I’ve had awesome paper, awesome paints, but very cheap brushes. I’ve been able to get away with cheap brushes for only so long. The current painting I’m working on, I’ve had enough.
I finally saved up enough money to get decent brushes. And you know what? I’m loving it!
I’ll readily admit that decent watercolor brushes are the least important of the big three expenditures. I strongly suggest that if you only have money for one, get good paper since cheap watercolor paper should only be used by students. Good paints are the second most important expenditure.
But decent watercolor brushes do make a difference.
What makes a good watercolor brush?
In the whole scheme of things, what actually makes a good brush? Its looks?
Of course not. I don’t think anyone would care how it looks.
How it fits in your hands?
Now we’re getting closer. That matters. But it’s not really what we’re going for.
How the paint leaves the brush onto your painting surface?
Bingo! That’s the most important aspect when evaluating the top tier brushes vs mid tier brushes vs low end brushes.
The tips matter. Big time.
You’ll immediately notice that you can actually use the tips more and they’re more accurate. Before I had decent watercolor brushes, I had to continually switch to my small brushes for fine details.
Now I don’t. I’m using the larger brushes for pretty much everything. That’s one way you can tell an experienced watercolor artist – they prefer their big brushes. I’ve talked to some old time watercolor artists and that’s all they use.
I personally do a lot of fine detail. I’m really loving not having to use the small brushes so much. It may not sound like a big deal until you’re under a time crunch.
Rewetting your brushes
The other thing with the better brushes. I don’t have to rewet good brushes as often. They retain their wetness longer.
Is this a big deal? Once again, to a beginning watercolor artist, not so much. To an artist under a time crunch? Yes.
You want time savers. Plus, it’s annoying when you have to keep repeating brush strokes because your brush sucks.
What I got
Blick carries a lot of good products. I enjoy shopping there.
Their mid-range generic brushes are actually quite good. One day, I’ll buy the top tier brushes. I’m just not there financially.
It’s like Costco’s generic brand Scotch is actually quite good. It’s more than likely one of the higher tier single malt labels, but bought in enough bulk that they got a decent price on it and could relabel it as Costco brand.
Same thing with Blick. Their watercolor paper is actually one of the better papers. I actually use it or Arches. I enjoy Blick’s hot press white when I’m doing pure pinups.
That’s what I’m getting at. So it more than likely is a higher tier brand that Blick bought in bulk and can sell for a decent price. I think I only paid around $25 a brush.
Like I said, when I have more money, I’ll buy the top tier. But for now, these are pretty good brushes and a huge upgrade over what I had before.
When it comes to palettes for watercolors, I prefer a porcelain watercolor palette. But a caveat. I don’t paint when I travel.
When I travel, I take a sketchpad with me. I sketch only. A porcelain watercolor palette won’t be ideal for travel purposes. If you got my luck, you’d get an angry baggage handler who will throw your suitcase as far as he possibly can and crunch! So much for that gorgeous piece of porcelain.
However, it rules for at home use.
I won’t get into plastic watercolor palettes because for one, you shouldn’t be using them unless you’re so broke you have to beg to eat. Seriously. They’re garbage. They bead something terrible and after a lot of use, they stain. At worst, plastic watercolor palettes should be a last resort.
So, in reality, we’re really talking about a porcelain watercolor palette vs a metal watercolor palette. But I’m not about to get into a squabbling match with metal watercolor palette lovers. I think both camps can agree to just thumb our noses up to those plastic palette people and be done with it. Rather, I’ll just argue why you should get yourself a real nice porcelain (also called ceramic) one.
Colors are exactly as they should be
Why do we paint in the first place? It’s because we have something to convey. And when it comes to watercolors, you want to get the most out of your colors.
For this, a porcelain watercolor palette rules over all else.
You pour some paint from your tubes into the palette and they paint exactly how you want them to paint. The next day, they’ve dried and you simply re-wet them. No extra steps are needed. They will perform the same way the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that.
Cleanup is easy
Porcelain doesn’t stain. When you clean it up, it looks brand new. After you’ve painted over a hundred paintings, it still looks brand new.
