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!



Artist-in-residency practice at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore




Beach House Blowout, Trail 9, Indiana Dunes State Park


Through the magic of Twitter, I stumbled on Lucy Bellwood’s amazing comic “Mappin’ the Floor: A Scientific High-Seas Adventure.” It was thrilling. It had adventure. It had science. It told a great story of professional passions and discovery. It was beautiful. It spoke to me, and I fell in love with it

When I saw that Bellwood created her comic as part of an artist-in-residency program I nearly jumped out of my seat. I had the sudden realization that “I could totally do something cool like this!” Unfortunately, I had already missed the deadline for this specific program. But with a little research, I found a wealth of other similar programs to explore!

It turns out many regional and national parks have residency programs. These programs are a way for parks to generate public interest. The parks provide lodging and amazing scenery. The artist agrees to donate art or give a talk about what it’s like to be an artist-in-residence at this park. Artist-in-residencies are more than an opportunity to create art. They are an opportunity to share the mission and the spirit of a place in a way that reaches far outside the park.

They are such a popular form of community outreach that there are plenty to choose from. California alone has seven active residencies (I’ll have links to these at the end.) There are six in Alaska, one in Hawaii, and even one in the Dry Tortugas. For me, the choice was easy. I chose the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is home. It is 15,000 acres on 15 miles of Lake Michigan lakeshore. It’s a rapidly changing place subject to erosion, flooding, fire, and industry. It’s different every time I visit, but it is always beautiful.



Marsh Sunset off US 12


The Application Process

Swooning over a place is one thing, putting down into words exactly what you’re going to do while you’re there is another. As a casual sketch-artist, I haven’t had to write about my work. I’ll post a little process on Instagram here and there, but it’s hardly “application” grade material.

I broke it down into 5 steps.  


Step 1: Overcome imposter syndrome.

  • “Is my work good enough to apply?”
  • “Why would they pick me when there are so many better artists?”
  • “What if they pick me and I fail?”

Those are real things I actually said about a dozen times during this process. Everyone feels this way sometimes, especially when out of their element.

Whenever I teach friends how to surf, I try to frame each awkward moment in the learning process as practice. You practice carrying everything to the beach. You practice putting all the gear on. You practice getting out past the waves. Learning to surf is not only riding a wave but all the small steps that get you there. Feeling silly or out of place is one step in many. Focusing on learning makes it more likely you’ll keep going, not matter how much of an imposter you feel you are.

This idea kept me going while staring at that blank application page. Whenever I’d question whether I even deserve to apply I’d tell myself: It’s all practice. I am practicing organizing my ideas. I am practicing talking about my work. I am practicing putting myself out there. And if I fail, that’s practice, too.


Step 2: Pick a topic and organize your ideas

The next step was deciding on a topic. “Oohing and ahhing” over how great the dunes are wasn’t going to cut it.  I read through the application to make sure I was considering all the requirements. I had a few ideas that I fleshed out with research.

The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is the home of the Theory of Ecological Succession. Henry Chandler Cowles came up with his theory studying the Indiana Dunes. His research focused on how the environment changed from bare sand to thriving forests or wetlands and back again. Cowles contributions to ecology helped scientists see the world not as rigid ecosystems, but as places that change over time.

I wanted to document the changing landscapes that Cowles saw. I wanted to learn about all the plants and animals that contributed to and benefitted from these changes.


Step 3: Write, rewrite, and have a good editor (or two)

This was the most laborious part of the process. I started with an outline. For each bullet point, I included notes about what I wanted the reader to take away from that section. I wrote and rewrote three drafts using Google docs to track my work. I put together art samples and described how each of my past works of art related to my plan for this residency.

I didn’t do it alone. I had help from some fantastic writers in my life. They helped me hone my message, tighten up my language, and fix all my typos. I couldn’t have done it without them and they have my eternal gratitude.

To make life a little easier for them, I ran my drafts through automated editing programs. I used Grammarly and Hemmingway, to look for basic grammar and spelling mistakes. Both are free. While the final pass still needed a human touch, these robot-editors helped get the easy fixes out of the way.


Step 4: Mail it in and wait.

The application process differs from residency to residency. For the Dunes, I had to physically mail my application in with a USB drive of my work. I mailed it in with three weeks to spare before the deadline, in case the mail took longer than expected.

The application also required I provide a self-addressed stamped envelope. This allowed the judges to return my drive with their decision. If I have one tip for those applying by physical mail: get tracking numbers. I got tracking numbers on both the package there and the package back. It didn’t cost very much and was worth it for my sanity.


