The Difference Between Transparent and Opaque Watercolors

December 6, 2015

As I’m sure you already know, glazing or layering is everything in watercolor.   To succeed at watercolor you have to learn how to glaze.  However, there is one aspect to glazing that is also just as crucial.   It’s a problem most beginners face and even some expert artist struggle with.  What could it be?

transparent and opaque paint

Question ONE:

In watercolor terms it’s called transparency and opacity.  What does that mean? 

Well, let me ask you this… Have you ever noticed while you were painting a “chalky” film in your painting?   When I first encountered this, I honestly thought my paper was rubbing into my paint.  But when I started to do some research, I found that it had nothing to do with my paper.  Rather, it had everything to do with my paint.

Some watercolor paints are transparent meaning they appear to sit on top of the paper and allow a lot of light to pass through them.  Opaque watercolors are the exact opposite.  They allow little light to pass through and thus are less effective when layering. 

Question TWO:

So the next question you are probably asking is…How does this effect my painting?

  1. First, as stated earlier it’s good to know what are transparent colors and opaque colors because this will help prevent you from painting a chalky film onto your painting. 
  2. Next, transparent colors mix really with other watercolors, whether those colors are transparent or opaque.  In fact, they can tone down the chalkiness of opaque colors.   
  3. Third, Opaque colors when mixed together can cause a muddy appearance on your paper.  So if you are going for a muddy texture/appearance then this is good to know.  If not, perhaps you want to avoid mixing those colors together. 
  4. Fourth, when painting an opaque color over a transparent color that color is actually easier to “lift” or remove than a transparent color over an opaque. 

Question THREE:

Now you are probably wondering, how do I determine whether a watercolor paint is Transparent or Opaque?   Well, there are two ways.  First, most watercolor paint companies specifically tell you whether a paint is transparent or opaque or even semi-opaque which means just like what it sounds like-a paint somewhere in the middle. 

However, you can also determine this at home for yourself with a simple watercolor exercise.  Simple paint a long horizontal black stroke on a scratch piece of paper and then once it dries paint your watercolors colors in short vertical strokes on top of it.   If the paint appears to sit on top of the black stroke the paint is opaque.  If the paint appears to sit under the black paint, then the color is transparent. 

So now you know.  Happy painting and I will see you next time! 

14 responses to “The Difference Between Transparent and Opaque Watercolors”

  1. Anja says:

    Wow, I just had this question some days ago and was wondering why my paintings look so “chalky”. Thank you so much for your videos! I do learn a lot from you. I love it!

  2. Misfit says:

    You’re welcome 🙂

    • Ron says:

      Carrie, thank you so much for the best “Tutorial” watercolor videos that I could find. I have drawn all my life and started acrylic painting about 6 years ago. I have wanted to learn watercolor because of the vibrant paintings I have seen over the years. Your explanations and speed of explanations are very comprehensive. Training via video,Your #1 in my book. Thank you so much.

  3. Mimi says:

    Thank you do much. I am beginning and this is very helpful.

  4. Anthony Pfohl says:

    Excellent video work! The black stripe exercise is good stuff.

  5. Katie says:

    Thank you for this!!

  6. Joelle says:

    thanks for helping me with my art research ! it is indeed very helpful !

  7. Dom says:

    Thank you for your article!! Could you recommend watercolours that are not opaque? Thanks!

  8. E. G. Kane says:

    I have examined all my tubes and nowhere is there an indication which is transparent or opaque. I have Daniel Smith, Winsor Newton and others. I want to know before I buy. The only quality designation is the lightfastness.

  9. Anita Rubio says:

    I just received a new set of water colors for my birthday and wasn’t sure if they were opaque or transparent. Your black line test is AWESOME! Thank you sooo much !!

  10. Misfit says:

    So glad it helped ?

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