Using Gouache for Calligraphy

Mixing gouache remains a mystery for many beginners, and even some advanced calligraphers.  There are so many questions to ask: How much water to add? What brands to use?  What the heck is Gum Arabic? And so many more.  I'm going to fill you in on my preferred way to mix up this paint.  Here's what I keep on hand:

  • gouache in a number of different colors (W&N and Holbein are my favorite brands for non-metallics.  I like Royal Talen's Plakkaatverf for metallics... and only metallics)
  • inexpensive paint brushes for mixing
  • gum arabic
  • droppers for adding water
  • 1/2 ounce jars for mixing, using and storing the mixture 
  • Dr. Ph. Martin's Bleed Proof White ink
When in need of color, this is where I head.

When in need of color, this is where I head.

First, keep in mind what gouache really is: an opaque watercolor paint.  I like to use it because of its vibrancy, opacity (hello, fuchsia on black, you look GOOD!) and ability to get controlled hairlines and downstrokes.  Not all inks provide these benefits - some are translucent, some are too runny, some are so drab in color - which is why I regularly turn to gouache.  

Being that it's a paint, it's not going to come out of the tube ready to use with a dip pen.  You'll need to mix it with water (distilled water is recommended to help prevent the possible growth of mold), and, if it's going to be in contact with other items or put in the mail, you'll want to add Gum Arabic (GA for abbreviated purposes) to prevent smudging.  GA is a binding agent made from acacia trees, and you can get it in liquid or powdered form.  I personally prefer the liquid form, since I am mixing it INTO a liquid. Here is a general how-to, assuming a half-ounce jar is being used:

  • squirt your gouache into your jar, until it's about 40% full
  • add 4-6 drops of GA, if desired
  • add water, starting with a 3:2 ratio of gouache to liquid (water & GA combined)
  • stir with a paintbrush (don't shake! You'll get tiny bubbles, and they WILL show up in your work)
  • test the consistency by writing a letter or so (your consistency should not be runny or too thick - more like cream)
  • if the ink doesn't flow easily, add a drop or two of water at a time until it flows
  • if you add too much water, add some more gouache

How much water you'll actually need to add will vary depending on the color and the brand.  Ditto on the GA.  Many of the colors I use are good to go with about a 50/50 mix, but it's not a guaranteed mixture.  Note: if you add GA, use less water since GA will add to the viscosity.  Be careful of how much GA you add, since it does also increase the translucency of the paint, and will disrupt how it behaves overall.  Too much GA will kill the pretty hairlines we all love so much, and the consistency in general.  Again, the amount needed depends on the brand and the color- sometimes I'll need a few drops more if my smudge test fails (I test the ink, wait for it to dry, and try to smudge it. If it comes off too easily, I add in a drop or so more- with caution!).  Keep in mind that GA also increases drying time, so give your work a little extra time before handling.

Winsor & Newton Opera Rose gouache on black

Winsor & Newton Opera Rose gouache on black

I mentioned half-ounce jars above, but you'll often see calligraphers mix their gouache and water in a palette, and load it onto their pen with a small round paintbrush (the palettes aren't dip-friendly).  However, if I am doing a set of envelopes or place cards, I'm not going to want to stop to load every time I run out of ink - it's far too disruptive and time consuming. So, I've become a dedicated dipper.  The loading method is definitely helpful when you only need a small amount mixed up, and you're not going for miles on it.

One last tip before I send you off into gouache world:  keep some Dr. Martin's Bleed Proof White (BPW) on hand.  I have found that white gouache, regardless of brand, does not produce good lines, so I no longer use it.  Fortunately, the BPW is gouache-mixable! So, if I need a very pale pink, I just add some pink gouache to BPW, add my water and GA, and I have a beautiful opaque color and pristine lines.  Note: the dried color will be slightly darker than when it is in the bottle or wet on your paper, so keep that in mind when you're mixing.  It's best to start with less color than you think you might need!

Ink on, B