You can even clean it by putting it in the dishwasher. Yes, I’m quite serious. I’ll wash it though under the heavy cycle since I’m not into eating my watercolors and I’m washing it with other dishes. It’s just like a ceramic dish. You know why? Because it is!
Porcelain mixes perfectly
You’ll find that plastic beads something terrible. For mixing, porcelain is where it’s at.
Sure, I’ve heard you can “treat the plastic.” I don’t want to treat the plastic. That’s one more extra thing I have to do. I’m too lazy to stretch my watercolor paper. Do you think I want to treat some cheap plastic palette?
You don’t lose anything when you mix with porcelain. You get exactly what you get. And when the paints dry, all you need to do is re-wet them.
So easy. After all, we want simple. We want our tools to behave exactly as they’re supposed to behave because the artist is supposed to do the thinking, not the tools. They’re supposed to do their jobs.
Above you see the next morning. The paints dried from the night before. All I have to do is re-wet the paints and I’m ready to get back to work.
If I remember correctly, that palette went through the dishwasher a few nights before. Look how brand new it looks. That’s after literally over a hundred paintings and it still looks brand new.
I’ll have that thing until I either lose it or one of my students drops it (I only drop my phone, never my watercolor equipment). And you know what? It will still look brand new after it goes through the dishwasher.
M Graham gouache smells good. I mean, really good.
No, I don’t expect you to sniff the paint while painting. But I’m a special case.
I’m nearly blind without my glasses. I cannot legally drive without corrective lenses. Yeah, sure are a lot of people. But, I’m even worse. My eyes are so bad that I should get arrested for driving without glasses.
My glasses are like coke bottles. They’re really thick.
However, I’ve reached that age where when I want to see something close, I have to take my glasses off. I get dizzy when I have my glasses on and I’m seeing something close.
I literally paint on the floor while painting. So here I am, painting on the floor, and painting with M Graham gouache. And you know what? M Graham gouache smells good.
Made with honey
No, I’m not an uber geek when it comes to gouache and watercolors. I know enough to get by.
I did read though that M Graham gouache is made with honey. Which is probably why it smells so good.
I know that nobody 100 years from now is going to buy my paintings because of the smell. They’re going to buy them because they think they’re beautiful. Or at least I can dream, right?
But for a guy like me, smell matters.
When you got a real bad sense, your other senses will compensate for that weak sense. In my case, my hearing and smell are both top notch.
I’m not one of those guys who can tell a $500 bottle of wine from a $50 bottle of wine. But I can tell you if your perfume or cologne is awesome or awful.
So how does it paint?
Oh you want a real review rather than just the smell? Fine. I guess I have to write for my audience.
I’ve been using watercolor with gouache for months now. I was almost exclusively watercolor at first. Then I started fooling around with cheap gouache. And let me tell you, huge difference between the cheap generic gouache and M Graham gouache. It really is night and day.
What’s the most important thing about paints? Well, why do people buy paints in the first place?
We all know the answer to this. It’s for the color. You intentionally go to the store with a certain blue in mind. And you purchase that blue.
Another pigment may catch your eye. You may buy that too. Or you may look at your wallet and say “shit, I only have enough money for one” and you put the second paint away and just buy that blue.
Regardless, you bought the paint for its pigmentation.
So most importantly, how are the pigments with M Gouache gouache? First rate! I absolutely love Daniel Smith for watercolor. But M Graham gouache is top notch for gouache.
The pigments do exactly what I expect them to do. They look exactly how I expect them to look. They perform exactly how I expect them to perform.
All these things matter, actually first and foremost, when it comes to pigmentation.
Let’s keep in mind, we use gouache for its qualities. We use watercolors for their qualities. Both have strengths and weaknesses. So I intentionally use a combination of both.
Where I expect a gouache to behave like a gouache, M Graham fits the bill. It’s like the Al Pacino of gouache. You know you’re going to get a top notch performance.
Combining with watercolors
This matters second to me. For someone who is straight gouache, you could probably skip this.
