Watercolour vs Gouache vs Acrylic: What's the Difference?

Sometimes, as artists, we want to try them all! And by “them”, I mean all the different art media, especially the ones that are similar to what we’re familiar with. 

Today, we’ll be looking more closely at water-based paints – namely watercolour, gouache, and acrylic paint. So if you’re looking to try out a different medium, but aren’t too sure about the difference, then keep on reading below!

Transparency in Watercolour

When we say “water-based paints”, it means paints with some water mixed into their formula make (or turn it) into a more fluid form. None of these are as thirsty for water as watercolour is (hence the name!), so we’ll look at this medium first.

Watercolour’s unique trait is its transparency. This means that good quality watercolour will be somewhat transparent or translucent unless you squeeze it straight out of the tube onto paper (in which case you’re doing it wrong…). Here's what you should know before buying watercolour paints. 

It’s why many watercolourists don’t use white paint, as the white of the paper acts as the substitute instead (so they dilute the paint with more water to increase its transparency).

This also means that the bottom layers of colour will affect the layers above, as you’ll be able to see through all the layers and cause them to have a “cellophane” effect due to their transparency. On the flipside, mistakes will be hard to hide completely, as they will pretty much show through.

Another trait is that due to the makeup of watercolour paint, it’s the least permanent out of the three paints, as it’s still possible to “lift” paint off the page if you rewet the paint and gently scrub at it with a clean brush. And you definitely don’t want to let a finished watercolour painting anywhere near water!

Another thing to note is that you can only use watercolour on more absorbent surfaces such as watercolour paper and white- or cream-coloured papers for the colours to show properly.

Watercolour is such a “soft” paint that the best brushes to use with it are natural hair brushes, as the softer bristles won’t be ruined by watercolour paint, plus they’re able to hold more liquid to provide for the paint. There's a lot of brushes out on the market right now, so here's a guide on how to pick the right paintbrush. 

On the aesthetic side, watercolour has the “softest” feel, as you can get some really smooth and organic blends from the water moving on the paper’s surface. If your art style leans towards a light-hearted feeling, then this is the medium for you.

On the practical side, it’s easy to clean up, convenient to travel with (as its dried form rewets easily), and quick to use (e.g. you can lay down a large wash of colour).

In fact, it’s so easily useable that it comes in 3 different forms: tube, pan, and stick! And while it might feel the most expensive out of the three (as good quality watercolour costs the most per millilitre), it balances out because a tiny bit goes a long way. 

All in all, if you’re someone who likes the soft brightness of watercolour and its portability, then this is a good medium to at least try! If not, then perhaps the next medium will interest you.

Interested in learning more about the medium? Check out our Introduction to Watercolour series! 

In-between Gouache

Gouache (pronounced “goo-ash” or “goo-ish”) is the in-between medium that can be like watercolour or acrylic. I would say it leans more towards watercolour though since it’s sometimes referred to as “opaque watercolour”.

This is because if you dilute it with enough water, you can get a consistency like watercolour, and you can even mix it with watercolour to get different colours. However, if you use it thickly or almost straight out of the tube, it will dry opaque, like acrylic paint is.

You can even get some texturing on the surface if you layer it thick enough, although it won’t be as textured as acrylic paint can get. 

It’s also like watercolour in the sense that you can rewet dried gouache paint, which means you can do lifting techniques with it (to a certain extent). So it’s a tiny bit more permanent than watercolour but not as permanent as acrylic paint.

But because you can still reuse it when it’s dry, it comes in both tube and pan form, though the latter isn’t as commonly seen.

Additionally, since it’s an opaque paint, you can cover mistakes as you do with acrylic paint. However, unlike acrylic paint, you may disturb the underlying layers if you add too much water.

This is especially true if you use a synthetic paintbrush with stiffer bristles, but the upside is that you can still use any kind of paintbrush for gouache, as it washes off easily. 

Aesthetically, you can get the same effects as you do with watercolour, but you can also get very sharp and bright colours with the added opacity. It’s also relatively convenient to travel with, although some people prefer to use it straight out of the tube instead of pre-squeezed in a palette.

But the creamy, matte surface of gouache has its own charm, so there are plenty of Plein air artists who use gouache too!

Practically, most gouache artists paint on watercolour paper as well, though the paint is thick enough to use on other surfaces like wood or canvas (though it’s best to prep these surfaces with gesso beforehand). Price-wise, it tends to be more expensive than acrylic, but again, a little can go a long way, so you’re not losing out.

If you have a more illustrative art style or even a more flexible style that likes to incorporate different things, then this is the medium for you! You can get a taste of both worlds and use them to your advantage. 

Want to learn more? Check out our Introduction to Gouache series for a more in-depth look at the medium! 

Bold Acrylic

Last but not least is acrylic paint. While it still shares some similarities with the other two paints, such as being water-soluble, it’s the most different in the sense that it dries permanent.

Even when super-diluted, it won’t come out once dry, so you can easily cover mistakes whenever! It makes painting a light colour on a dark colour much easier, so you can get some really bold shapes without worrying about messing up.

This also means that you can paint on almost any kind of surface, though most people use canvas or wood for more durability. It’s the most resistant to abnormal weather conditions and regular wear-and-tear as well, so some even use it on household furniture or walls. 

It dries the fastest out of the three paints, and since underlying layers can’t move once dry, it’s harder to get a smooth blend with acrylic than it is with watercolour or gouache paint. It can also dry with a “glossy” or even “plasticky” feel (hence the name “acrylic” paint), and you can make a very textured surface if you want. 

This means the best type of brushes to use with acrylic are synthetic brushes, as the thicker paint will ruin the softer bristles of a natural hair paintbrush.

Don’t let these traits deter you, though – acrylic is one of the cheapest types of paint, so it’s an excellent choice for the artist on a budget! Ultimately, if your style loves the bright and bold, and the weight of a thicker texture, then acrylic is the medium for you.

Final Thoughts

If you’re still unsure of which medium to use, the best way is to try each one for yourself. There’s no teacher better than experience, so you’ll never truly know until you try! And you don’t have to stick to just one, either, as most art techniques are transferrable across different paint media. 

All in all, I hope you find a paint that fits you best and that this blog post has helped shed some light on these paint differences! I’ve only touched on the major points of difference, but it should be enough to make a solid start. I wish you all the best and happy painting!

Which of these three paints have you tried before? Do you have a favourite, or is it hard to settle on just one? Share with us in the comments below!

Also, if you’re interested in learning more tips and tricks about making art, feel free to subscribe to our email newsletter. Whether you’re testing things out, or want to dive deeper, we’ll notify you of all the latest happenings with Etchr!

Nicola Tsoi is a practicing graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy. 
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