Painting on location has been a key part of my practice for several years and watercolour gouache has become one of my core materials to use, but I wanted to find a way to prepare and transport it as efficiently as possible without compromising on the qualities of the material itself. Here, I share my experiments preparing a watercolour gouache palette to use on location as well as tips for selecting your colours depending on location, season and atmosphere.
Painting on Location
My location painting kit has gone through many, many iterations – from taking a few pencils and a water brush with a tiny sketchbook and pre-made watercolour set, to a whole bag full of everything I love. Using mixed media the way that I do can end up being quite a heavy load on the back!
I like to be able to build layers of opaque paint, but I also love the transparent layers you can build with inks and watercolour. In the past I’ve taken individual tubes of paint with me, or self curated watercolour palettes, mixing ink and watercolour with gouache or acrylic gouache to get the consistency I wanted. This can be quite a long process, and it’s always messy! My friends will attest to the fact that I am not the neatest worker, and by the end of a drawing stint I would usually be surrounded by tubes and a very grubby, sludge coloured palette, full of half dried out paint that quickly became unusable (and natures detritus didn’t help either). I’ve been trying to find ways to make this easier for myself since late 2019, after I took a trip to London at Christmas to draw at the natural history museum with so many materials in my backpack I had to take a separate overnight bag and my shoulders hurt for the next three days. These days, I try to pack practically – to be aware of the space that I intend to draw, do a little bit of research and think about the colours I might use as well as the materials I might need.
Why Watercolour Gouache for Painting on Location?
I have tried a lot of different materials combinations along the way, always with the aim of getting the atmosphere of a place. I use dry materials like coloured pencils and pastels, because they travel so easily, and you can blend materials like the Derwent Inktense Pencils or Faber Castell Albrecht Durer Watercolour Markers with a water brush pen. Yet I always gravitate back towards water based paints or inks, and miss them when I don’t have them. I would always pack a white gouache or acrylic gouache, and then maybe a few individual colours that are a little unusual or harder to mix. I curated my own small watercolour palettes, but when taking to paper struggled to get the opacity I wanted in the final layers of my drawing without using a lot of pencil. When I first tried watercolour gouache, I realised that this medium could solve a lot of the problems I was having. I remember the first colours I picked of the Shin Han Pass Watercolour Gouache were Indigo, Linden Green, White and Shell Pink. They were on promotion, and they sounded interesting and I am definitely a sucker for an unusual product; but I was sceptical about how they would work, and if they really could perform as both watercolour and gouache.
I ended up rocketing through my first tubes, and quickly purchased another Indigo and White, worrying that they would sell out. (I’m like that – multiples of all my favourites just in case) I ended up using them regularly on location. Due to the matt nature of watercolour gouache, they are easy to layer and draw over, and they dry relatively quickly too, which is always helpful on location. You can also achieve larger areas of flat colour with gouache, but I preferred the soft midway point, where you can still just about see through a colour, and where lighter areas still granulate like a watercolour might. The versatility of these paints is really what makes them unique for me, and the ability to manipulate them and blend them with other materials is so important in my location drawing kit.
Problems I Encountered Preparing the Palette
The first time I tried to put my watercolour gouache into a palette, I hit a few bumps. The first was a very basic error. These paints are wet and they take a day or so to dry – learn from me, and don’t move the palette about before they have done. The first time I decanted into a palette I chose the Frank Herring Compact Palette, which is a good size, but also has quite a large hole in the bottom for when your watercolour gouache wants to turn to dust and escape. This is actually what happened – I noticed bright red flakes at the bottom of my bag, and discovered that all brighter and lighter pigments had cracked, and in the worst case, crumbled and fallen out altogether. I persevered by adding more paints of different colours and some of them seemed to stay in the palette better. However, these paints don’t behave like watercolour on the page or in the pan, and I found myself giving up and going back to my old methods of individual tubes and a small watercolour palette.
Finding a Way to Make it the Watercolour Gouache Stay in the Palette
I didn’t have a problem going back to my old way of working on location, but I was still frustrated by the individual tubes floating around at the bottom of every bag I owned. Typically, I almost never had the one I really wanted, either. I went back to looking at palettes, and after asking around discovered the Mijello Folding Plastic Palette. My thinking was that if this palette were airtight, the paint wouldn’t dry out, and to some extent it worked. However, the flaw in the plan was that I needed to open and use the palette in order to paint. Needless to say they also crumbled as well, just at a slightly slower speed. Again, I noticed it was the brighter colours that seemed to go first.
I had been experimenting with making some of my own watercolours with individual pigments, and seeing that Gum Arabic is regularly used in the production of watercolour as a pigment binder, I wondered, could this work for watercolour gouache too?
I chose three primary colours, to see if there was any obvious correlation between performance and pigment makeup. I used a palette knife to mix one small drop of Gum Arabic to approximately a 15 ml of paint, on a dry flat surface (I used a plane tile from a hardware store) and mixed the Gum Arabic in thoroughly. I wanted to compare how the paint applied normally, and with the Gum Arabic next to each other, so as to see and feel any differences.
I made swatches of both the Gum Arabic and normal paints before I put them in a palette, to compare how the two options performed. I didn’t expect it, but perhaps it makes sense that the pigment seemed to stretch further when mixed with the Gum Arabic. I had initially been worried that the pigment would be diluted, which would defeat the purpose of the whole experiment! The watercolour gouache retained its strength of colour and the matt finish, and I still felt able to build it to a full matt block of colour.