My watercolors are almost all Daniel Smith but I did pick up Winsor and Newton as well. But mostly Daniel Smith.
When I used the cheap gouache, you could tell what was gouache and what was watercolor. The cheap gouache had spotty pigmentation and looked, well, cheap.
With M Graham, you can’t. They blend really well together.
Anyways, I’m not a kiss ass. If I don’t like something, I’m not going to recommend it. For instance, old Gibson SGs were fantastic. The newer versions are awful. I mean, really, really bad. I don’t know what happened to that company. Someone told me that they had to cut corners to stay in business and I believe it.
I know that has nothing to do with painting but when I’m stressed out, I pick up an electric guitar and just start playing. I had to sell my Gibson SG because it was such a piece of garbage. If someone asked me which guitar to buy, I’d ask them how much money they had. $800? Paul Reed Smith SE 24.
You see, I’m brutally honest. I might get some Gibson employee on here calling me every name in the book. I don’t care. My integrity means everything to me.
And you know what? I’m so glad I bought M Graham gouache. I’ll probably give the cheap stuff away to a student.
(Note that this works for both watercolor and gouache, assuming you’re using watercolor paper).
After you mount watercolor paper on wood, assuming you’re using a cradled piece of wood, it’s already ready to hang up. You can decide to frame it later. Or, you can hang it up as is.
Either way it’s going to look great. Some folks prefer art framed. Some don’t. It’s personal opinion.
When it’s finished, it will look like this. I used my leather couch as the backdrop.
You’ll need the following tools:
Something to cut the paper on (I simply use a real large cutting board)
An X-Acto knife
Cradled wood so it could be hung up immediately
An old brush
The cutting board, you can pick up at a garage sale or a secondhand store. You probably don’t want to use the one you’re eating from. As for the brush, either use an old one or a cheap one. This brush won’t be usable for painting any more. You might already have sandpaper lying around.
There’s an old saying in carpentry. Measure twice, cut once. You only get one chance at this so you have to make it right.
You’re going to cut your painting and you may lose an inch of margin. I’ve already planned out in advance as I’m actually painting, so I don’t lose anything of value.
You should actually measure with a ruler your painting area vs the piece of wood you’re going to put it on. You’ll have to do this if you decide to frame it anyways.
So have a plan in advance where you’re going to make the cuts. It will save you heartache in the future.
OK, the fun part. Measure the wood vs measure what part of the painting you’ll be keeping. Note that when I actually make the cut, the painting is already glued to the wood. But I know in advance what I’m keeping and what I’m losing.
This is a very important step. Do not neglect this. You may lose a piece of your painting that you’re emotionally attached to if you don’t plan and measure correctly.
For instance, for a 9″x12″ painting, you’re probably going to buy the 8″x10″ piece of wood. You’ll be losing one total inch horizontally and two total inches vertically. Or vice versa, depending on whether your painting is landscape or portrait.
Clean, then glue the wood
Before I even glue the wood, I make sure it’s pretty clean. You don’t want dirt or dust interfering with the glue. After all, you’re an artist and you want this piece to last for hundreds of years. I can’t speak for you, but I take that mentality quite seriously. I assume you do too.
Now, I assume you already know in advance where you’re going to cut. So now glue the wood. I use an old paintbrush.
Very important! Err on the side of too much glue rather than not enough. Trust me on this one. Nothing more annoying than the next day to see a corner pop up because you didn’t use enough glue.
Make sure the edges are glued well. Also make sure you’ve glued the corners well.
What’s the brush for?
The brush is to even things out. If you have way too much glue, you’ll see a little glue bump in your painting after it’s glued and dried. Whereas this may not be a big deal to some folks, it may drive you nuts. Thus, the brush.
So be sure to brush it down and even it out. Make sure there’s an even layer of glue throughout the wood. And do this relatively fast as we’re dealing with glue.
Stick the painting on
Fun part. I hope you planned well.
This is where you actually stick the painting on the glued wood. Like I’ve mentioned already, you’re going to lose the parts of the painting that don’t fit on the wood. We’ll be cutting them off with your knife.
