Objects of Desire

20 January, 2017. This past week I began to introduce gouache to my painting students. It’s a media that seems to be remarkably unfamiliar to students, and surprisingly even to many art teachers of my acquaintance. Essentially, gouache is an opaque watercolor. Practically speaking I see it handling somewhere between traditional watercolor and tempera. I know a lot of classroom tempera paint is really crude stuff, so I don’t mean to sound disparaging. Good quality gouache is far and away superior to the gloppy tempera paint that comes in gallon jugs.

Normally I would be teaching acrylic right now, but I’ve grown weary of replacing brushes and scrubbing out palettes crusted over with dried paint – not to mention the annual ritual of having a plumber come out to fix the pipes under the sink, clogged with glops of acrylic. Gouache is a good alternative for teaching opaque painting that is far more gentle on brushes, palettes, and pipes. A plus is that while acrylic tends to intimidate my students for some reason, they are taking to gouache quite naturally.

I plan for my art students to complete two paintings before we transition to watercolor. The first prompt is “Objects of Desire,” in which learners are asked to create a painting of a luscious, tempting, scrumptious dessert of their choosing. We’re working in a relatively small size – the example I made in yesterday’s class (above) is the same size and support specified for students (10 x 10 inches, on illustration board.)

I don’t know how many different ways there are to approach painting in gouache. As always, I stress that there will generally be more life and vitality to a painting if it’s done from life rather than a photographic reference. (It’s fun to look around the art room and see that some kids have done as I did in the example above, and brought in something yummy to draw and paint.) In any event, I always begin with sketches on scrap paper or in a sketchbook to work out my general composition, then very lightly transfer a drawing onto the support. I find I’m more successful keeping the construction lines less detailed rather than more to allow for a more fluid application of line or color.

Gouache is a good way to introduce a valuable concept to students interested in moving into painting with oils: painting gradually thicker layers over thin. The reality of oil requiring this approach to ensure proper binding of layers isn’t relevant to gouache, but I find that subsequent thicker, more opaque layers of gouache lay down more easily when brushed over a light underpainting. The underpainting also helps me to visualize how local colors harmonize and to consider ideas about value placement. It’s quite a bit different than how I approach watercolor.

The end result has an interesting matte quality, with what I would describe as a sort of “pastiness” where the opaque white mixtures are built up. I enjoy the ability to work with flat colors that are more design-like than some other medias might naturally turn out.

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