My Gouache Learning Curve: Four Paintings at the Beach

The last two days I’ve been back at the little bay with the pebble beach and yellow, gorse-covered headland. But, unlike the time before, I had my new-to-me box of gouache* paints with me and a determination to finally try this medium for myself.

It’s the student-quality Caran D’Ache set I watched Michael Chelsea-Johnson use to good effect when he was on the Isle of Skye in 2019 (scroll to the bottom of this page on his website to see his gouache sketches). It’s got 15 colors, in a cheerful red tin, and may well let me motivate myself with “What would Michael do?” thoughts.

Here are my four paintings, in the order I did them.

1. Gouache and water-soluble wax crayons on A2 watercolour paper. Trying to get a feel for the colours and how they mix and work.
2. Gouache and water-soluble wax crayons on A2 watercolour paper. Going bigger, but finding I was using too much water and losing the opacity. Stopped before it was resolved.
3. Gouache, acrylic ink, and water-soluble wax crayons on A2 watercolour paper. Started with a Payne’s grey acrylic ink drawing as it’s something I enjoy doing, but then found I fought against losing it under opaque colour. I didn’t think to draw again with the ink rather than worry about hiding it.
4. Gouache, acrylic ink, and water-soluble wax crayons on A2 watercolour paper. Also started with Payne’s grey acrylic ink, but spread it with a brush before moving to the gouache. Didn’t get obsessed with covering all the white of the paper nor worrying about using too much water. Worked the sky wet-into-wet. The in-house art critic says it looks like someone standing fishing on the rocks, not an accidental blob.

Overall I had a lot of fun, and can see potential, especially for adding opaques to a mixed media painting as a contrast to more transparent colours. (Joan Eardley is the inspiration for this, though she used oils.) I next want to explore what gouache gives me working it more watery (as semi-opaque) compared to watercolour (will it look “chalky?), and using watercolour over and alongside.

Top left: the initial ink layer beneath the colour, drawn with the bottle’s pipette, then (top right) spread with a damp brush.

*Gouache is essentially watercolour that’s opaque rather than transparent. If you’ve used the white in a watercolour set, then you’ve used gouache. (Acrylic gouache isn’t gouache as it’s not water-soluble when dry; it’s acrylic paint formulated to be opaque and dry to a matte finish.) I’ve heard it described as most like painting with oils because of the opacity.

For comparisons of gouache brands, have a look at the reviews by Sarah Burns. For the last year or so I’ve had the opportunity to paint alongside Sarah as part of the Moray Firth Sketchers group. Sarah’s colour-rich pleinair paintings are another reason I decided it’s time to try gouache.

Monday Motivator: Landscape Painting is Landscape Interpreting

Monday Motivator

“Our goal is not to reproduce what we see exactly as we see it. Rather, all we observe–every color, shape, and detail–is filtered through an interpretive lens. The painting we produce may resemble a landscape, but it is now a painting, a unique interpretation of the world in its own language.”

Mitchell Albala, “The Landscape Painter’s Workbook“, page 11

Key to interpreting a landscape is ceasing to see it as “Landscape” and to deconstruct the completed jigsaw into its pieces. To see it as shapes of colour, lines, angles, tones, textures. As Monet is oft-quoted: “Here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow”.

Easier to say and understand than to do consistently.

Where do you start? Anywhere is the unhelpful answer, just pick something.

My personal preference is with line: the edges, outlines, cracks, shadows. Using Payne’s grey acrylic ink because it gives me a strong dark and counteracts my tendency to neglect tone for colour. Drawing with the ink bottle pipette gives an not-entirely controllable line, which stops me being too precious.

Next I will typically jump to a bright colour and put it down everywhere I see it or can imagine it being if I exaggerated reality. This time of year the intense yellow of the gorse generally grabs me, with some where there’s yellow on shore rocks or turquoise blue in the sea. Purple and dark blue for shadow shapes, and some into the sea for its darker colours. I may work wet-onto-dry or wet-into-wet, that is a matter of impulse or my mood.

