Tubes of acrylic and gouache paint

Acrylics and gouache are water based paints that clean up with soap and water. While they can have similar appearances, they each have unique properties which make for completely different painting experiences. 

What is the difference between acrylics and gouache? Gouache paint is opaque watercolor then remains water soluble after it dries. You can use it on paper or illustration board. Acrylic paint is water resistant when dry and you can use it on a variety of surfaces. Gouache dries to a matte finish and acrylics can have a matte, satin, or glossy finish.

In this post, I’m referring to traditional gouache which uses gum arabic as a binder. Acrylic gouache is a completely different type of paint–it’s essentially acrylic paint with a matte finish. I wrote a review of Liquitex acrylic gouache if you’re interested in learning more about it. 

Below is a table of the basic differences between acrylics and gouache. I explain each of these characteristics individually throughout the rest of the post. Feel free to use the table of contents to skip the sections to jump to the section you’re interested in. 

The conclusion covers the question of which paint is better, but as you might suspect, the answer is subjective. It depends upon what you’re trying to accomplish with your art.

Affiliate Disclosure: all of the text and photo links in this post that lead to Blick Art Materials are affiliate links. This means that if you click on them and make a purchase, I receive a commission at no cost to you.

Characteristics/properties Gouache Acrylic
Binder Gum Arabic Acrylic emulsion
Water Resistant when dry No Yes
Substrates Paper, Illustration board Paper, canvas, metal, wood, glass, fabric, walls
Prone to Cracking Yes, in thick layers. No problems with thin layers. No
Framing Required Optional
Surface Sheen Matte Matte, satin, glossy
Blending Easy to achieve More difficult, although retarder helps
Textures Smooth Wide variety of textures are possible
Consistency Paste like and similar to tube watercolors Ink, fluid, heavy body, extra thick
Vibrancy of colors Bright colors available, but some are slightly milky Many bright colors available
Opacity Mostly opaque, some semi opaque pigments Wide range from opaque to transparent
Color shift as it dries Yes Yes
Able to reactive dry paint Yes No
Paint over previous layers Yes, but you may reactivate the paint in the previous layers Yes, paint as many layers as you like. Doesn’t disturb previous dry layers.
Odor Virtually odorless, but varies by brand Odorless or faint ammonia smell, varies by brand
Characteristics/properties Gouache Acrylic
Binder Gum Arabic Acrylic emulsion
Water Resistant when dry No Yes
Substrates Paper, Illustration board Paper, canvas, metal, wood, glass, fabric, walls
An example of a gouache painting with smooth blending.
“Moon Over Williamsville”
Gouache on watercolor paper
Chris Breier

The Differences Between Gouache and Acrylics Explained

The comparison table should give you a good idea of the differences between gouache and acrylics. I expanded upon each characteristic below in case something wasn’t clear or if you were looking for a more in depth explanation.

Binders – Gum Arabic vs Acrylic Polymer

Paint is essentially dry pigment mixed with a binder. You can think of the binder as the glue that holds the pigments together and makes it stick to the canvas or paper.

The qualities of each painting medium is determined by the type of binder it contains. Most of the qualities that I cover in the rest of the post stem from the differences in the binder.

Gouache Uses Gum Arabic as a Binder

Gum arabic is the hardened sap of Acacia trees and it has many uses. For example, it’s used in food, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. You can read more about gum arabic on Wikipedia.

It’s the same binder that’s used in watercolors. It’s water soluble and it can crack when you use it in thick layers.

By comparison, acrylic paints use an acrylic polymer as the binder. It’s an emulsion that’s water soluble when it’s wet, but is water resistant when dry. 

Dry acrylic paint is basically a flexible and stretchy film of plastic. 

An example of a black and white gouache painting.
“Stop & Gas”
Gouache on watercolor paper
Chris Breier

Water Resistance Comparison

Acrylic paints are water resistant when dry. You can add as many layers to an acrylic painting as you want. There’s no limit to how many layers you can add to an acrylic painting. 

Acrylic paint will dry to the touch within 5-10 minutes so you don’t have to wait long before you can paint over mistakes. However, the drying times can vary greatly depending upon the weather and the brand of paint. 

