Painting a Black Hat with Gouache

How to paint a fabulous detail from Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

How to paint a black hat from Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun  | by The Daily Atelier

I want to know more about women painters in art history. I am more familiar with western European art history from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, and the courses I took on this topic did not give a lot of exposure to women artists. I realised that I needed to investigate further!

Today, I would like to work from this painting by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Vigée Le Brun was a very important French painter from the 18th century, who painted mostly portraits, in particular portraits of women. She was very successful – which was very unusual for a woman artist of her time – and she is said to have painted more than 900 pictures, including 600 portraits and 200 landscapes.

This painting is a portrait of the Comtesse de la Châtre. According to the Metropolitan Museum, the sitter was the daughter of Louis XV’s premier valet de chambre, and at the time of the painting she was the wife of the Comte de la Châtre (she later married François Arnail de Jaucourt).

Comtesse de la Châtre, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1789, Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Arts, New York, Gift of Jessie Woolworth Donahue, 1954.

I did not want to work on the entirety of the painting. I was interested only in the hat! So I chose to single out this detail. This hat is adorned with a black satin ribbon – as a detail, it is almost an abstract painting in itself. Once again, I chose to use black paper.

This is the detail I chose to work on.


Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (Paris, 1755 - Paris, 1842) was a French painter, one of the most successful women artists, particularly noted for her portraits of women.

First, I sketch the hat with white pencil on black paper |  Painting a Black Hat with Gouache , by The Daily Atelier

Step 1 – sketching the hat with white pencil

First, I sketched the hat with white pencil. If you are not familiar with my drawing technique, it is basically a three-step trial and error process:

  1. I look intently at a small part of the reference photo, as if it were some abstract shape.

  2. I try to reproduce it on paper, looking back and forth a lot between the photo and the drawing. Do the shapes look the same? Yes: keep it. No: erase and repeat.

  3. Then I look at my drawing again, not as geometrical shapes but as what it is supposed to look like. Does it look like the hat of my model? Yes: keep it. No: erase and repeat.

I also added a finishing touch of yellow pencil to the underside of the hat.

In the short video above, this runs from 00:00 to 00:44. It actually took me 10 minutes.


I had a cat inspection…

Step 2 – painting the hat with black and grey gouache

Then I used gouache to paint the hat in black and grey. When I paint with gouache, I almost always use the same two or three brushes. I have lots of other brushes, but I always come back to these:

  • My go-to brush is a soft round brush (size 18 in France).

  • Sometimes I add one or two flat bristle brushes.

For this painting I used only two colours to begin with: black and grey. I usually mix my gouache directly on a piece of the same paper as the one I am painting on, so I don’t have to guess how the colours will look on it. I am using almost the same materials I used  in this post about painting a hand.

You may notice that I sometimes used more, and sometimes less, water with my flat bristle brush. Sometimes, to add a little texture to the lighter parts, I used an almost dry brush. When working only in shades of black and grey, it is not easy to create contrasts so that the overall form of the hat can still be seen.

Also, you may notice that I received a short cat inspection. (He is my favourite co-worker and has an incredible work ethic.)

In the short video above, this runs from 00:44 to 02:02. It actually took me 22 minutes.


Step 3 – adding blue and yellow gouache accents

Last but not least, I worked with blue, turquoise and yellow gouache to add the finishing details and achieve a little more volume.

In the short video above, this runs from 02:02 to 04:06. It actually took me 10 minutes.


And voilà!

And voilà! This painting of a detail of Vigée Le Brun’s painting took me almost 45 minutes. You too can have a beautiful page for your sketchbook, or you may want to frame it and add it to your home.

I hope you have enjoyed this post. As always, I do not pretend to be a teacher, a seasoned artist or an expert in anything. I am just a very motivated learner who finds a deep joy in regular art practice.


The finished painting | Painting a Black Hat with Gouache, by The Daily Atelier


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