An introduction to watercolour (watercolor) and gouache

Chelsea Wood Box Set

Watercolor and gouache are both water-based paints. In essence, this means that they can be diluted with water and brushes can be cleaned with water. No need for turpentine or turpentine substitutes. Another bonus, is that the watercolor and gouache paint dries quickly so you can get very quick results.

The essential difference between watercolor and gouache is that watercolor is transparent and gouache is opaque. Each has its own qualities, and they can also complement each other too.


A watercolor painting is built up with a series of transparent layers. This is great for creating mood and changing the tone of a painting; not so great if you want to change something as you can’t really cover up a layer with another. It will show through. There are techniques for lifting off the paint or scraping off layers, but these can have limited results sometimes.

Watercolor purists do not use white watercolor paint. They work from light to dark, leaving light areas unpainted and building up the darker areas gradually. The white of the paper is meant to shine through, giving a quality unique to watercolors. I suggest though, that if you need to bring in lighter areas towards the end, use white. If you are not used to using watercolor, it can be at times frustrating so don’t worry too much about perfection.

Types of watercolor
The quality of watercolor can vary a lot. Students’ watercolors are inexpensive but the quality is not so good. If you are just trying watercolors out, then choose students’ watercolors as a starter. When you gain more confidence, artists’ colors are made with better pigments and are more expensive, but they give better results. Check to see how lightfast the paint is (how susceptible it is to fading). The manufacturer can usually advise on this.

You can buy watercolor in pans or in tubes of paint. Pans fit into paint boxes and are great for working outdoors. I prefer tubes, as the color is stronger and I find them easier to control when you are mixing colors. Both come in boxed sets or you can buy them singly.

I recommend that you start with a basic palette of colors, including the three primary colors. I prefer Cobalt Blue to some of the more intense blues, as well as Cadmium Yellow, and Cadmium Red. Practised artists tend to favour their own palette of colors.


Gouache can be diluted with water and applied in semi-transparent layers. Used thick, it is opaque and covers well, so unlike watercolor, you can work from dark to light, adding lighter areas last. You can also make changes easily and cover up mistakes with another layer. I find it useful for adding highlights to watercolors.

Types of gouache
Like watercolor, you can buy gouache in tubes, pans or pots. Again, I prefer the tubes as they seem to last for ages and are easier to mix together.

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