You can read more about this in my post about how long it takes for acrylics to dry.

I should mention that there’s a difference between acrylic paint that’s dry to the touch and fully cured paint. An extra thick layer of acrylic may be dry to the touch on the surface, but is still wet on the inside. You might reactivate it if you scrub over it too vigorously with a brush. 

This rarely happens but it’s something to consider when working in an extra thick manner.

Gouache paint remains water soluble, even after it’s dry. 

This can be an advantage if you want to work back into a dry layer to soften edges or blend it further.

You can also lift gouache like you can with watercolors. Lifting is when you scrub a layer of paint with a wet brush to lighten it. I use lifting to lighten areas or to fix subtle mistakes.

While you can definitely work in multiple layers with gouache, you have to be careful not to reactivate the colors in the previous layers. 

It helps to make sure the previous layer is totally dry before you paint over it. I sometimes use a hairdryer to dry the existing layers. If you’re looking for a hair dryer, this small foldable hair dryer on Amazon won’t take up too much space in your studio.

Another tip is to try to overpaint existing layers with as little fussing as possible. In other words, try to put the stroke down and leave it. The more that you scrub over it, the more likely it is you’ll stir up the colors beneath it.

The water solubility of gouache also means you should frame your gouache paintings to protect them. I discuss this further in the section on framing.

Holbein Artists’ Gouache and Sets

from: Blick Art Materials

Suitable Substrates For Gouache and Acrylics

Gouache is typically used on watercolor paper and illustration boards. There are many great watercolor papers to choose from. You can’t go wrong with Arches watercolor blocks.

The cold press texture is probably the most popular, but if you prefer smooth paper they also have a hot press version. 

If you’re a beginner, you can read more about what a watercolor block is and how to use one.

Arches Natural White Watercolor Paper

from: Blick Art Materials

Gouache really isn’t suitable for use on slick materials such as glass, metal, or smooth plastic. You definitely can’t use it on fabrics, such as a T-shirt, as it would come out in the wash.

Acrylics are much more versatile than gouache when it comes to the substrates that you can use them on. 

With a properly prepared surface, you can use acrylics on paper, canvas, metal, glass, and exterior walls.

Materials such as wood may require sand and an application of primer to achieve maximum adhesion and durability.

You can successfully use acrylics on fabrics if you follow the manufacturer’s instructions. There are acrylic fabric mediums available which will improve how the paint performs on fabrics.

The Liquitex fabric medium claims that you don’t need to heat set it with an iron, although I’ve never tested it. Golden fabric medium is another option.

Thick Layers of Gouache May Crack, Acrylics Have No Issues

Thicker layers of gouache have a tendency to crack, especially on flexible supports like thin paper. 

Gouache doesn’t crack if you use it in a normal fashion and apply it in thin layers.

I have old gouache paintings on paper and there are no cracks in them at all. When you use them as intended, they shouldn’t crack. 

It helps to use a thicker paper for gouache paintings, such as 140lb watercolor paper. Illustration boards are even thicker and more rigid.

I don’t recommend using it to build up texture like you would with oils or acrylics.

I’ve noticed that the leftover gouache on my palette cracks as it dries. I believe the paint shrinks as it dries and it cracks because the gum arabic is somewhat brittle. 

So if you like to create thick textures with paint, gouache may not be the medium that you’re looking for.

I test the flexibility of acrylics at 5:39

Acrylic, on the other hand, is very flexible. In my YouTube video above about how to make acrylic thicker, I test the flexibility of acrylic paint by folding the leftover dry acrylic paint in half. It doesn’t crack at all. 

The acrylic binder is flexible so you can apply it in thicker layers. 

Framing Options

Gouache paintings should be framed behind glass when they’re done to protect them from accidental water damage. 

Any small droplets of water that land on the surface of the gouache painting can disrupt the paint and leave a mark. 

I’ve found that the surface of gouache painting can become scuffed if you handle them without care.

Acrylic paintings have many more options when it comes to how you can present them. 

Since acrylic paint is water resistant, you can display them with or without a frame. Glass isn’t necessary, especially for acrylic paintings on canvas.