Once you’ve stuck the painting on the wood, make sure it’s on there well. This is where I hope you’ve had preschool experience. Remember preschool?
This isn’t a joke. A lot can go wrong at this stage. If you’ve never had preschool, you should practice gluing paper onto something else. And once again, this isn’t a joke. You can ruin your painting at this stage. You only get one chance to do this.
You’ll need the painting to stick for the next few hundred years. We’re using pretty good adhesive. This is what professional artists use, and it’s the right formula that it won’t damage your watercolor paper either.
You’ll need to let your painting dry overnight. I put the painting on a wood table and put heavy books over it because I want the gluing stage to work. I’ve made the mistake once of not gluing a corner correctly. Note, once. I’m telling you this so you don’t make the same mistake.
The next morning, grab your painting. It should be glued on the wood well. Congratulations! You’ve been successful at the hardest part. However, before we pop open the champagne, we still have to make the cut.
This is where I hope you’ve had high school art. If you’ve never used an X-Acto knife, you need to practice first. Don’t take this step lightly because if you screw up the initial cut, you better be really good with sandpaper.
Now put the painting face down onto your cutting surface. Cut with your X-Acto knife around the edges, as close to the edge as you possibly can. Once again, if you’ve never used an X-Acto knife before, practice on something that isn’t important first. You get one chance to do this.
Once this is done, simply sandpaper the edges and it’s ready to be preserved. Oh, wipe away the dust with a soft brush. I assume you already have plenty of those.
After you mount watercolor paper on wood
You’ll now need to preserve your watercolor painting. I wrote a separate article for that since I don’t like to cram too much information into one article. I don’t know about you, but my head hurts if I get too much information. That’s why I like to break things down.
After I’ve preserved my paintings, I make a cold, hard decision. If it’s an A, I put it on the store. If not, I give it to a friend.
I sincerely hope this helps and let me know if you have any questions.
I named this article “watercolor vs gouache” but in reality, watercolor and gouache are friends. They play nicely together. They even share the same paper for their main choice of surface.
But, you should know when to use one and when to use the other. Each has her own advantages and disadvantages.
So since this is a sequel to that previous article, assuming you’ve read it, I finally bought the good stuff. I’ve always been using mostly Daniel Smith watercolors with a little bit of Windsor and Newton thrown in there. But for gouache, since I’ve barely used it other than that glitter in Allie’s or Roxy’s eyes, I’ve used the cheap ass stuff. No longer.
I’ve read tons of online reviews and decided on this one:
If I’m going to compare watercolor vs gouache, I should at least compare top quality paints. So for comparisons, I’m using Daniel Smith and Winsor and Newton for watercolors. And M Graham Artists’ Gouache for gouache.
Strengths of watercolor
Layers, layers, and more layers
I paint pinups. I work with two live models – Allie and Roxy. Allie is the blonde. Roxy is the brunette.
They’re both drop dead gorgeous in real life and I love painting them both. I first start off with sketches. Then I paint.
Stylistically, I love painting women with watercolor since I could do layers after layers. After over a hundred paintings to my name (most you’ll never see), I got really good at layering.
Watercolors are fantastic for layering. Since watercolors are transparent, you can still see the bottom layers. That’s why you specifically have to paint light to dark. If you don’t, the dark will drown out the light.
When I paint my models, I use seven layers of paint, wet on wet. When complete, my pinups look fantastic. The more you paint with watercolors, the better you get with layering and colors. You’ll fall in love with your ability to layer. I can guarantee that the more you paint with watercolors.
I have a confession to make to you. I live in a tiny ass apartment with my wife. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a consideration when I decided on watercolors over acrylics and oils.
Let’s actually get straight to the point. That was my main consideration.
Our apartment is so tiny that we don’t have room for anything. If my models weren’t friends of mine, they’d probably tell me where I could put my paint brushes. I literally paint on the floor. I don’t even own an easel. They barely have room to pose.
Watercolors are the easiest paints of all to clean up. They also wash right off your brushes. If you get decent brushes, they’ll last for years. You don’t have to buy brush cleaner. You just clean them off with water.