Ink and water-soluble wax crayon on NOT watercolour paper

Plein-Air Painting: Seaside Yellows

It being perfect weather for painting on location, I headed to my favourite seaside picnic table taking three infrequently used things: sunscreen, my sunhat, and the box of water-soluble crayons I’d rediscovered. Once again it was the bit of rocky shore with the angled slabs of yellow-tinged rock echoing the yellow gorse that grabbed my attention. Would today be the day I felt like I finally did it justice? Turned out it was.

The bit of the landscape I was focused on.
Rediscovered water-soluble wax crayons provided a change from my usual mediums.
Size: A2. Acrylic ink and water-soluble wax crayons on 350gsm NOT watercolour paper.
Detail from above painting
Size: A2
Detail from above painting
I couldn’t help but notice neither her partner nor their dogs joined this swimmer enjoying the “refreshing” North Sea.

Monday Motivator: Object or Atmospheric?

“It’s not always necessary to have an obvious focal point in a painting. Sometimes, I find it better to construct an atmospheric field that the viewer needs to adjust to before they can start to make out any elements of interest. Think of this kind of picture as wandering through a swirling fog, attempting to make sense of the surroundings, seeing objects but not being able to define their exact shape or purpose. Isn’t that a reasonable reflection of how we truly experience the world, never quite knowing where one thing ends, and another begins? 

Because we are a material society, we’re inclined to be ‘object centric’, obsessed with individual things, when maybe we’d be better served by acknowledging that everything is part of everything else.”

Artist-writer Nick Bantock, Facebook 10 January 2023

Soft, blurry edges versus hard, definite edges.

Blended colour transitions versus sharp colour contrasts.

Suggested versus stipulated elements.

A composition to meander in versus one with a clear path to a focal point.

The choices are not binary: either one or the other. Pick and mix, use your favourites and occasionally try the others to see if you might now enjoy them.

If you don’t like colour fields or “busy chaos”, try compositions with a primary and secondary focal point.

Primary focus: the stairs, the part where the angles change. Secondary: the church on the top of the hill. The stone wall, tiled roof and white wall on the left provide three large blocks of relative visual calm.

Photos: In Gardenstown

A few things that caught my eye as I wandered along in Gardenstown, at low tide, this morning.

The gorse has turned the headlands yellow:

Looking towards Crovie

A little beyond a “renovation project”:

At the harbour:

A wider shot putting the above elements into context.

There’s something about creels that make my fingers itch to paint. But would I include the mop?

Edges and transitions:

Green, but not grass:

Red and green:

If you look closely there’s a person that gives a sense of scale

Inevitably, a pebble, or two:

Also inevitably, me happy to be at the sea:

Monday Motivator: Contemplating Collage

Monday Motivator

“Like grief and like composting, collage is slow, contemplative work. It is work that both wanders (invites us to pause on this word here and that image there) and wonders (asking, What is this image? What could it be still?) … Collage asks us to sit in the fragments that embody our losses as we find in them new combinations, perspectives, and ways of making art in the world.”

Mica Mahato, “Material Losses: Collage Comics as Elegy” in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Graphic Literature, p193

When we moved from the Isle of Skye to Aberdeenshire two years ago I threw my pile of not-quite-worked, never-went-anywhere, and dud paintings done on paper into the recycling bin. I had been telling myself I could — and would — use them for collage, but hadn’t yet. And now I am staring at a similar but new pile wondering why I still haven’t, yet.

I enjoy paintings involving collage by several contemporary artists. I’ve been thinking about ways to incorporate texture that don’t involve acrylic mediums. I love torn edges on sheets of watercolour paper. Studio cat Freyja loves playing with scrumpled paper. I have glue and numerous pairs of scissors. So why do I reach for a new sheet every time instead?

Maybe the answer lies in tearing up a painting before adding it to the pile, so it’s already something else to what I had been trying to make. Maybe just in half? 

