Dynamism and ardour in art: the guazzo or gouache

The guazzo is a painting technique widely used in Europe since the sixteenth century although it never gave birth to a school. It derives from a Latin or perhaps Germanic word: anyway, the common root lies in the concepts of water and impetus.


In order to fully understand the technique, it is appropriate to begin from the origin of the word “guazzo” (in French and English “gouache”), fought between the ancient Germanic language and the Tuscan vernacular derived from Latin.

The first hypothesis is supported by the plosive labiovelar gw– imported into Italy in Roman times by people who lived in the north of the River Rhine. When these barbarians dived and floundered to cross a river, they used the verb wazzar, similar to the German Wasser and that in Italian would first become the verb guazzare and then the adverb guazzo, both semantically attributable to the meanings of water and movement.

Even in the ancient Roman there was a term for river-crossing: vadum, translated in current Italian guado, because of a secondary Germanization and the root vad-(stronger form of ud, whose genesis is the Sanskrit udan “wet”). According to the Vocabolario della Crusca, guazzo is the Tuscan popular form of the word guado, recognizable in this sense in two verses of Dante’s Divine Comedy and in one quote from the Decameron of Boccaccio.


During the sixteenth century in Europe it was invented a way of painting with a mixture of water, pigment and grout sticked together by gum Arabic: the result was a more opaque and lighter paint colors compared to tempera. This new technique is distinguished by the tempera for another reason: the use of binding agents of plant origin that dried very quickly, requiring extreme rapidity of execution, evident in the immediacy of the brush stroke.

This technique, characterized by the force of the artist and by a liquidity denser than watercolor, found the appropriate name of guazzo in the sixteenth century and was mainly used to perform the preliminary sketches of the great works in oils. In the eighteenth century, it spreaded to France under the name of gouache and in the nineteenth century it was widely used for the construction of billboards. In the twentieth century, major artists such as Picasso, Moore, Sutherland and Ben Shahn approached the technique on a variety of surfaces, including paper, cardboard, wood and canvas. Today, the gouache is still employed in the production of decals and in the scenic design.


The gouache is a painting technique difficult to master, that requires great performance skill and self-confidence in the design, since the colors should not be touched. Even if the grout guarantees the pearly brightness typical of the oils, it lightens too much the painting when it dries; that’s why it is difficult to find the right shade, especially if the work is accomplished in several stages. After that, it is important to pay attention to the thickness of the layer of color because with thermal excursions micro-fissures can appear and remain even after drying.

Despite the technical difficulties, the gouache can be associated with other techniques and it is suitable on paper, canvas, wood and cardboard. Moreover, painting in gouache requests a simply a palette of eight colors: black ivory, cobalt blue, raw umber, burnt sienna, cadmium red, emerald green, Naples yellow, yellow ocher and zinc white. The colors is industrially prepared in a tube or by grinding the pigments with white of Spain and diluting with distilled water and gum Arabic.

Gen Paul’s gouaches

Gen Paul was one of the twentieth century’s artist that widely used of gouache in his works. Originally, the choice to rely on a technique so hard to use was probably due to his economic difficulties, since gouache is less expensive with diluted colors; later gouaches became the ideal vehicle to express his style, characterized by synthetic and impetuous brush stroke that gave dynamism to the works.

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