Picking it up again after this time, I could immediately hear rattling, and thought I’d have to go back to the drawing board and find another medium to make them last longer and stop breaking. Happily however, it seemed to work, and the paint with the Gum Arabic in appeared to have a lot less cracks than the pure paint. It was the yellow that had shattered completely, but when the Gum Arabic was in the paint it seemed to last longer. I decided to persevere and mix more colours with Gum Arabic, hoping that I was onto something. Across these three colours, there were still more visible cracks in the lighter colours, but they seemed to be staying put this time.
Preparing a Watercolour Gouache Colour Palette
When choosing a palette to take on location, there are multiple things I like to consider, but the main one for me is always the season. For example, in the winter I might add an extra blue, or an aubergine from the tube, and change a bright green for an earth green. In the Autumn I might add Burnt Sienna and Gold instead, to reflect not only the seasonal changes, but the atmosphere of a season.
Every palette I create has a warm and cool red, yellow, blue and white where applicable. From these, you can make almost every colour you need according to colour theory, and in the past this is all I have taken out with me. However, as I draw outside a lot, and usually choose a place with at least some foliage (my preference is a whole forest but that’s not always practical), I like to take some pre-mixed greens. I often use them straight from the tube, although I will always avoid anything called ‘grass green’ because, in my opinion, that colour name is a lie and almost never looks like grass. At the moment, in the UK, there’s a bright, almost luminous yellow green that comes through the leaves and grasses when the late sun hits the grass in the distance. There’s also warmer olive greens of slightly dry leaves which are colours that I’m reaching for a lot, so I chose to have those in pre-mixed form in my palette.
I also like to make my own blacks, as I feel a chromatic black can look somehow more natural in comparison to a black from the tube, and you can manipulate the colour balance to suit your drawing. For this watercolour gouache palette, I chose Brown Red, Shadow Green and Indigo to cover my ‘darks’ criteria.
I also opted for some bright and luminous individual colours that are either harder or impossible to mix yourself due to the pigment makeup, and a couple I thought I might use more of at this time of year. Cambridge seems to have a lot of purple flowers at the moment, so I packed a heliotrope, and of course, hardly used it. Lastly, I made sure there was plenty of white, and still took a tube along with me – although I didn’t need to use it for this drawing.
I found this colour range to work well for me at the Botanic Gardens in Cambridge. I know the place well, so had a good idea of what I might need, and I ended up using a lot of the pre-mixed greens as predicted. The most used were Sap Green and Linden Green. I also used the Luminous Yellow, and a touch of the (nearly luminous) Pink as a bright, but only in the smallest amounts! I recommend taking a palette with you that you can mix colours from, but also one that you feel most comfortable with. If you know that you love muted colours, consider adding a couple of those and maybe a bright accent, alongside the primary colours and white.
Choosing a Palette to Paint on Location
I chose a Studio Essentials Watertight Folding Plastic Palette 18 Well with ample room for mixing colours. I know I am a messy worker (the evidence is on my palette) so I need the space to mix away to my heart’s content. The shallow paint areas meant that I didn’t feel like I needed to mix a lot of the paint with the Gum Arabic, and was therefore less wasteful (especially as I wasn’t sure it would work at this point!) However, there is no reason why a normal palette with individual wells wouldn’t work for this. It would be worth experimenting with filling the wells like watercolour, but I suspect that if you filled a well too quickly and didn’t leave layers to dry, the watercolour gouache would be more likely to crack after drying. The airtight palette means that apart the time the palette is in use, the paint isn’t drying out, and therefore increases the longevity of the paint.
Mark Making with Watercolour Gouache
I love the range of textures and marks you can get with watercolour gouache. You can quite clearly see brushstrokes and areas where the paint is more opaque. I find this invaluable for adding flashes of brighter colour, or working over the top of existing marks. Generally, it’s very easy to work with, for me it is easier than watercolour, and feels more fluid when you squeeze it out of the tube too. You still get that beautiful granulation when you mix certain colours on your palette. When I mixed the Ultramarine Deep, Vermillion Hue and Permanent Yellow at different ratios, it was so easy to get a textured watercolour effect. On location I use a refillable water brush pen and due to the synthetic hairs they can take quite a bit of rough work and still retain their shape. Sometimes, I scrape the paint on, and I have been known to use my fingers too to get a softness when the paint is tacky. I should add that taking some kind of wet wipe with you is pretty essential if you want to try this method.
Some Final Thoughts on Preparing a Watercolour Gouache Palette for Painting on Location
I left the palette of watercolour gouache mixed with Gum Arabic alone for a couple of weeks. It’s been warm and dry here in the UK, and the palette was stored in boxes, but I was slightly disappointed to see on opening it again that a couple of the colours had crumbled. Some of them were the same culprits as before – the Cerulean and White both had deep cracks and were broken. However, the Lemon Yellow and Pink seem to have held up a lot better with the addition of Gum Arabic. This is an experiment where there are a lot of factors at play, and it could be the way the paint has spread (or not spread) in the pan, or how thoroughly I mixed the Gum Arabic in. I think it’s probably worth me adding a little more Gum Arabic to the colours that seem to crumble, as the change in the consistency whilst painting was minimal in my opinion. Or maybe I’ll try and find a different blue that has the same function in my palette, but is happier there! And, of course, take a separate tube of white along too. I do use a lot anyway!
If you are going on a break for a couple of weeks, and don’t want to take every tube of paint with you, I have found that this palette is a good alternative and won’t take up that precious liquid allowance and suitcase space. I’m going to persevere with adding Gum Arabic in different quantities, mainly because I feel like I’ve got an idea I don’t want to let go, but also for the sake of my back!