What's the difference?

Most people are familiar with watercolor paints (and maybe even enjoyed their own childhood set), but fewer people are familiar with watercolor’s heartier cousin, gouache. So how do these two water-based mediums differ?

While watercolor and gouache have similar fundamental ingredients–pigment and a binding agent–the primary difference between the two lies in their overall effect: watercolor is translucent and gouache is opaque thanks to a higher ratio of pigment and, sometimes, the addition of chalk. These differences give it more “body” (the reason gouache is sometimes referred to as bodycolor).

And the differences in opacity are key to how an artist chooses to use them. Though watercolor paints readily absorb when applied to paper, gouache doesn’t absorb as easily, creating a film over the paper’s surface. This makes it useful for quickly painting over large areas with an even tone whereas watercolor relies more heavily on layering. Gouache also renders detail more precisely than watercolor, which tends to spread rapidly as it’s applied, and as a result of its thickening agents, gouache is also generally more matte than its lighter watercolor counterpart.

The pair has a long history stretching as far back as ancient Egypt, and though not mentioned as often as oil or acrylic paints, both have a flexibility and expressiveness that lend themselves well to contemporary art.