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Gouache vs. Oil Paints

After a few years devoted to wrapping my head around gouache, I decided it was time to dip my toes back into oil paints (not literally 😝). I missed the rich smell of the drying paint, the buttery feel, and the taste. Kidding...not the taste, but you can ask our dog Pancake which color is his favorite since he recently gave my palette a taste test. (for those that are concerned, we did indeed manage to get most of the paint back in a slightly altered condition, I specifically choose non-toxic pigments, and he is back to his mischievous self)


Currently I’m teetering at ~50/50 balance of gouache and oil paintings, so it seemed like a good time to go over each medium's strengths and weaknesses. Keep in mind though, that some of these are simply characteristics that are both an advantage and disadvantage depending on the artist and use case.

Gouache

(Rhymes with “Squash”) is an opaque watercolor. Visually, it is like a matte acrylic painting, and was used often for old print illustrations as well as animation backgrounds. It’s made a huge comeback recently, and now there's a wide variety of brands available. Note: There is an acrylic gouache out there, which is a different beast. For this blog post, I am specifically talking about water based gouache.

Gouache Pros

  • Quick Drying - There's always some shocked faces when I close a sketchbook after painting with only minutes of drying time. Although the speedy drying can be a blessing and a curse, it is a great bonus for sketches and plein-air and is more of a "pro" for me.
  • No Fumes - Minimal smells or headaches with gouache. Note: some brands do have a stronger odor than others, but it’s not very common.
  • Easy to Clean - Your wardrobe will thank you. Gouache rinses out like a dream, and is very kind to your brushes. You also can comfortably take it everywhere without having to worry about splatters or stains.
  • Matte Finish - The matte finish is pleasing, and makes it SO easy to photograph. 
  • Vibrant Colors - It seems harder to get muddy mixes with gouache, and the colors appear lighter and more vibrant.
  • Super Portable - The palettes are lightweight and the small tubes make it easy to carry in your packs.
  • Details are Easy - Since it dries quickly, items with a lot of fine detail are much easier to do. Telephone wires, blades of grass, bicycle rims...just work on those steady hands for those telephone wires 😂.
  • Reactivates - Partly a pro and partly a con. It won't ever dry permanently, and even a painting a year old can have paint lifted up again with a wet brush. This allows for more flexibility and blending, but watch out for any unintentional paint drips.

Gouache Cons

  • Difficult to Make Dark/Rich Colors - Those dark and dramatic paintings are tough to create with gouache. The matte finish tends to make those darks a step lighter. This CAN be achieved by varnishing your work after with a glossy or satin finish, but the varnish can be a gamble.
  • Must be Varnished or Framed Under Glass - Since I prefer my work unvarnished, that means that the work needs to be under glass for protection from moisture or other elements. Glass is a PAIN! It is heavy, difficult to ship, and the non-glare museum quality ones can cost a pretty penny. Don’t even get me started on the acrylic sheets. That stuff is a nightmare for furry animal lovers that don’t have hermetically sealed rooms. Some people do varnish their work, or put a wax medium on top for protection, but it WILL change the overall look no matter how many people try to convince you otherwise.
  • Small Paint Tubes = $$$ - The paint tubes are TINY. I go through my ultramarine blues so fast that I buy them three at a time. That is one of the reasons (I'm guessing) why I am one of the few artists crazy enough to paint large scale with gouache. Some brands do offer a little more paint, but it’s still not as economical as the large oil painting or acrylic tubes.
  • Value Shifts - The most common complaint is that the dried values can be difficult to predict. Darks tend to dry lighter and lights tend to dry darker. Using less water will help, but it is an undeniable pain.
  • Not Great for All Plein Air Conditions - When painting in freezing temperatures last year, the paint literally froze on my paper and it was like trying to paint with soft serve ice cream. Thank goodness a friend was kind enough to let me paint in her car! Windy or hot conditions will also cause your paints to dry out very quickly. And when it rains, you'll hear me screaming like the wicked witch of the west as I scramble to protect my artwork.
  • Difficult to Blend - Imagine painting a large blended sunset sky, and then needing to touch up a spot. Good luck! It is basically impossible to color match the exact color, so you probably will need to paint it all over again to look seamless. This inability to blend or hide mistakes makes it a little less forgiving than oils.
  • Doesn't Take a Lot of Layers - While gouache is generally pretty forgiving, it also doesn't take a ton of thick layers. At some point the paint will just slide around on top of other layers, so you should be somewhat careful.

