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: 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.

Plein-air Painting: Mark Making for the Feeling

I was ever so comfortably huddled under the duvet this morning after a busy week teaching at Higham Hall, but the forecast for big waves on the coast persuaded me to head to the beach in time for high tide. The sun came out too, changing the colours.

After a stroll along the pebbles enjoying the roar of the waves, I sat at one of the picnic benches to try to paint the feeling of the exuberant waves hitting the shore.

Also running through my head were thoughts about mark making, about how to better teach the concept, the idea of shifting away from drawing likeness to drawing the sense of something, the feeling of it, your emotional response to it through the calligraphy of your drawn and painted marks. What did I not convey to the one workshop participant who, after my explanation, drew little literal images on the sheet of word prompts, or were they merely disinterested in the concept?

I orientated the sheet this way because there was a slight slope to the table, which I noticed only when the ink and watercolour started to head to the edge of the sheet. I got frustrated that it wouldn’t dry so I could work onto it with oil pastel, and might still add this in the studio. As it is now I regard it as a painting of turbulence and rumbling (rocks), a painting to reinforce the time spent on this location with these sea conditions.

This Week: Expressive Painting Workshop at Higham Hall, and Getting There

A few moments from my week.

I undertook my longest journey in my e-van since I bought it in the summer, to the Lake District for my workshop at Higham Hall; it’s about 300 miles. This recharge point not far off the motorway in a village had gorgeous autumnal colours. So much calmer than a motorway service station.

I had fun kicking through the autumn leaves and taking photos of the colours. The black rectangle is the top of a rubbish bin, with the sky and a tree reflected in it.

Being at Higham Hall to lead another “Expressive Scotland Mixed Media” workshop is as enjoyable as ever. The new door from the hall to the courtyard means there’s now step-free access to the studio. All sorts of beautiful paintings being developed by participants, and the copy of Henry Moore’s sheep sketchbook in the studio library being passed around with the consensus that his proportions are a bit dubious in places.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, “The Librarian”, c1566

I discovered that the veggies and fruit portraits artist had done one with books called “The Librarian”, and I think it’s as clever and amusing as his paintings I am familiar with. It was one of this week’s images on the Pictdle daily art puzzle.

This Week: A Nasturtium & Monoprinting

A mixture of moments from my week.

A running joke my Ma and I have involves the time my Ouma, who had extremely green thumbs, complained about how nasturtiums insist on spreading everywhere whereas we have been only too happy to have them grow at all. Seeing one tiny flower from the seeds I planted made me laugh about this anew. The grass gives a sense of scale.

I was determined not to let the wind get hold of my paper this week. I took only a brown pencil, an indigo Inktense pencil, a sharpener, and a waterbrush because I knew it was going to be windy. I will either take this concertina sketchbook again another time or add colour onto the headland drawing section in my studio.

My two favourite pebbles on this day:

I also found a U for my pebble alphabet:

In the studio I had a go at monoprinting for the first time, using the A2 press I bought from a Banff-based printmaker earlier this year when they upgraded. Monoprinting involves inking up a smooth surface (I used a large piece of perspex leftover from when I made my roadside tiny gallery on Skye), wiping into this to create the image (working dark to light), putting a damp sheet of paper over this, and running it through the press. Lots of variables and a lot to learn, but I had great fun.

The inked plate

The idea to try this was prompted by this week’s homework from the online Expressive Drawing workshop by Edinburgh-based artist Alan McGowan I’m doing.

The atmospheric results make me think this could well be the technique to use for imagery relating to the in-house art critic’s brain that I keep thinking about. My favourites I hung up on my print rail (there are magnets glued to the clips, which then stick to the was-for-curtains metal rail).

The A4 one was done with graphite ink.

I’m using oil-based printing inks that clean up with water, thus avoiding solvents, but made the mistake of thinning it with water on the perspex not extender, so it lost the tackiness that makes it transfer to wet paper and smeared with the pressure of the press. The effect is interesting, but doing it wasn’t deliberate. All part of the learning curve.

“No, I wasn’t sitting on them a moment ago,” said Little Em.

Printmaking is delayed gratification mixed with the unpredictable; lifting the sheet of paper to see the result is a bit of a birthday-present moment every time. Studio cat Freyja who sat on a chair watching me isn’t entirely convinced.

The Other Story: My Watercolour Palette

When it comes to my watercolour set, it’s very different to the colours I use with acrylics and oils. I’ve built up a big set of tantalising colours by squeezing out tube watercolour into half pans (which have the names written on them). Opening the box makes me happy, being presented by the possibilities and joy of the colours, though I do feel a bit embarrassed bringing it out in a workshop where I’ve been extolling the virtues of a limited palette.

