I layered black acrylic onto the sponge, with just a tiny blob of white gouache on top, and curved the sponge in on itself to form a rounded pebble shape.

The result was a perfectly dispersed amount of grey that would have been almost impossible to achieve if I attempted to paint it slowly and methodically. 

Since beginning my love affair with gouache, I've learned that Matisse used it to colour the paper used in his famous Cut-Outs. If it's good enough for a master, it's a medium worth getting to know.

I hope this post has shown you that painting with gouache doesn't have to be complicated. I think the medium deserves just as much attention as oil and acrylic, and remember - you don't have to stick to the rules of how gouache should be used.

Have fun and see what you can create!