New challenge: gouache and bookbinding

I miss colour. Honestly, I love ink but I do liked having splashes of colour in my work every now and then and since September, I’ve done virtually no painting whatsoever. With Spring now officially here, what a perfect time to start up a new nature journal!

A return to painting

My plan is to use gouache (pronounced “gwash”). If you’ve not heard of this medium, it’s a bit of a hybrid – it functions like opaque watercolour… but (and this is where it really stands out), it’s reworkable. You can leave a painting for a year if you want and then go back to it and activate the dried paint layers.

There is another kind known as acrylic gouache but like acrylic, it’s not reworkable once dry.

Talens Gouache

Left: creating a colour wheel with my Talens gouache

Unlike watercolour, there doesn’t seem to be that much information available in books or online about just how to get the most out of this versatile medium so I’ll be learning as I go so they’ll be a lot of fails! But that’s ok – it’s important for growth.

I’ll be using 50ml pots of Talens gouache that I bought in Spain while I was travelling. Pots aren’t the most efficient way of painting plein-air where pans would be a better option, so my plan is more to bring back little finds and work on them in my studio.

So where does the bookbinding come in?

As gouache is opaque by nature, it can look really great on toned paper to make the colours pop even more, but as a water-based medium, thick paper is essential. But I couldn’t find one single toned paper heavyweight sketchbook. Zip. But I did come across artists making their own sketchbooks on You Tube so thought I’d give it a go.

Making the book

  • I started off with an A3 pad of 250gsm toned paper made by Clairefontaine and bought some organic cotton fabric from the lovely people at to line the covers. The covers themselves are just 3mm thick recycled greyboard that I use for sending my prints out. As for the bookbinding kit, I bought a little cheap one online with various bits and pieces – I’m not even sure what all of those things are for!
  • Next I folded the pages using a bone folder that I sanded down to give a bit more of a point. I don’t know if that made any difference but it was recommended. It’s important to try and fold along the grain, rather than across it, but as I’d bought A3 to turn into an A4 book, I only had one folding option. Each of these folded pages is known as a signature – based on people using their initials on each one when books were bound by hand. I stacked the signatures and left them overnight under one my partner’s weights to squash them down
  • I then cut my fabric, took some glue and attached it to the covers with a 1.5cm overlap on the back. In this instance, I used Mod Podge but I found out afterwards that you can make a paste from wheat flour which would have been my preference but I now know for next time
  • To hide the join, I cut up a bit of mixed media paper than I’m not keen on and glued that onto the inside and back cover, though it did warp a bit due to its thickness. Traditionally, you’d glue the first page and last pages to the cover - I skipped that as the covers are only slightly larger than my paper, but you could also use some decorative paper here
  • I also made a punching trough and template. This isn’t completely necessary, though it can help with ensuring you punch holes in the signatures in exactly the same places. Some people just use the template on it’s own and eyeball centering it inside the signature. The trough is also recycled greyboard and the template is just a piece of scrap paper folded that is the same length as your pages, or height of your book
  • The template itself it a piece of scrap A4 (it must be the same height as your book) and I've put some dots down the middle to mark where I want my sewing stations to be. These will vary depending on the size of your book and your choice of sewing pattern
Punching the signatures
    Above: punching the signatures using the template and trough
    • The signature is placed inside the trough, the template on top, and then I used an awl to punch holes where indicated on your template. I did the same for the covers using just the template as the holes are punched in from the top, rather along the fold of the signatures. For the covers, I just punched a hole for the top, middle and bottom
    • Despite my best attempts, things still didn’t quite line up but good enough! In hindsight, I think it might have been better to punch four signatures at once, rather than one or two
    Signatures and cover
      • The next step was to place the first signature on the back cover and then start stitching together using waxed thread. I know absolutely nothing about sewing so just followed some instructions on chain stitches and French stitches. I did mess up a few times, including yanking the thread to hard which ripped the paper, and I also ran out of thread, requiring me to attach another length. I repeated the whole process for each signature and then added the final cover on top.
      Sewing the book

        And that’s it! Certainly not difficult to do a basic book, but very time-consuming, particularly as a first attempt.

        It’s not quite finished. I’m wondering what to do with those dangling threads and how to turn them into embellishments – maybe adding some beads? Also, I’d like to make a bookmark and linoprint the fabric on the front. Off white wasn’t the best choice and my cat has already put his grubby little mitts on it, but I thought dyeing it with turmeric might have been too jarring with those sand-coloured pages.

        Gouache painting

        Now I’ve just not got to get too precious about it and not want to “ruin” it with my beginner gouache attempts. I’ll update you with how I get on!

        So what do you think? It's not perfect - the binding isn't as tight as I would have liked so I'll need to investigate how I can improve for next time.  

        If you want to try bookbinding yourself, there’s a number of books available to help you get to grips with the basics, as well as a FB group here. What a beautiful thing to create for yourself or as a gift for another person!

        Aside from drawings, you could create books to record favourite quotes, document your dreams, keep your food and herbal recipes, as a daily journal, or to record ideas if you’re a writer – there’s so many possibilities! This book certainly won’t be my last.

        Meanwhile, if you'd like to give bookbinding a go, I'd love to see your creations and if you have any questions, leave me a comment and I'll try my best to help.

        If you'd like to keep up to date with my gouache journey and make sure you never miss a post, sign up to my newsletter in the footer :)

        Finished book


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