I know have favourites amongst these; I can tell by which I need to refill regularly, such as haematite genuine. I never use them all at once. I do know what most are, but will admit to getting a bit lost amongst the blues which look very similar as dark dry pans. I solve that by simply trying one after another till I hit the right one. I do know that the end one is Payne’s Grey and the one above is Graphite Grey (it has that typical graphite shine to it). I also tend to use the set orientated as it is in the photo, as this helps muscle memory in terms of what colour is where.

Controlling My Colour Mixing

My favourite paint colours

When I first started painting my “Moods of the Minch” seascapes (the stretch of sea between the Isle of Skye and the Outer Hebrides is called the Minch) I used Prussian Blue, Burnt Umber, and Titanium White as the main colours. At times, the only colours.

Moods of the Minch: Cold Snap 80x40cm (31×15″ approx) Acrylic on canvas

Adding a cadmium yellow gives grassy shore greens, lichen on shore rocks yellows, and sunset colours. Adding magenta gives the pinks of the seathrift and purples of sunsets. Removing red from my palette as using it was how I kept ending up in murky mixes, and using magenta wherever I would have used red instead. Add lemon yellow which is a lighter, transparent, bluer (cooler) yellow, perfect for daffodils. Plus a black (PBk31) for sheep, one that when mixed with white leans into green, and mixed with yellow produces beautiful landscape greens.

For me Prussian Blue gives a sense of the cold Atlantic Ocean and dark showery weather, with a tremendous range from deep dark to very pale. It’s one of those “a little goes a long way” colours, and the way to control it when colour mixing is to add a touch of it into another colour rather than adding into a pile of the Prussian. It remains my favourite blue, and ultramarine remains my least.

When I started exploring using coloured grounds rather than working on the white of the canvas, and after a life painting workshop with Alan McGowan where I came away with the mantra “build a bridge between the orange and the blue”, I really got into blue plus orange mixing. A single-pigment orange mixed with a blue, plus white, is now a fundamental part of my palette. It gives a wide range of brown and grey, and because every mix is derived from the same two colours they all harmonise. (It needs to be a single-pigment orange because one that’s a mixture of red plus yellow goes into greens when you add blue, not useful for painting a seascape.)

Orange + blue + white

I expanded the cadmium orange plus blue possibilities by using different blues, and worked with this for some time. Then I bought every single-pigment orange I could find to see how different oranges would work. Of these, Transluscent or Transparent Orange PO71 was the one I enjoyed the most, and this is now a standard on my palette too. It’s a transparent pigment, so mixes differently to Cadmium Orange, which is an opaque pigment.

The next colour I added was Dioxazine Purple, to explore purple plus yellow colour mixing and using purples in shadows. Made hideous murky messes with yellow, but discovered that mixing it with orange did beautiful things.

Moving to northeastern Aberdeenshire, I found I myself on seashores with red sandstone, a colour that wasn’t mixable with a palette that didn’t include red. So that’s been added this year though I haven’t got a favourite yet.

30x30cm, acrylic on wood panel

There’s one other colour that I use as an ink, but not as a tube colour, and that’s Payne’s Grey. I enjoy it for continuous line drawing. It’s softer than black, having blue in the mix. Mostly I’m using it as a strong dark, not as a mixing colour.

Monday Motivator: Subtle Variations in Colour Mixes

Marion's Art Group on Skye
Monday Motivator Inspirational Art Quote

“She [Kate Waanders] happily mixes colours as she goes, preferring not to save mixes because she enjoys the subtle variations and new ways of seeing a colour when it is mixed again the following day.”

Amber Creswell Bell, “Kate Waanders” in “Still Life: Contemporary Painters” (Thames & Hudson 2021), page 249

Having the trust in yourself that you are able to remix a colour isn’t something you’ll see on lists of top tips for colour mixing. Possibly because you can’t shortcut your way to it; it comes from knowing your paints and how they mix with one another. That comes with practice, working with a few colours and getting to know how these respond to one another until it’s instinctive knowledge.

By a few I don’t mean a dozen. I’m thinking two plus white. Then add another colour to these. Then another, and another, giving yourself time to internalise how they mix until you can do it without thinking. We don’t think it’s odd for an artist to work only in pencil, or black ink, so don’t feel that because you’re using colour you have to use the whole rainbow instantly.

Another part of trusting yourself is letting go of the need for a mix to be absolutely identical to the one you made earlier. In most cases, it doesn’t matter; on the contrary, it adds visual interest. Put the energy you’d use stressing about this into progressing your painting instead.

Marion's Art Group on Skye
Colour mixing orange and blue in one of my art workshops

Foxgloves with Blind Embossing

Detail from Foxgloves painted in watercolour with blind embossing

I’ve had my first go at an idea involving foxgloves, blind embossing and watercolour. Blind embossing is a printmaking technique where you “print” with the aim to create indentations in the paper rather than printing an image using ink. (The appeal isn’t simply that there’s no ink to clean up!)

