Gouache (pronounced gwash) is an opaque watercolor. It is made of the same dry pigments of transparent watercolor with a binder of gum arabic but in a greater proportion of binder to pigment. This makes the paint film thicker and heavier, and not as ideal for washes, For this reason, the dry pigments are not ground as finely in gouache as they are in watercolor. Like watercolor, gouache is water-soluble and can be reactivated when dry, even years later.
Higher quality paints, such as Winsor & Newton's Designer Gouache (Buy from Amazon), have a higher proportion of dry pigment. Lesser quality paints use an inert white pigment such as blanc fixe or precipitated chalk that makes the gouache opaque and increases its smoothness and brightness. Higher quality gouache paints achieve their opaque quality by the very high proportion of pigment. Some pigments are naturally more transparent than others, though, some manufacturers may include some inert pigment even in higher quality paints.
See Artists & Illustrators article, Best Gouache Paints, for a list of gouache paint recommendations.
Small amounts of glycerin and preservative are added to tube gouache to help retain moisture and prevent bacteria growth. Some gouache contains a wetting agent (oxgall) that makes the paint easier to spread. Some paint also contains a plasticizer that improves spreadability and prevents drying out in the tube.
For information directly from paint manufacturers about the ingredients in their gouache, see Dinotopia creator James Gurney's blog Gouache Ingredients: Info from Manufacturers.
High-quality gouache gives strong, bright, matte, opaque colors that dry flat with a velvety surface, is easy to work with, blend well, and are easy to photograph and reproduce, thus making them popular with designers and illustrators. Gouache may vary somewhat in permanence (lightfastness), coverage, and finish depending on the particular manufacturer.
Read about the history of gouache at handprint.com.
Gouache paints are very versatile and gouache paintings can take on many different appearances depending on the style of the artist. They can resemble oil paintings in thickness and blending of paint, particularly if a varnish is applied, or they can be more like an illustration with flat bold color, or more like a watercolor with soft washes and glazes. Because they dry fast and are portable they are perfect for doing quick studies and sketches in your sketchbook or art journal. Give them a try!