Easy to reuse
OK, time for another confession. When I mix skin colors, I use the same mix for at least three or four paintings.
The paint dries after I finish a painting. And when I start on the next painting, I simply re-wet the paint and it’s exactly the same color as before. So if I’m painting Allie three or four times in a row, which I often do, I can make a batch of the same skin color for all those paintings.
Geez I’m getting personal here. I’m very odor sensitive. If someone stinks or is wearing too much cologne or perfume, I’ll know it before anyone else knows it. I can’t see worth shit but my nose is stronger than most people I know.
I hate the smell of solvents. I hate that smell almost as much as I hate burnt automatic transmission fluid. It’s one of my least favorite smells on the planet.
Watercolors don’t ever need solvents. You don’t need solvents for spills. You don’t need solvents for your brushes. So you don’t need to air out your home when you’re painting and/or cleaning up.
Strengths of gouache
Gouache on the other hand is opaque. I’ve heard it compared to acrylics. Some folks even refer to gouache as “opaque watercolor” for after all, it’s technically more a subset of watercolor than its own thing.
Gouache has its own character
I only have one painting to my name that is mostly gouache. And you know what? I already love gouache!
It doesn’t layer as well as watercolor. But, it’s great for covering up. If you’re going to combine gouache and watercolor, it’s probably best to paint the gouache first.
Gouache reacts differently to water than watercolor does. It gets funky with too much water. You’re going to be using less water and more paint.
Gouache also pops. You’ll know what I mean when you use it.
I’m not a cheap person when it comes to my art. My car is a piece of shit and I don’t care. I never even repaired the dents. But for certain things, like food, tipping my bartenders and servers, and my art, I’m spending the money.
That said, it’s pretty nice when even the high end stuff is cheap. Gouache retails cheaper than watercolors. If money is a consideration, you might want to consider starting with gouache. I’m talking artist grade vs artist grade, not the good stuff for one vs the cheap stuff for the other.
Before cartoons went digital, artists used either gouache or acrylic paints for the cels. Plus, a lot of commercial artists used gouache.
Why? It’s fast. You have timelines. When under the gun, you want something fast. Gouache is perfect in those regards.
Easier to get started with
No, not the same concept as speed. I’m talking about for the very beginner.
With watercolors, I’ve said your first ten paintings will end up in the garbage. Half that with gouache. Gouache simply has easier concepts. I picked it up right away. Watercolors took awhile to pick up.
I’m not implying gouache has no technique by any means. However, if you want to at least get started with the basics, you’ll pick them up faster with gouache than you will with watercolor.
Weaknesses of watercolor
Transparency – strength that is also a weakness
Whereas I listed transparency as a strength, it’s also a weakness. For instance, if you make a mistake, you can’t just cover it up like you can do with other mediums.
Some folks use pencil as a guide. I actually ink. I actually love the look of watercolor over ink. If I do a bad job at inking, I can’t cover it up with watercolor. In that particular case, I either have to use gouache or watercolor ground to cover up the mistake.
Also, to get dark, you have to really pile on the paint. For instance, I painted four layers of wet on wet black to get this black to look like this.
Other people’s stereotypes
“Who cares what other people think?”
I do when I’m trying to sell my work. Some folks have a negative connotation to watercolors. They see it as a lesser medium to oils.
I completely disagree with them. But let’s not pretend it’s not there.
A lot of great art from the Romantic era was actually done with watercolors. The artists painted in the field with watercolors since it’s easy to transport.
Now, I could say “easy to transport” as a strength but I’ve never painted outside and I don’t ever want to give someone advice that I have never done. That would be like me telling you how to ski on an advanced slope. I’ve never done it.
I’d be either lying or regurgitating what other people have said. I don’t do that. If I’m giving you advice, it’s from my own personal experience.
But back to other people’s stereotypes, I’m hoping to help my fellow watercolor artists here. You can do more with watercolors than most people realize. I think once people see my pinups, they’ll realize how diversified and powerful watercolors really are.
