How To Mix and Use Gouache for Calligraphy

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In today's blog post, I'm hoping to shed a little light on making your own colors for calligraphy using an incredibly popular medium, gouache! Over on Instagram new calligraphers seem to have lots of questions on this topic, so I hope I can be helpful to you as you navigate making your own custom colors! As always, please leave comments with questions and I would be happy to answer them.

What is gouache?

Gouache is an opaque watercolor paint. Unlike traditional watercolors where you can see through the ink to the paper, gouache can be applied as a solid color. It dries matte, and not glossy.

Why use gouache?

When you use gouache you can literally make any color that you or a client desires instead of hunting for an out of the bottle premixed ink. You need very few colors on hand (basically the primary colors) to mix just about anything you can dream up. You can also double their use for painting if you so desire!

Types of gouache

There are many art supply companies that make gouache at varying price points. The higher end companies (like Winsor & Newton) will give you the best and most vibrant results, but there is nothing wrong with starting out with a cheaper set to get your feet wet and see what you like. I mostly purchase the Holbein Artists’ Gouache and have great results.

Mixing your Gouache

a. First consider how much ink you will need for your project. If you are just doing a small piece, you will need to use very little gouache, but if you are doing an entire set of 200 envelopes you will want to make much more. You don't have to make so much that your pen can dip into the ink well, you can always apply it to your nib with a paint brush for a small job.

b. Use a dinky dip or other airtight container and squeeze in the amount of gouache you will need for your project size. About a centimeter of paint will be enough for an envelope or other small project, but you'll need to give it a good squeeze for a big job!

c. Use an eyedropper to add 2-3 drops of distilled water at a time and stir with a paintbrush as you go. It's very important to only add a drop or so at a time as you don't want your ink to get too runny. You want your mixture to end up about the consistency of half and half.

Why distilled water? It is less likely to cause your ink to mold.

d. Add a few drops of gum arabic. This step is not 100% essential, but I tend to do this because it makes the ink a little more durable and easier to erase beneath. It also thickens the ink slightly, so if your mixture is a little bit too thin, this will help bind it together. If I am doing a job for a client, I always add gum arabic to my custom inks. I prefer the liquid gum arabic from Winsor & Newton.

Tip: If you have an ink that is bleeding on your paper, try adding a few drops of gum arabic to see if that helps! 

e. If needed, add Ox Gall Liquid. Adding a couple of drops of Ox Gall Liquid does basically the opposite of gum arabic. It will make your ink flow more readily instead of thickening. If you have an ink that is particularly stubborn to flow off of the nib, this may be worth trying!

A few other tips:

  • Gouache usually dries differently than it looks in your ink well. Make sure to test it and let it fully dry so you have an accurate look at how the color will turn out on your piece!
  • If you are creating an art piece that you are worried may get wet and have the ink run, you can always spray it lightly with a spray enamel to set the ink. A good one is the Krylon Matte Satin Finish Spray Enamel (found at any art supply store).
  • DO NOT mix ink and gouache! You can generally mix ink and ink and gouache and gouache, but do not mix the two together.
  • Using gum arabic also makes your color go moldy faster, so try to make only what you need to use, as it will go bad on your shelf in a couple of weeks otherwise.

I'd love to hear what you think! Do you have other methods of mixing your gouache? Are you hitting any rough spots and need some advice? Leave a comment, and I would be happy to answer!

xx Meg