Generally speaking, most paintings on paper require framing so you can display them on a wall. So even though acrylic paintings on paper aren’t as delicate as gouache paintings you probably will still want to frame them. 

A good picture frame can also improve the presentation of your artwork. I give away plenty of framing tips in my video about how to frame canvas panels.

Smooth blending with Golden OPEN acrylics
“Three Macs”
Golden OPEN acrylics on canvas panel
Chris Breier

Surface Sheen

Gouache paint dries to a velvety matte finish that produces virtually no glare. This is one of the reasons why it’s popular among illustrators and commercial artists. The lack of glare makes it easier to photograph. 

In addition, gouache blends well but doesn’t take as long to dry as oils. This is helpful for Illustrators who work under tight deadlines.

You may be tempted to varnish a gouache painting to make it glossier but it’s risky.

According to Winsor & Newton, you shouldn’t varnish a traditional gouache painting. There are some that say they use varnish over gouache, but others have ended up with disappointing results.

Traditional gouache paintings have a matte surface, if you want your paintings to have a high gloss finish you may want to consider painting in oils or acrylics. 

Most brands of acrylics dry to a satin finish, but you can apply a coat of gloss medium to make it glossier. 

If you prefer the matte finish there are matte acrylics and acrylic gouache that dry to a matte surface.

Blending- Acrylics vs Gouche

The fast drying nature of acrylics can make them difficult to blend. 

Since you can’t reactivate acrylics with water, once the paint dries you can’t go back in with a brush to continue blending.

One solution that I often recommend is to add retarder to your acrylics or to use Golden’s OPEN acrylics, but that’s a topic for another post. 

An example painting created with Golden OPEN acrylics
“Lemon Water”
I used Golden’s OPEN Acrylics in this painting. They stay wet longer which makes it easier to create soft edges like you see on the lemon.

Another trick is to mist the paint with water as you work to keep it from drying out, but it’s tricky.

By comparison, gouache is easier to blend and to create soft edges. You don’t have to rush to blend the colors before they dry out.

As I mentioned previously, working over a previous layer of gouache can often reactivate or lift it. This can be an advantage if you want to continue blending.

Texture- Gouache Is Smooth, Acrylics Have More Options

Gouache paintings are smooth and have very little texture, except for the texture of the paper.

You should apply traditional gouache in relatively thin layers so that it doesn’t crack. I’ve seen some gouache paintings that have a slight amount of brush textures but it’s subtle. 

Acrylics are what you’re looking for if you’re looking to work in thick textures. 

Heavy body acrylics are as thick as oils and you can create a lot of textures with the palette knife or brush. You can read my post about how to make acrylics thicker if you’re interested in creating thick textures with acrylics. It includes a video demonstration of a palette knife painting.

There are a variety of gels and mediums that you can use with acrylics to create textures. There are gels that contain glass beads, sand, fibers, pumice, and more.


Straight from the tube, gouache has a pasty consistency. Many artists add a little water to thin it out to suit their preferences. 

The consistency can also vary a little depending upon the brand.

An example of a watercolor and gouache sketch from my sketchbook.
This is a gouache and watercolor sketch from one of my sketchbooks.

You can thin out gouache with water and apply in thin layers like you would with watercolor paint. Even though the paint is considered to be opaque, thinning it out with water will make it more transparent.

Thin application of gouache will have more of a muted or chalky appearance compared to traditional watercolors because of the opacity

Acrylics are available in a wide variety of consistencies.

The most common type of acrylic paints are the heavy body acrylics. These acrylics have a consistency that’s similar to oil paints.

You can use heavy body acrylics to create thick textures.

Many beginners aren’t aware that acrylics are available in a wide range of consistencies.

There are acrylic inks, fluid acrylics, and heavy body acrylics.

You’ll have a much easier time if you buy the acrylics that have the consistency that will work best with the techniques you want to pursue. 

For example, if you want to use acrylics like watercolor, then you want to use fluid acrylics or acrylic inks. Heavy body acrylics work best for creating thick textures, and acrylic inks will work best in paint markers or with dip pens.