You can avoid muddiness with experience. However, if you don’t have enough experience, you can really turn a painting muddy with watercolors. There are no easy ways to fix muddiness. It looks really bad.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure how else to explain it. It’s one of those “you’ll know it when you see it.”
Concepts take a long time to master
I feel like watercolor has some concepts that really take a long time to master. For instance, the whole concept of how water changes the colors. It’s an easy concept to understand. However, it’s a complicated concept to execute.
I got good at it with a lot of practice. For instance, look at the witch above. That paint for the inside of her nails is actually the same color for the outside of her nails and her lips. Yet, it appears like I’m using three different colors.
The difference? The amounts of water. This is something that you really have to practice a lot to execute properly.
That’s why I suggest buying a watercolor journal. Be sure to use it often and take lots of notes. I swear I have just as many words in the journal as I do actual painting examples. And I need every single word in there.
You’re going to do a lot of experimenting. Washes take a long time to master. Controlling the water takes a long time to master. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Advanced watercolor artists are more than likely thinking to themselves that I left out a dozen other concepts.
Weaknesses of gouache
Colors are straightforward
When you’re used to watercolors, gouache can be too straightforward. What you paint is what you get. It’s not something you’re going to layer. Blends don’t have as much depth as blends do with watercolors.
I’ll put this more in computer terms. Think about how you can take two colors with watercolor and when you blend them, you actually get eight colors if you look very closely. Now, I’m making that number eight up. But it’s for effect.
Whereas, you do exactly the same thing with gouache and you get three. Once again, I’m making that number up for effect.
What I’m getting at is you’ll get more colors when blending with watercolors than you will with gouache. Colors are more straightforward.
Now don’t get me wrong. You can still create tons of colors with gouache. But the actual numbers you’ll create when you blend will be less than you’ll get when you do exactly the same techniques with watercolors.
Nobody knows what you’re talking about
A friend of mine is a digital artist. He and his friend are working on a game as we speak. My friend is doing the artwork. I’ve seen some of his work and it’s actually pretty good.
When I told him that I just bought a gouache set, he said “what the fuck is gouache?”
Commercial art stereotype
And of those who do know what you’re talking about when you mention gouache, many of them only think of commercial art. Which, I think there’s nothing wrong with.
I may get chastised for this, but I don’t romanticize the starving artist. Sometimes artists have families. And families need to eat.
If you take a job making art for a corporation so you can actually eat, I get it. I’m not one of those people who plays holier than thou and think artists have to follow some strict moral code or take a vow of poverty.
But those people are out there. They think everything commercial is bad, and the only way to make it as an artist should be to sell your own work privately, and not working for The Man.
Whatever. I’m not one of those people.
Those people also thumb their noses at gouache for this very reason. Gouache at one time was the most common medium for print ads. If I’m not mistaken, digital art surpassed gouache long ago.
So they see it as a less than serious medium. Which is a shame since there is some really cool gouache work out there. I happen to love Olivia De Berardinis for instance, who makes some pretty dang fine pinups with gouache.
Gouache is harder to get off brushes
I have two Kim-chi jars when I paint with watercolors. One I use to wash the brush. The second I use for the final rinse.
With gouache, I still use the same method. However, it takes a lot more swishing to get all the gouache paint off the brushes than it does with watercolor.
Is this a big deal? Not really. You’re just going to have to work harder at keeping the brushes clean. But it’s definitely noticeable.
Note – this may not necessarily be a gouache thing and might be an M Graham thing. M Graham is honey based, and if that’s the reason why it’s harder to get off the brushes, it’s the brand, not the type of paint.
Can you mix them?
I did. The sky you see here is actually M Graham gouache combined with Daniel Smith watercolor. I like how it turned out.
Watercolor vs Gouache – Final verdict
You already know what I’m going to say about the whole watercolor vs gouache debate. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I use both.
I finally bought some good quality gouache as pictured up above and I love it. You can see what I use watercolor for and what I use gouache for. When I want to layer something heavily, I’m using watercolors. When I want opaque, I use gouache. So it totally depends on what I’m working on.