What I have done is cut some up and fold them up to be prestarted concertina sketchbooks with fabric-covered cardboard covers. As creative catalysts, so you don’t start from a white page. Maybe it’s easier to continue with a background someone else started? I’ve been thinking about selling them through my webshop, so do let me know if you’d be interested in these.

Monday Motivator: Beyond the Checklist

Monday Motivator

“… the right way is the emotional way. Truly great performance isn’t rational. It’s not an exercise in project management, process improvement, or box checking. As much peace as there is in an instruction manual, that’s not where creativity and greatness lie.”

Gaping Void, “The Right Way is the Hard Way“, 6 Feb 2024

One of the things I try to do in my Higham Hall workshops is getting participants comfortable painting without a predetermined outcome, never a careful drawing that you meticulously colour in, more finding a path whilst heading in a certain direction with a set of techniques and materials. Having a few days means there’s time to wobble whilst being persuaded (occasionally a bit more like coerced) into continuing through the doubt and learning to trust yourself and the process.

It’s such a great joy to have a participant emailing me afterwards saying things such as this: “You have opened up in me the knowledge that pushing further with a painting doesn’t mean trying not to spoil it, you have taught me that it means allowing that painting to progress and develop and make way for happy accidents and to enjoy the process and not worry about the outcome.”

Monday Motivator: Comical Dreams

Monday Motivator
Monday Motivator

“Historically, comics emerged right alongside the painterly abstractions of the modernist era, serving as something of a populist counterpart.”

Nick Francis Potter, “My Kid Could Do That!”, Field Guide to Graphic Literature, p10

Like “someone” who decided that at a certain age the storybooks we read should no longer have pictures, so “someone” decided fine art in the Western world should not have words (with brief exceptions e.g. Pop Art). Comics possibly even sit at the bottom of the hierarchy: fine art, illustration, comics.

Some artists can’t even bring themselves to use words in a sketchbook. Who decides how many words there can be before it gets called art journalling and not sketching?

In 1992, Art Spiegelman’s ground-breaking work Maus was published, the first graphic book to win a Pulitzer Prize. Fast forward to today and there’s a category of comics labelled graphic memoir/narrative/literature, an intermingling of life and images. Powerful works such as Lucy Sullivan’s Barking.

As the in-house art critic knows, this is a long-held-but-never-pursued interest of mine, with Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics periodically being pulled off the shelf and reread. I have a sketchbook where I write snippets for “the book” about our love and life, losing vocabulary and time through a rare dementia, creativity in the face of loss and fear, and our cats. It’s titled “Wordless”, because that’s a category of graphic literature and a fear. So if five, 10 years from now I publish a piece of graphic literature, it’s not out of the blue, it’s a long time coming.

Some dreams take longer than others to turn into reality.

Monday Motivator: A Few Hours Over a Lot of Days

Monday Motivator
Monday Motivator

“Making art quickly can be incredibly liberating. Don’t think, just do. Don’t agonise, improvise. But not everything can or should be done with time efficiency as its defining characteristic. And learning new things takes time and dedication. Do something. Keep doing it … for a few hours over lots of days.”

Rebecca Armstrong, “Too Busy for Dry Hands“, Artnest, 31 March 2024

It’s excruciating watching someone draw using a “hedge-your-bets line”, where you go back-and-forth on a small section and gradually move along rather than drawing one long line in a decisive manner. It may feel more controllable, but it’s a continual second-guessing of what you’re doing as you’re drawing. “Just decide and go for it already!” is what I want to shout.

Decisive isn’t the same as confident; it’s about making a decision in a drawing and seeing where it takes you. Embrace that it (most likely) won’t be perfect and that your aim is for “heading in the right direction”. You can always redraw the line, but you don’t want to be redrawing its entire length as you’re still getting it down the first time.

Like so much in art, it gets easier with practice. My ink drawing of a friend’s dog below wasn’t my first attempt at dogs, nor with water-soluble ink in a pen. It may look like a confident pen drawing, but if it hadn’t worked, you wouldn’t be seeing it.