Gouache holds its own in the face of digital rivals
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It is at a small desk tucked into a “tiny corner” of her bedroom in Hertfordshire that Stasia Parker brings high jewellery designs to life on paper. The freelance jewellery designer and gouache illustrator creates detailed paintings of pieces to scale, marking a pencil outline before starting in gouache with the “hardest bit” — the gemstones. “They are so nuanced,” she says. “The cuts are all so different, the colours and the hues are so different.”
Many of her paintings depict finished jewellery, with brands using them for press and marketing purposes. Customers are also shown the illustrations to understand how a piece will look when it is produced, and then receive the artwork with their finished jewellery.
“It’s very much marketed as their process because that is part of the experience of high-end jewels, the artisanal process . . . all these skilled hands that the piece has passed through,” says Parker, who swapped a 15-year career as a diamond mounter for illustration at the start of the Covid pandemic.
It seems a timely switch: demand for gouache illustrations, a longstanding technique particularly popular with French houses, is growing.
While “everything that was done by hand is now under threat from computer-aided design [CAD]”, there has been a “resurgence” in gouache illustration in recent years, says freelance jewellery designer Jennifer Bloy. “For the better pieces of jewellery, particularly, people want that handmade, bespoke look and feel.”
Bloy, who is teaching a four-day jewellery gouache illustration course at The Goldsmiths’ Centre in London in September, is receiving more requests from clients — particularly small retailers offering bespoke design services.
Gouache is similar to watercolour but, because of the pigment in the paint, is opaque. Bloy says there is “a romance” to gouache designs. “And, to me, part of the creative process is to actually fill someone with enthusiasm and romance about the piece that they’re commissioning,” she says.
Sara Prentice, creative director of jeweller Garrard, says the hand-painted artwork with which she always finishes a design also helps the craftsperson making it to visualise the jewellery. She uses a mix of watercolour and gouache; the former to show the translucency in stones and the latter for diamonds and highlights.
Prentice, who has led jewel painting masterclasses for Garrard clients, says that, unlike the “working tool” of CAD, this medium “gives the piece sensitivity”. “Freehand with your paintbrush [and] you can get a little bit of soul into it,” she adds.
The trade show GemGenève has highlighted the traditional jewellery rendering technique for the past two years, running a gouache competition with three French-speaking technical schools in Switzerland.
For this year’s contest, students’ designs had to feature peridot stones based on pictures provided by mining company Fuli Gemstones, an exhibitor at the show, with entries on display at the event in May.
Fuli Gemstones is also a principal patron of the Goldsmiths’ Craft & Design Council awards, sponsoring a peridot jewellery 2D design category for the last two years. Parker won the gold award last year for her gouache of a pendant and earrings. So impressed was Fuli Gemstones with her Amulet collection that it had the pieces made, exhibiting them at GemGenève.
“If Stasia’s pieces had been [computer-generated] renders, then I don’t think they would have caught my eye as much as they did being gouache,” says Pia Tonna, Fuli Gemstones’ chief marketing officer. The company is also going to realise this year’s winning tiara design, a gouache by Kayla Rimmon.
Gouache is one of two techniques Belgian jewellery designer Fred Fa uses when creating his pieces, the other involving ballpoint pen and colour markers. It takes him between eight and 20 hours to do a gouache drawing of a ring, depending on the number of angles he shows, while a necklace can consume a week or more.
“It is true that technologies bring facilities that are obviously exploited in the jewellery industry,” he says. “But the authenticity of a work is a precious value and the big houses have always known it, except that previously only the pieces were valued.
“However, in recent years, the creative process, and in particular the gouache drawings, are highlighted by certain major jewellery brands as well as the presentation of their creator. This has given new visibility and value to freelance artists in the sector.”
Parker, though, is sworn to secrecy on the identity of her clients. Much of her work comes through The London Art Works, which manufactures for top jewellery houses.
She says technology can produce beautiful images and animations that are artworks in their own right but that she has also “seen some big houses try and pass off [digital painting software] Procreate as gouache”. “That’s a grey area,” she says. “Gouache is very popular, tech is very popular. The trouble comes when people are not honest about what technique they are using.” She hopes there is space in the industry for both digital and handcrafted approaches.
Garrard’s Prentice believes hand-painted designs are here to stay. “Ultimately, jewellery designing is an art form and it’s the pinnacle of that,” she says.