The Big Gouache Challenge with Maru Godas


Green roof at the California Academy of Sciences

Gouache is an opaque water-based medium. It has the easy cleanup of watercolors, but with the ability to layer the paint. I have tried painting with gouache a little over the past few years. In my imagination, gouache would let me create painterly sketches. I dreamed of glowing light and rich brush strokes. Acyclic without all the hazards and hangups of arcylic. In reality, I felt like a grade-school kid struggling with poster paint. I made dull, flat paintings that felt lifeless and muddy. After a few failed attempts to work gouache into my painting routine, I ready to put my gouaches in a drawer and forget about them.

Fortunately, my stubbornness got the best of me and I couldn’t give up. After posting about my struggles on Instagram, fellow SF Sketcher Cathy McAuliffe pointed me to Maru Godas’s work. Cathy mentioned Godas was coming to San Francisco and nudged me to sign up for one of Godas’s workshops. Godas’s paintings from the Chicago Urbank Sketcher’s Symposium blew me away. And the title of her SF workshop, Big Gouache & Mixed Media, had me hooked.

If you’ve seen one of my sketchbooks in person, I paint and sketch small. There’s a lot a brush stroke says in a small painting that gets lost in a big one (or at least you need a MUCH bigger brush to say.) There’s less commitment in a small page. I scribble and go. I’ve been able to scribble big on newsprint, but struggle with a large canvas when it comes to paint. Even though I’d struggled with this medium, I wanted a chance to try to paint big.


Big Gouache & Mixed Media the Maru Godas way

Godas’s workshop presented a great introduction to her big gouache sketching approach. She started by explaining how a limited pallet helps her express herself quickly. Fewer choices mean she can cut to the chase. No need to reach for the *right* blue. The only blue you have is the right blue.  

As far as her approach to layout, Godas likes to have an 8:5:3 ratio. Her paintings have a large element, a medium element, and a small element. The proportions of the elements use the Golden Ratio. Godas explained that people often play the role of the small element in her paintings. She explained that while they may be small, but they grab the eye and bring life to scenes.

Godas also uses mixed media as part of her painting. Ink, colored pencil, oil, and chalk pastels all add emphasis and details to her paintings. She also uses mixed media to build form and add diversity to her scenes. Alternating between line and brush can be a great way to show the layering and jumbled feeling of a city.

Godas’s plays with perspective and distortion for emphasis. She may exaggerate elements or bend the whole composition in a way to show movement and activity. One thing I found particularly interesting was how she plays with the point of view in her paintings. The Urban Sketching society follows a set of rules. Rule 1 is that our work should be about “…capturing what we see from direct observation.” Moderators can be a bit strict when it comes to this rule. It had me wondering: is envisioning a scene from a  vantage point 40ft up in the air a direct observation? Or is this covered under rule 2: “Our drawings tell the story of our surroundings…”? Godas’s work makes an argument that story of the place is as important as any literal representation of a place.

The workshop was a wonderful learning opportunity. I walked away with two paintings I thought were good starts. I had set low expectations for myself and had exceeded them. As we wrapped up for the day, Godas left us with a parting request: “ Go home and paint 8 big gouaches!”



The Big Gouache Challenge

The assignment was simple: take what we’d learned and apply it to 8 new large gouache paintings. Once finished, post each of the paintings to Instagram with the hashtag #biggouachechallenge. I’m a sucker for a good art challenge so I decided to give it a try.

13th St Dunes, Barnegat Light, NJ

13th St Dunes, Barnegat Light, NJ

I started out tentatively, sketching a landscape I’d been thinking about from a photo. I liked the range of greens and tans this pallet produced. I didn’t use the compositional ratios and distortions, but it was a good start. I put brush to paper.



Pacifica State Beach, Pacifica, CA

The second painting was special. I’ve been unable to surf for several months due to an injury. I painted this one on the beach after my first morning back surfing. I plan to write a post about how this injury impacted my drawing in a later blog post but for now: beach painting!

One of Godas’s other well known takes on gouache is to “Gouache like a Child.” Simplify things as you paint. Don’t worry your form or perspective isn’t perfect. This attitude was very helpful in painting this beach. The curve of this cove has been a challenge for me when I paint it realistically. It always looks “off.” With the “childlike” approach, I could skip trying to make it perfect and try for something that works.

I had a lot of hesitation around adding in the people. I had to convince myself that a few suggestive lines would be good enough. I had to have faith it wouldn’t ruin the painting. With practice, this will get easier.


