Gouache: The Curiously Disrespected Gem in Gum and Casein Printing

Peter J. Blackburn champions the case for gouache in gum and casein printing.

Writer and photography / Peter J. Blackburn

Rodney Dangerfield, a celebrated stand-up comedian from a bygone era, would often begin his hilarious monologues with the phrase, “I get no respect.” He would then continue with a barrage of cutting, biting one-liners succinctly describing just how deep the disrespect penetrated his world—from his wife, his kids, his friends, his doctors, even his newspaper delivery boy. A typical segment would go something like this:

“I get no respect. Last year they asked me to be a poster boy—for birth control! And just the other day I met the surgeon general. He offered me a cigarette. I gave my son a BB gun for Christmas. He gave me a shirt with a bull’s eye on the back. Yeah, even as a kid I got no respect. Every time I played in the sandbox, the cat kept covering me up. And what a dog I had. His favorite bone was my arm!”

This tricolor gum image uses all gouache pigments. I personally appreciate how it renders the metallic fountain.
Water Fountain in the Landscape, 2012. This tricolor gum image uses all gouache pigments. I personally appreciate how it renders the metallic fountain.

For quite some time, years in fact, I’ve observed how little respect is paid to water-soluble pigments outside the realm of actual tube watercolor by many practitioners in the gum printing world. Gouache is one particular line of pigments which repeatedly gets tossed into the Dangerfield pit of contempt. Whether in past or current instructional literature, emails, or even online discussion groups, gouache is kicked around and counted as the grand loser of pigments for gum printing.

I can’t say for sure, but I get the distinct impression that much of the discourteous comments and editorials come from artists who have never even opened a tube of gouache. Or, if they had, gouache was only applied in their work halfheartedly, just looking for reasons to mock it. Then, to add insult to injury, I have seen and heard facts and figures—all correct, all accurate, all reasonable, originally intended for painters and designers, misappropriated for gum printing.

For example, is gouache opaque? Yes it is. Of course it is. Just squeeze it out of the tube and spread it around on a sheet of paper. It dries to a non-glossy, opaque tone. Painters use pure gouache to achieve bold color and graphic designers apply it straight from the tube for certain creative projects requiring flat, opaque images. Since gouache straight out of the tube is, indeed, opaque, gum printers have been told to stay away from it. “It won’t print delicate tonality. It won’t print… period! It’s opaque!”

But is that advice fair and valid for gum printers?  Well, is it? No, and here’s why. I have yet to find one printer who squeezes even conventional watercolor, let alone gouache straight out of a tube onto a sheet of paper for a gum print. Have you? The more reasonable application is to combine a measure of pigment—whether it be watercolor, gouache, even dry pigment—to a quantity of gum solution and a volume of dichromate solution. That act alone dilutes the pigment in a manner which renders it transparent enough—transparent enough— for gum printing. This isn’t rocket science.

I prefer gouache for bold, over-the-top color saturation. Can the usual tube watercolor pigments also render images boldly? My answer is yes. But gouache, from my perspective, can do both—and quite easily, too. It can be applied for gentle, subtle tonality and for supersaturated color. These days I rarely use traditional tube watercolor for my printing. Instead, I reach for a tube of gouache. So, I encourage the reader to try gouache and all other forms of water-soluble pigments for gum printing in addition to the standard tube watercolors.

As my parents used to tell me as a small child when I refused to eat my vegetables, “Don’t knock ‘em  ‘til you’ve tried ‘em!” I offer the same advice to you with gouache. But truth be told, I still prefer gouache over creamed peas!

Peter J. Blackburn, MA, has been working in gum and casein bichromate printing for over thirty years. He is represented by Afterimage Gallery, Dallas, Texas. You can also see Peter J. Blackburn’s gallery or read more articles he has written.

Recommended reading - Learn more about Gum bichromates
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9 thoughts on “Gouache: The Curiously Disrespected Gem in Gum and Casein Printing”

  1. Hi Steve,

    Thanks so much for the great comments! Yes, I agree with your last sentence most of all. In my gum and casein work I am after color saturation most of all and gouache achieves that for me quite well. In the span of time that I wrote this article and now, I moved toward including pigments bound in other water-soluble media to achieve even greater saturation. I plan to write a new article next year about my current working methods. All the best to you, Steve.

  2. I guess art definitions change over time. Back in the day, we simply added white to watercolor paint. That alone will make it opaque, and unfortunately, will also make it lose it’s luminous quality, which is a result of seeing the white of the paper through the watercolor wash.

    I say unfortunately, but that depends, because there are many ways to do things. In my B&W film/darkroom photography, you could use watercolors to hand color B&W wet prints, or use a more opaque process and get a totally different look. It just depends on what someone is after.

  3. Thanks r wilson for the affirmation. I am still using mainly either gouache or ground pastel in my bichromate emulsions. They both do the job very well! All the best to you.

  4. the most success I had as a student starting out with gum in ’08 was with gouache. It’s nice seeing this because even then my teachers were, gouache?!

  5. I am just starting Gum printing. The images I have created so for are interesting but dim low contrast. I have done several other contact printing methods including cyanotype.VDB,Salt and Zia, with good results. I used Gouache,black, because I had some around and did not really know the dif. I mixed gum with potassium dichromate 50/50 and squeezed in some pigment. At the point I feel I am not getting something as I am finding the other processes much easier to get good images. Is it possible that pigment was the problem?

  6. This is a very interesting article. I am an artist who squeezes a tube of watercolor to mix with my Gum printing chemicals, but I have never tried gouache. I personally like the way that watercolor paints tend to stain, so I use it as an aesthetic factor in my work. I will have to try gouache! Thank you for the read.

  7. Counter-intuitive, I gotta say. Yes, the first thing that came to mind was “but that stuff’s opaque!”

    While I’d of guessed that transparency would count for a lot in a tricolor print, it’s interesting to learn that you’re having such good result with gouache. Thanks so much sharing.

  8. Good cause to champion. It reveals who really understands their materials and who is just (most likely) repeating something they heard. This cuts right to the art of the historical side of AltProcess, since artists in the past had to make their own paints and formulas for other processes. They understood the underlying principle of pigment/binder.
    Watercolor binder: gum arabic
    Gouache binder: gum arabic
    The difference between the two? a little bit of whitening pigment added to gouache.
    If the binder is the same, why not just try different things out and use the one that has the best pigment for the printing you are doing? I hope that people will follow you experimental lead Peter.


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