Scenes that work best in Gouache

When a scene requires extra details, brighter/lighter colors, or has very quick moving light, I will almost always reach for the gouache. It works well for scenes like this complicated studio setup.

Or this light and bright floral scene.

Or this scene that required some quick thinking to capture the fleeting light and moving animals.

Oil Paints

(painted in gouache)

Oil paints are thick, slow drying, and are commonly a blend of linseed oil and pigment. There are water based versions out there that I've heard mixed reviews of, but this post is specifically talking about traditional oil paints.

Oil Painting Pros

  • Easy to Frame - Oil paintings can simply be varnished and hung without glass. Some gallery wrapped canvases or panels don't even need a frame, which can be very appealing to buyers. This makes it cheaper to frame, and easier to ship.
  • Richer Darker colors - Those dark rich colors are so much more satisfying in oils, especially with a glossy varnish. 
  • Sculptural Quality - You gain another dimension when working in oils. It’s fun to build up the paint and play with textures.
  • Comes in Large tubes - Having the option to buy 200ml tubes instead of those wimpy 15 ml tubes is a JOY. This allows for artists to work larger in oils and be a little less precious about each drop (although I recommend the small tubes for plein air painting unless you're working on your guns 💪).
  • Easy to Blend - It’s so much easier to blend with wet oils, and fix any small mistakes. 
  • Minimal Color/Value Shift - Unlike gouache, the color you put down in oils is going to have only a slight shift in color and value. If things do look matte and desaturated as it dries, a simple varnish will bring it back to life and offer protection.
  • All Weather - Oil painters definitely have a leg up on water media artists at plein-air events if there is rainy or unpredictable weather. You can paint with oils in the rain, and cold with relative ease.

Oil Painting Cons

  • Glare - The shine and glare of oil paints makes it really tough to photograph. There are methods out there, but I haven’t found one that isn’t overly complicated. Additionally, this glare can also be difficult outdoors on a bright day.
  • Fumes and Toxic Waste - Probably the number one complaint are the toxicity concerns with oil paints, especially if you’re using paint thinners and mediums. The fumes alone are notorious for causing headaches. It’s recommended to have air filtration and circulation when working with oils.
  • Cleanup is a Pain - Maybe it’s just me, but oil paint has a way of getting on EVERYTHING. I just surrender to the fact that all of my clothes will eventually be ruined, and that phthalo blue will find its way on our carpets. Don't forget to clean your brushes right away to avoid paint drying in the ferrule. 
  • Takes Up More Space - While some artists work on paper or canvas sheets in oils, I personally prefer panels. Specifically, cradled panels. These take up a lot of space, especially if you paint on a daily basis. Also keep in mind that you need a place for the paintings to dry that is out of reach from kids and pets.
  • Can be Expensive - Painting in oils does seem a little more costly. One CAN get away with making their own panels if they’re crafty, but the materials and time does add up. 
  • Slow to Dry - This is both a positive and negative. Oils take forever to dry. There are mediums you can use to speed up the process though, but I prefer not to for simplicity and air quality. This means that selling them off the easel is tricky (a friend had one of his wet paintings damaged on the drive to its new home after an event), and I have to allow a few weeks before shipping a piece off to a new owner. Also if you work in layers or glazes, a painting can take an especially long time to complete. 
  • Easily Turns to Mud - because of the slow drying paints, it’s very easy to get muddy colors if you aren’t careful. You’ll really need to separate out and protect your brighter colors. It also is difficult (and not recommended) to go from light colors to dark unless you let the layer dry. 

What Scenes Work Best for Oils - I reach for the oil paints when there's a scene that needs a little extra umph on the contrast and/or some dramatic lighting. If there is a lot of soft blending required, oils work well! Subjects that have a sculptural quality or a lot of texture are good candidates, and larger studio works are great in oils too. The rich dark blacks were really helpful to make this light appear extra bright.

This was a perfect scene for oils. Those rich dark colors were perfect for the dark backlit greens, and the added texture adds interest to that large empty space.

Oils have such great texture! You can really build up the paint and see the energy of each brush stroke.

Of course this doesn’t go over EVERYTHING, and there are always exceptions. Both are absolutely wonderful, have their own advantages and disadvantages, and it would be unfair to try to pick a favorite. In fact, many artists use both and find that they complement each other really well. Whichever medium you reach for, I hope this helps you with your painting adventures! 


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