My thoughts behind using blind embossing are about how white space can be a crucial part of the composition of a watercolour or ink painting, about having something in that area that doesn’t reveal itself unless you look closely, which will add to the overall painting whilst not detracting from the sense of white space.

The results are hard to photograph because it’s about the play of light across the surface. I still need to figure out a good setup for doing it, but the photos below will give you a sense of it.

I started with a bit of cardboard from a catfood box, drawing a foxglove on it to give me a reminder of the overall design I had in mine before cutting out shapes for individual flowers. Studio Cat Freyja had fun helping me with this; she does love to shred cardboard.

I arranged the pieces on a sheet of paper on my new-to-me Gunning printing press that I bought from a printmaker in Banff who was upgrading their press. With a printing bed of 50x100cm it gives me the chance to work considerably larger than the little A3 press I bought I with the proceeds from the first art workshop I taught on Skye.

I didn’t stick down the cardboard shapes, so was hoping a studio cat wouldn’t come to investigate!

In order for the paper to bend around the cardboard and not tear, you dampen it beforehand. Failing to find something that was big enough, I repurposed this unused kitten litter tray which was just wide enough for an A3 sheet.

After blotting the damp sheet on a towel to remove excess surface water, I placed it over the cardboard pieces and ran it through the press. It took a few tries to get the pressure (“tightness”) of the press set so it embossed nicely.

The stripes in the embossing come from the cardboard. The pieces without are where the cardboard was the other way up. A happy accident as I hadn’t realised the cardboard would produce texture within the shapes.

By the fourth sheet the cardboard was quite flattened and I decided it wouldn’t produce much of an effect on a fifth sheet of paper. Part of me likes this limited number; another part wants to try next time with something that won’t flatten as fast, if at all, such as lino or perhaps mount board.

I clipped the embossed sheets to a board on my easel, then spent several days pondering them. Where would I paint, how many foxgloves, would I overpaint any of the embossing knowing from my previous experiments with pebbles and embossing that this tends to make it disappear? Would I start with the sheet that was embossed the best (the first sheet) or worse (the last sheet), knowing that I might well mess it up but also that sometimes the first attempt is more successful as I’m not trying so hard.

In the end I went the second sheet I’d embossed as there was slightly less pressure (no pun intended) not to ruin it. I tried to put aside my doubts and overthinking, and just jump with watercolour in a pipette (magenta, purple, green) without any preliminary drawing. I let the watercolour dry overnight before drawing onto it with coloured pencils.

Overall I am pleased with this. The foxgloves are a bit upright and stylised, and the scale of the embossed foxglove is bigger than the painted, but I like the feel of it and how the embossed element echoes the painted but you only see it if you look closely.

As for the other three sheets, well one is still unused, one I played on to see what would happen if I let the watercolour spread into the embossed area (there’s also some Inktense pencil in this, see bottom right in the photo below). This in turn led me to play with the third sheet to see what would happn if I applied watercolour onto the embossing when the sheet was damp (wet-into-wet) and let it spread. I was wondering how much it’d accumulate in the lines/edges.

PS: I’ll be sharing a “behind the scenes” photo from my studio related to this with my Patreon supporters. If you’d like to see it, and more, sign up now using this link (there’s a special seven-day free trial at the moment).

Concertina Sketchbook Drawing in a Friend’s Garden

I happened to be at a friend’s house on the morning she and friends were having a drawing session in the garden. I discovered they pick a subject and technique for each get-together from jars of folded-up bits of paper. This one was to be baskets done with pen and wash, which explained the array of baskets on the table I had been wondering about.

I had a pocket concertina sketchbook with me along with my zip-case of assorted pencils (graphite, coloured, water-soluble), pens, and a waterbrush. The baskets didn’t appeal to me initially; the purple irises and yellow poppies were far more enticing.

So I started drawing some of what I could see to the left of the table with the baskets.

Then as a challenge to myself, and having gotten some of the itch to draw the flowers out of my fingers, I decided I would draw the baskets, changing scale so they weren’t too tiny. And because they were an integral part to the scene or story, I included a couple of the people drawing the baskets.

As can happen with an unlikely seeming subject, once I started drawing the baskets I was pleasantly surprised by how much I was enjoying it. Trying to get the perspective not-too-wonky but also not obsessing. How to convey the different weaves and textures. The scale was right for me too: small enough not to have to spend too long but big enough allow for mark making with my fude pen (bent nib) and adding water to the water-soluble ink.

I added a little to the right still before stopping for lunch and a nap.

Then continued with irises and yellow poppies to the end page. I also worked a little yellow and blue into previous pages using the water brush and Inktense pencils.

A relaxing and rewarding way to spend a day.

(If you don’t see the video above, click here to view it on my Vimeo channel.)

I got asked to pull the technique and subject for their next session from the jar. Turned out to be very me things: quick 30 minute drawings for technique with pebbles and bark for subject.