Opacity & Available Colors 

Acrylics are available in a wide range of colors. Some of them are opaque while others are transparent and have a luminous quality to them. 

If you’re interested in creating the most vibrant colors possible, you should think about working with transparent pigments. 

This is because transparent colors tend to create pure and vivid colors. For example, the transparency of watercolors are what make them so vibrant.

I wrote more about this in my post about how to make acrylics more vibrant

While gouache paintings can have vibrant colors, they’re not quite as brilliant as transparent pigments. The opacity can give them a slightly milky or dull appearance.

There are some lines of gouache that offer fluorescent colors that are quite vivid. These pigments usually aren’t lightfast which means they will eventually fade.

One consideration that applies to both acrylics and gouache is the cheapest brands of paint contain fillers and less pigment. These off brands of paint may not offer the most brilliant colors. 

Color Shift in Gouache and Acrylics

Both acrylics and gouache paints can shift in color as the paint dries. 

Please note that while artists often refer to it as color shift, it’s more like a change in value than it is a change in color. 

With gouache, the darks tend to get lighter as they dry. You may notice that some of the lighter colors dry slightly darker. 

Acrylics are mostly known for drying darker. Some colors dry darker than others. As you gain experience you will know which ones shift more than others. I cover this more in detail in my post about why acrylics dry darker.

Most of the time the effect is subtle and you will learn how to compensate for it.

Fixing Mistakes – Gouache vs Acrylics

The way that you fix most mistakes with acrylics is to paint over them. 

Acrylics dry fast and there are a number of opaque pigments available that you can just paint over anything that you need to fix. 

This is a good example where you can perceive a specific quality of a medium as being a positive or negative. 

Artists often complain that acrylics dry too quickly when they’re trying to blend colors. But the fast drying nature of acrylic paints allow you to create many layers of paint and to correct mistakes without having to wait for it to dry. 

That can be an advantage if you like to work fast, correct as you go, and work in multiple layers.

With traditional gouache, you can paint over previous layers but there is the possibility of lifting some of the previous layer of paint. I discuss this more in the section on water resistance.

As with watercolors, you can use a wet brush to lift some of the existing gouache paint to lighten it or to fix mistakes. 

Gouache and Acrylics Are Virtually Odorless

Acrylic paint doesn’t have much of an odor. If anything, you may notice a slight ammonia smell but I normally don’t smell anything when I work with them.

I wrote about this in depth in my post- Does Acrylic Paint Have an Odor?

I’ve been using Holbein gouache and I can’t detect an odor at all. From what I’ve read online, other brands of gouache may have a slight odor to them. If you’re like me, and don’t like using smelly paints, I would recommend picking up a Holbein gouache set.

Another thing to keep in mind is that if your gouache or acrylic paint smells really bad, there’s a chance that your acrylics have gone bad. Some of the ingredients spoil and become moldy. 

Which Is Better- Gouache or Acrylics?

This really depends upon what you’re trying to accomplish, and the type of painting style you’re trying to emulate. 

Acrylics are great if you like having a lot of options or require a painting medium that isn’t as delicate as gouache. 

Acrylics can be thick or thin, matte or glossy, and you can use them on numerous surfaces. The transparent pigments and others are opaque, and they’re available in a variety of viscosities. 

You have many options for displaying acrylic paintings. Gallery wrapped canvases are thicker and are often hung on a wall without a frame. 

Viscosity refers to the consistency of the paint, high viscosity paint is thicker while low viscosity paint is thin and flows easily.

Traditional gouache is great for creating subtle blends, and soft edges. The look that you can create with gouache is more subtle and the surface has a unique velvety, matte finish. 

Gouache is more delicate than acrylics and it’s prone to water damage. But that can also be an advantage when you need to rework an area. In a way, it’s a little more traditional than acrylics because you’re basically limited to working on paper or illustration board.

I like using gouache on cold press paper because I like the subtle texture that it gives the painting. For a smoother finish, you can try hot press watercolor paper. I like the one from Fabriano but Arches is good too.

If you’re having trouble deciding, another option is to try them both. There’s no reason why you have to limit yourself to one painting medium.

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