Gouache Workshop: Layering color and playing with shapes

There are so many reasons to fall in love with gouache. And Mirna S., working with a group of Hallmark illustrators and designers, can tell you about all of them. “It can be brushy and watery, or super-graphic,” she tells us. “You can control the vibrancy—it can be really brilliant. I can do any kind of illustration with gouache.” We asked her to talk us through the exercises from her gouache workshop. But first, we asked how to pronounce it: “Gwash,” as it turns out.

Gouache workshop: palette, brushes, and works in progress: sugar skulls on gray background, buildings on blue paper


  • Good watercolor brushes with fine tips
  • Quality gouache paints (Mirna uses Winsor & Newton—she cautions that cheap gouache is chalky can flake)
  • Watercolor paper or illustration board
  • Heavy-weight color paper
  • For mixed medium exercises: Color pencils, pastel pencils, ink brushes
  • Glue (white or stick)
  • Water
  • Paper towels

Pro-tips for choosing paint colors:

  • Gouache can be expensive, so start with just a few colors—three to five—to see if you like it. You can also experiment with just black and white to get a sense of how it feels.
  • The good news: Gouache can be reconstituted with water, so it won’t dry out like acrylic, and can last a long time.
  • Read the label to see how transparent or opaque your color is—you’ll learn to visualize your results and choose colors based on their transparency. Labels indicate the permanence of the paint, as well—some colors fade rather quickly. If you’re working on a fine art piece, you’ll want more permanent hues. If you’re going to scan and digitize your work, it doesn’t matter as much. Read about labels on Winsor & Newton’s site.
  • Oh, and…stay away from paint that has cadmium in it, unless you have a safe way of disposing of the toxic pigment and its rinse water.


To start the gouache workshop and get used to the way it layers, picks up color, and shows through, draw a row of circles, going from transparent to opaque. Overlap those with more circles of different transparencies.

Gouache workshop: Painting circles in different shades

Gouache Workshop: Painting circles in different colors and transparencies

Gouache Workshop: Mirna S. demonstrates technique

Gouache Workshop: Painting circles in different shades

Gouache can be really beautiful right out of the tube, plus you can mix it with water and other colors for different results. The trick is to get the right combination of water and pigment. Too dry, and you can’t spread pigment—but you can get a good dry brush look. Too watery, and you’ll get chalky puddles. You want a creamy consistency with lots of pigment and just enough water for it to be fluid on the page. You can water it down to have a more watercolor effect, just be careful not to let it pool and create puddles.

Pro-tips for layering gouache:

  • Gouache never sleeps—it can always be erased. Though some pigment will stay in the paper, you can use water and a brush to pull it out. Blotter paper can also help.
  • When you’re layering, go from thinner to more opaque layers. If you start with more opaque, you’ll just lift the pant and muddy up your colors. Practice dealing with the fact that the color comes up.


Next, try using gouache to paint bigger shapes—we experimented with letters and flowers. Practice creating detail on top with other media: pencils, pastels, and ink brushes. Or add details with more gouache.

Gouache Workshop: Adding details in pencil to a gouache painting

Gouache Workshop exercises: circles, flowers

Gouache Workshop exercises: circles, letters, patterns

Experiment with letting each medium do what it does best: Which parts of the design is gouache best suited for? Where is it more efficient to use pencils or ink pens?

In this workshop, we explored how versatile gouache is. But a paraphrasing of Bushnell’s law of video games applies: It’s easy to play with and hard to master.


Mirna likes to paint on color paper quite a bit: “It makes the one decision about the color palette for you, and you work with that and balance it,” she explained. “It’s also nice to start with something that’s not a blank white page starting at you.”

Gouache Workshop: Painting sugar skulls on dark-colored paper

Gouache Workshop: Painted sugar skulls on a dark red background

Gouache Workshop: Painted sugar skulls on a dark blue background

Gouache Workshop: Painted sugar skulls on a tan background

Gouache Workshop: Adding architectural details to collaged buildings

Gouache Workshop: Painted sugar skulls on dark background

In the gouache workshop, we painted sugar skulls to explore the range of colors and how opaque the gouache can get. Start by painting the skull a solid color—don’t limit yourselves to white!—or just paint an outline.

This exercise is all about detail and decoration. Play with the deep, brilliant colors you can use even if the paper is dark. In this exercise, make sure the paint on your brush is creamy, and not too watery, so that it can dry opaquely.


Finally we selected limited color palettes and created architectural designs, inspired by THE gouache master Mary Blair, by combining gouache with cut paper collages.

Gouache Workshop: Creating structures with collage paper

Gouache Workshop: Adding architectural details with paint to collaged buildings

Gouache Workshop: Mirna demonstrates ways to paint architectural details on collaged buildings

Gouache Workshop: Collaged building structures detailed with gouache

Gouache Workshop: Brightly colored collaged building structures detailed with gouache

Gouache Workshop: Abstract triangle patterns in shades of brown, pink, and white

Gouache Workshop: Collage and gouache city scape

The artists made their building structures out of color paper, then we painted details, character, and architectural elements with gouache.


  • The more you experiment, the more efficient you become. You discover all these different tricks. And then you learn how to put them together to get the result what you’ve envisioned. For example, you might decide that if you want a flat graphic shape, it’s easier to cut it from paper than try to paint it.

“You don’t really think that you might have crafted a skill until someone asks you to teach that craft,” Mirna told us. “And then you start to think back to the beginning and realize that you have come a long way.

“I remembered my own struggles and tried my best to offer up tips and shortcuts, so that others can benefit from this medium in the most efficient way and begin to make it their own. And it’s refreshing to see the discoveries of other artists using the medium in their own style. I enjoyed teaching the workshop, but I enjoyed the discovery of other artist’s spin on gouache even more.”


Have you painted with gouache—or are you excited to try it? We’d love to see your creations and takes on Mirna’s exercises from her gouache workshop. Share them on Facebook or tag us on Instagram.



Leave a Comment

  1. 9.30.17 | Reply
    Mireya wrote:

    I love this! I keep seeing gouache but have yet to try it. So this paint works like watercolor
    paint but you need to be aware of how much water you use—just enough is needed to keep the paint creamy. The color is amazing and not sure what you mean about lasting and digitizing. I will digitize but only to prepare files for printing copies to sell.

  2. 2.2.18 | Reply
    Emma wrote:

    Great article!
    I’ve been working with gouache for a bit and love it, but never thought about using tinted paper. I’ve been googling and stopping at art stores and can’t find the colored paper anywhere, do you have any suggestions on where to find it, or a brand?
    Thanks for any help!

  3. 4.1.18 | Reply
    TanTan wrote:


    • 4.4.18 | Reply
      Trish B. wrote:

      Thank you so much! Mirna is a fantastic teacher, right?