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Gnomes – gouache illustration tutorial

With a month’s slip, I’m dropping by with an gouache illustration I painted just before Christmas. It starred Christmas ornaments and gnomes. I recorded the whole process and talk about it in a video, which you can watch on my YouTube. Feel free to do so!

If you feel like painting or coloring with me, I have prepared a free coloring page download for signing up for my newsletter. Go ahead and treat yourself!

Illustration topic

The idea for the illustration was formed before Christmas, hence the appearance of toadstool baubles (immediately turns on the nostalgia of the 90s for me…), stars and Christmas tree branches in the background. I also like to paint gnomes, especially dressed up in folk costumes – I have a great weakness for Polish folklore! And since I live in the vicinity of Lowicz – hence the characteristic stripes.

The main figures and baubles in the background are framed by a frame, resembling the shape of a toadstool. This treatment is to help focus attention on the figures and separate them from the Christmas tree background.

Paper choice

I knew I would be painting with gouache, so I opted for watercolor paper. I recommend choosing this type if you also plan to paint with water colors. If you prefer to use markers or crayons, regular photocopy paper will also be ok.

Transferring contours to paper

Knowing that I was going to prepare the image in the form of a coloring page, instead of immediately drawing on paper, I refined the prepared quick sketch made in Infinite Painter. The issue was how to transfer it from the screen to paper. For this you can use the following methods:

  • If you have an iPad, you can use the free Lightbox app. After opening a coloring page in it and enlarging the image to the desired size, you just need to press the padlock icon to fix it and transfer it to paper with a pencil without any obstacles. Usually, a hand moving across the screen, even if separated by paper, causes the image on the screen to move, making it impossible to redraw. The application solves this problem. If it’s daytime, cover the window or…. hide yourself under a blanket 🙂
  • You can simply print the picture. If you plan to use paints – choose one of the versions with lighter lines – less risk of blurring when exposed to water.

I choose to use line transfer from the iPad, especially since I don’t care about transferring the pattern very accurately. I like to use a red automatic pencil for this. Red blends better than a regular graphite pencil or a purple stylus. This is important when painting with watercolors, there is a good chance that the sketch will show through the transparent layers of paint. Gouaches are opaque paints so it is likely that the sketch will be covered. So don’t worry if something has gone wrong.

Illustration color palette

I made a color sketch earlier in Infinite Painter to have a guideline. Although I accept that I will change my mind in the course of painting. It’s a lot of fun to let yourself be surprised by the process, to brush up and experiment! If you have a different color idea, but don’t know how it will work, it’s a good thing to make a small sample – traditionally in a sketchbook or digitally.

I knew I wanted to combine for Christmas colors – combination of red and green – a very tricky one! Why?

Because they are complementary, or in other words: contrasting colors. You will know them by the fact that they are on opposite sides of the so-called color wheel. Used in the same degree of saturation they compete strongly for attention, so you have to be careful with them. I decided to use red to paint accents (gnome hats, toadstool visors), calm green in the background. I complemented the whole with colors that coherently combine green and red – so there were also yellows, oranges and additionally pale pinks and purples. In this way, from a contrasting palette it became harmonious (colors adjacent to each other on the color wheel).

As a beginner illustrator, I didn’t get wrapped up in color theory. You can learn a lot by observation, and if you do a lot of practice, watch how established artists deal with color, color feeling comes on its own, intuitively. And yet it’s worthwhile to familiarize yourself with the theory! It definitely speeds up the color planning process and allows you to make decisions with more confidence and purpose! I mention more on this subject in the post Art Rules Tricked Me.


I have a whole box of Talens gouaches and I won’t hesitate to use them! They’re a good few years old now, some have gone moldy (I had to throw those away 😞) others are quite dried out. The good news is that, just like with watercolors, you can add water to them and bring them back to life again. Although scooping paint from bottles, rather than squeezing from tubes, does get the paint dirty. Fortunately, with gouache this is not as huge a problem as it is with watercolors.

The basic rules when working with gouache:

a lot of water = transparent layers like watercolors,

less water = opaque layers

So, if you use little water and the paints are opaque, you can easily cover the darker area with the lighter paint. Very useful!

What else to keep in mind?

  • the fact that gouaches dry quite fast, so if you want nice gradients with lots of water, it’s worth hurrying up
  • water reactivates the paint even after it dries, great if you need to touch up something, but you can also easily mess up already finished areas
  • with too many opaque layers, the paint can start to crack

I talked more about the advantages of gouaches in the post 5 reasons you should try gouaches.

And now: straight to paint!

Gouache underpainting

If you know exactly what you want your picture to look like, you can go straight to applying the opaque paint. I like to do the underpainting first. For several reasons:

  • it is easier later to cover the areas with opaque paint, the white sheet does not shine through from underneath.
  • in the case of a warm shade located underneath, it shows through in the unpainted areas afterwards, giving the picture more consistency, especially in the case of warm colors you can get a soft highlight effect.
  • it also gives me a preview of the distribution of light and dark areas, the placement of colors and to see if they look good with each other
  • I also like building up the color in layers, it gives interesting textures and more varied color combinations
  • the paint may appear darker while painting, it usually gets lighter after it dries,

This phase did not require great precision. For it, I used brushes made of synthetic, harder bristles (more comfortable than soft watercolor brushes): round and flat.

Opaque painting

You can use gouache to make pictures that are perfectly covered with paint. That’s why poster artists are so fond of this medium. Using opaque colors and applying the target color right away (a bit like in paint-by-numbers images) is difficult for me, especially with traditional techniques, where I can’t undo unwanted movement and mess up illustrations so easily.

The problematic part for me in this phase was calming down the green background branches. The green colors of the gouache I have are overly vibrant and my concept with the calm background was a bit shaky. Adding warm grays and reds to the green colors, helped calm them down a bit.

I also didn’t have to stress too much about the painted-on star or frame shapes here and there. I then stroked them with white acrylic gouache, which, unlike regular gouache, becomes waterproof after drying. I used a brush with thinner bristles for this. Thin, long brushes are great for smaller details.


And it was this brush that was used to paint details such as gnomes’ faces, hair, stripes on their clothes. I apply them with lines, because for such tasks this type of brush works best. I comfortably paint all sorts of essy-flores with it, thanks to the fact that its long tip is flexible.

I make the final touches with soft crayons. It draws well after gouache.I would be careful with the harder ones – they can scrape the paint.


For some time now I have been passionately using watercolor varnish, which also works well with gouache. Gouache colors, slightly bleached, chalky, when applied with it, gain saturation and depth. As if by magic! In addition, the varnish protects the paint from reactivation, and also increases resistance to fading, which is the bane of illustrations painted especially with water-based techniques.

The final stage was a scan and some gentle adjustments in Photoshop (removing spots, underpainting the gnome eyes). Throughout the process I wasn’t happy with the overly vivid green in the background, but when I calmed it down at the color correction stage, I found I liked the original version better. Apparently, the white frame separating the twigs from the figures and the green from the red worked well enough.

This is how my version presents itself. How about yours? If you managed to add color to it – show it! Tag me on instagram (@st.kamila) Or send by email. It always gives me great pleasure!