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Paintings from the Tiwi IslandsGouache Paints and Pigment


Gouache is a heavy, opaque watercolour paint which has been used for centuries in fine art and and also in design applications. It results in paintings that are richly and vividly coloured. Unlike watercolour, gouache does not rely on the whiteness of the background medium (usually archival paper) to achieve its effect. Gouache forms an opaque reflective layer on the surface and is not a stain like most watercolour pigment.

Composition of Gouache

Gouache consists of pigments in a water-soluble binder (gum arabic) with preservative and plasticiser (glycerine). Gouache is thinned with water, the same as watercolour or acrylic paint, and applied with brushes.

The pigments in gouache are of various types. Some are natural products, such as earths, umbers and ochres, while others come from metal (cadmium, cobalt, titanium) compounds and are referred to as 'traditional' pigments. Modern pigments are also widely used, in addition to the traditional ones, and these are generally organic dies and compounds derived from petrochemicals.

The pigments used are the same quality as those in transparent watercolours, but are not ground as finely because gouache is not used in the form of a wash. It has a greater proportion of binder to pigment than in watercolours, and so can be used as opaque paint.

Characteristics of Gouache

Gouache is an excellent, stable and long-lasting medium for fine art. Nevertheless, like all art materials, it is important to understand its characteristics and to avoid circumstances which may make the paint vulnerable to damage or deterioration.

After gouache has dried, it can be re-wetted - this is because there is no chemical change during the drying process. While this makes it convenient for the artist to rework a painting, it also makes the work vulnerable to water damage. Water resistance can be achieved by adding small amounts of acrylic matt medium. Care needs to be taken, however, as some colours can change or darken.

If applied too thickly (either in a single layer or successive layers), gouache can be prone to cracking or peeling off. It is therefore important that the paintings are moved, stored, and displayed in secure flat containers or mounts. When painting in layers, subsequent coats need to be applied thinly to avoid brittleness. Gum arabic needs to be added to successive coats to act as a binder.

Conserving Gouache Paintings

Gouache paintings on paper should be properly mounted and framed behind glass or other protective layer. There should be a mount or spacer between the painting and the glass and all materials should be acid-free.

This protects the painting from damage to the surface, any risk of water splashing or damage, prevents accumulation of dust, and helps to reduce fading from exposure to ultraviolet light.

Varnishing gouache paintings is not recommended because it greatly changes the brightness and finish of the painting. Varnish can sink into the paper, discolouring it and making it brittle.

Other points to watch out for are:

  • Do not store or display paintings in places that exposes them to high humidity or water leakage, e.g. bathroom, outside walls, under pipes.
  • Avoid areas where temperature and humidity fluctuate, or where there is inadequate air circulation, such as an attic or basement.
  • Do not hang paintings near radiators, heating and cooling vents, fire places, air conditioners or humidifiers.


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