An Insider’s Look at the History of Gouache

January 02, 2020

Passing Grey an gouache on board painting by the artist, Travis Humphreys.

By Chelsea Reed

Let’s pick up from our last exploration of gouache painting! We learned that gouache is a special type of watercolor paint. It’s vibrant, opaque, and layers over very easy. We also know that the practice of painting with gouache has been around for a long time. But where did it come from? Who invented it, and how did it come to be? Gouache tells a fascinating story in the test of time. Let’s see what it has to say!

Humble Beginnings

Three Pears is an original gouache painting by Lynn Ponto-Peterson.It turns out that gouache has a long budding relationship with artists. In fact, gouache is one of the first paints ever used by humans! The ‘ancestors’ of gouache date back to cave paintings. We mentioned in the last blog that gouache is made with pigment and water-based binders. Ancient peoples made gouache-like paints with charcoal and iron ore for pigments. They used water, vegetable juice, and even spit as the binder! Cave artists painted on walls with their hands, moss “sponges,” and horsehair brushes. It’s amazing how this humble cave paint has not faded away after thousands of years. 

Rustic gouache applications matured alongside the settlements that became civilizations. Ancient Egypt and Greece painted with gouache made with honey or egg yolk as the binder. Egg based gouache would be later defined as tempera paint. Master artists in 14th century Europe often used tempera. Albrecht Durer painted with gouache to bring out a soft glow in his nature studies. Gouache also provided remarkable color saturation in Medieval manuscripts. 

Easy to Work with, Complex to Master

Artists continued their relationship with gouache for its flexibility and ease of use. The romance broke off, however, during the Renaissance oil painting craze. Artists touted the oil medium’s capability of realistic details. Rest assured, gouache would once again return to its lovers as the favored art medium by the 18th century. Gouache’s official name was finally coined in 18th century France. It comes from the Italian word guazzo, which means “mud.” 

Gouache is a special art medium because it’s easy to work with and complex to master. No one knows who exactly invented it, but we do know who put it on the map! 20th century artist Henri Matisse featured gouache in his renowned Blue Nudes paintings. Since then, gouache played an essential role everything from posters to cartoons. Art students and professionals continue to favor gouache to this day. 

A Timeless Art Love

Growing up in the modern world, you were probably exposed to more gouache art than you thought. Seaside Art Gallery has plenty of art that features this timeless medium. You can see how gouache has formed a lasting love relationship with artists. Many of our animation cells have gouache paint. Come see them in our gallery online or on location in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Who knows, you might fall in love with gouache too!

Chelsea Reed is a copywriter who writes online content, articles, blogs, and websites from her base in North Carolina.   



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