Step 5: Focus on what you’ve learned

When my self-addressed stamped envelope came back, it included a rejection letter. I wasn’t surprised. This was my first time ever applying. It’s a learning process. I had learned how to apply for a residency and now I was practicing receiving rejection letters. This setback was an opportunity to improve and try again.




In the spirit of practice

Sure, I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get in but in the spirit of practice I went anyway. I thought this would be a great chance to see how well my proposal actually worked in real life.

My family lives in the area near the Dunes so I was fortunate to have a place to stay. Their town is surrounded on all sides by the park. I could do all the things I’d planned to do without the pressure of having to show something for it at the end.

I planned to go out in the field and paint at least once a day. I thought I’d take a few mediums (watercolor, gouache, chalk pastels, and pen and ink) and see where the mood took me. I had a few ideas about what “changing landscapes” I wanted to paint. I wanted to paint erosion-prone areas and areas in recovery. I wanted to paint the main ecosystems including dunes, marshes, grasslands, and forests. I wanted to paint how the dunes change in shadows and sunlight.


What I learned

It was a great two weeks. I hiked with my brother almost every day to scout locations in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and the Indiana Dunes State Park. I learned so much from this residency trial run.

A few things that went well

  • I got to see parts of the park I’d never been to before
  • I made the effort to go out and see parts of the park in different light:
    • early morning, bright sun, warm sunset, etc
  • I learned so much about the different ecosystems within the park
  • I learned about the different plants that are a part of ecological succession and got to see many in person.
  • I was able to take advantage of park programs like the guided walks
  • I had plenty of time to paint


Where I struggled

First, I’m not as tough as I’d like to think I am. It was HOT. I didn’t wind up painting on location as much as I’d hoped. I took photos and reference sketches back home and painted when it cooled down. I also realized I am afraid of ticks. I wouldn’t have been quite so hot if I wasn’t wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants tucked into my socks. But if I did that, I’d be a walking buffet for ticks so I sweated it out. Everything I wore was UV protecting, insect repelling, and sweat soaked. I washed my painting clothes every night.

The main challenge I faced was lack of focus. A few days in I realized why I didn’t get into the program. My proposal was over ambitious. I’d said to the judges the equivalent of: “I want to paint everything in every medium in every style every day.” I was so caught up in the possibilities of what I could do with this residency, I didn’t get down to specifics. I “oooed and aaahd” but in fancier sounding words. Had I gone with this plan as a resident, I would have been all over the place. There’s no telling what I would have come up with beyond “paintings.” If I had it to do over again, I would have picked one thing to focus on in one medium.

Because of this lack of focus, I took 24 pounds of art supplies with me. That was quite the carry-on. Had I limited myself to one medium, I could have cut that weight by more than half. I only took the chalks out once! The lesson again here is to focus. I don’t need to paint the entire world with every possible medium today. I can do one medium well per visit and save something for the next trip.

I also wish I’d tried to connect with rangers or local naturalists to learn more about specific areas. Had I selected an area of focus,  it would have been easier to find the right person to reach out to.

This is why we practice, to try something new, to learn from it, and do it better next time. I now have volumes to think about for my next trip and plenty of new experiments to try.



Eastern Prickly Pear, Opuntia humifusa, native to the Great Lakes


What’s next?

This experience showed me much I love painting dunes. I want to do a series of dune landscapes. I’ve already visited Indiana and New Jersey. Now want to visit dunes in California and Oregon to see how dunes differ from coast to coast. I want to come back to the Indiana Dunes and document how they change season to season and year to year. I don’t need the residency to continue to visit, but I’d like to re-apply once I’ve found the right thing to focus my residency on.

I’ve had so much help through this process and learned so much. If you’re considering applying for a residency and have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I’m happy to help. My writing skills may still need work, but I can offer encouragement and support.



View towards Chicago from Dune Succession Trail Steps, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore


Links to Artist-in-Residencies mentioned above:

California Artist-in-Residencies

Alaska Artist-in Residencies

Michigan Artist-in-Residency

  • Good Hart Artist Residency Community partnerships often have artist-in-residencies as well. I received this one from a good friend in Petoskey. Their goal is to celebrate the beauty of Lake Michigan and the artist community of the Good Hart/Petoskey area.



New prints up on Etsy!

I’ve added prints of my Dunes work to my Etsy store and I hope to add more prints of my inktober work and gouache paintings soon. Thank you to all my previous buyers for your continued support.