Rockaway Beach, Pacifica, CA

Rockaway Beach, Pacifica, CA



Alamo Square, San Francisco, CA

Painting in Alamo Square was challenging. I’d hoped to use mixed media to help bring detail to the complicated house designs. Instead I felt it resulted in a muddy mess. I also found I couldn’t add whites back in like I wanted. They lost their crispness. It could be my watercolor background, but I’d rather preserve whites than add them.

This painting left me myself questioning whether “urban” sketching is right for me. I enjoy painting wild spaces so much more than fiddling with architectural details.  


I enjoyed working on this one of the green room above the California Academy of Sciences. This subject was perfect for practicing how textures scale from the background to the foreground. I leveraged contrast to separate the “hills” from each other. Variation in color became more important as the rolling “hills” of the roof got closer. I had to use brush strokes to define clearer edges and sharper details.


Dunes at Judah and Great Highway, San Francisco, CA

Dunes at Judah and Great Highway, San Francisco, CA

For this one at the Judah dunes, I felt like I completely departed from the exercise. There wasn’t a clear 8:5:3 structure. I didn’t use distortion. The mixed media served more as an add-on than anything else. It does have an 8:3 composition and I’m very happy with how the intersection and far off hills turned out.



Seal Rocks and the Camera Obscura, San Francisco, CA

Here I went all out for the distortion, had a better 8:5:3 ratio, but I struggled to incorporate the mixed media. I’m not sure what it is that keeps me from including it. Is stopping to reach for another tool while I’m in the act of painting is too big a barrier for me to cross? It mat help to plan before I start painting where I want the mixed media to be and what role I want them to play. In Godas’s paintings, the mixed media plays diverse roles. It can add detail to a scene or separate the subject from supporting elements. I know there are many options for using mixed media. I need to find the ones that are right for me.



Younger Lagoon, Santa Cruz, CA

I painted this one while on a field trip with The Nature Journal Club. I didn’t use distortion here opting to focus on the contrast of the surf against the cliffs. I used mixed media for texture.  


What I learned

I learned that many of the watercolor techniques I was already using work well here.

I worked on giving up my fear of ruining a big piece of paper. Instead of seeing a failure on a big sheet as a big failure, I’m learning to see it as an opportunity to try a composition from a new perspective on a new page.

I aimed for expressive, not perfect, and got to some good results.

I learned to love gouache straight from the tube. Unlike watercolor that can be re-wet over and over, gouache is a medium best used wet. It’s not impossible to use dry, but it’s much easier to work with fresh paint. Many artists have airtight pallets to keep their gouache wet. Even in a tight pallet, my gouache was drying out. It added an unnecessary level of stress to painting with this medium. Rather than wrestle with pallets, I opted to bring tubes of paint with me on location. I refill my pallet as needed. I didn’t have to worry about returning to a dried out or moldy pallet, but I always had nice wet paint.


What’s next?

This is a tricky question to answer.

Short answer: go bigger! These “big” gouaches were only 8¼ x 22 inches. It would be fun to try something larger, like a full watercolor sheet (30×22in) or even a half sheet at 15×22. Or I could try other mediums at a larger scale. It would be nice to give big watercolors a second chance.

Longer answer: While it’s interesting and fun to try to paint according to another artists style or instructions, it’s not something one can do indefinitely. At some point, all artists have to make something that is their own. I’m struggling to figure out what that means for me here. Is using Godas’s color pallet too much appropriation of her work? Are our subject matter or our styles different enough that I can call what I am painting my own? For right now, I’m going to keep painting and keep thinking and see where that takes me.



Other gouache painters who have inspired me

While this post is about the Big Gouache Challenge, I’d be doing a great disservice if I didn’t also mention these wonderful gouache painters. Each of these painters has inspired me to keep at gouache painting. Their workshops, classes, youtube channels, and process photos are a valuable resource.

  • Nina Khashchina – Nina is an SF Bay area urban sketcher who recently completed 100 gouache paintings of Silicon Valley. I’ve taken one or her gouache workshops. She is a wonderful teacher.
  • Heather Martin – Heather is another SF Bay area artist and illustrator. Her plein air gouaches have this dreamy light brush strokes combines with energetic colors. She also has a youtube channel where she shares her painting process.
  • Nathan Fowkes – Natan paints amazing gestural landscapes. He also has several wonderful courses on Schoolism about using gouache and understanding painting composition. I highly recommend them.
  • Mike Hernandez – Mike’s plein air seascapes always stop me in my tracks. His work is definitely worth a follow.
  • Bill Singleton – Bill is also a part of the Nature Journal Club. He regularly shares his gouache observations of the Sonoran desert. His youtube channel is informative with answers to gouache painting questions.



Prints are up in my Etsy Store

I created prints from several of these paintings. They available in my Etsy shop. I’m offering free shipping on any items purchased before December 17th so order soon!