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About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Commercially manufactured opaque watercolour paint popular with designers, illustrators and airbrush artists. The term also, and more correctly, refers to the use of opaque watercolours in a loosely defined area of technique and the materials and effects associated with such painting. Gouache, also called bodycolour, is simply water-based paint rendered opaque by the addition of white paint or pigment (e.g. Chinese white) or a white substance, such as chalk or even marble dust. It is an evolved form of Tempera paint, descended from distemper. The application of the term gouache is often imprecise, but it is most often associated with colours bound in glue-size or gum. The commercial product varies considerably. It is usually bound with gum arabic or dextrin. An inferior version is known as poster colour or poster paint. Gouache produces flat, matt, even colour, and, being thinned with water for use, it is a convenient and quick medium to employ, hence its continuing popularity with designers and illustrators.

The history and evolution of gouache are vague, as its characteristics are common to several types and traditions of painting. Ancient Egyptian wall paintings and Indian miniatures, for example, answer to its general description. Although in Western art it is associated at first with tempera painting and manuscript illumination, it is reasonable to assume a wider use, perhaps of considerable antiquity. Raphael’s tapestry cartoons of the Lives of SS Peter and Paul (1515–16; British Royal Col., on loan to the V&A, London), can quite reasonably be described as gouache paintings, as can Dürer’s watercolour studies of the Young Hare (1502) and Large Piece of Turf (1503; both Vienna, Albertina). From the 16th to the 18th century gouache is represented by the bodycolour of the limner or miniature painter and by the decorative use of distemper. It then emerged as a rediscovered medium, perhaps associated in some way with the development of pastels and transparent watercolours during the 18th century. It was certainly combined with these materials from that point onwards. In the 20th century it has been used by Matisse (e.g. The Snail, 1953; London, Tate).

Jonathan Stephenson
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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