The Difference Between Transparent and Opaque Watercolors

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! 

About Author

Hi there! My name is Carrie and I'm a Watercolor Misfit! What's a Watercolor Misfit? Well, anyone who is willing to try new things and not afraid to get their hands covered in paint! So what do you say, are you a Misfit-ian?


  • Anja
    March 17, 2017 at 5:28 pm

    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!

  • Misfit
    March 21, 2017 at 11:59 pm

    You’re welcome :)

    • Ron
      July 8, 2019 at 1:41 pm

      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.

      • Misfit
        July 9, 2019 at 4:11 pm

        Aw :) Your comment made my day! Thanks so much! :D

  • Mimi
    February 14, 2018 at 10:26 pm

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

    • Misfit
      February 15, 2018 at 11:19 pm

      You’re welcome Mimi! Glad it’s helpful to you.

  • Anthony Pfohl
    March 28, 2018 at 1:26 pm

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

  • Katie
    June 11, 2018 at 4:55 am

    Thank you for this!!

    • Misfit
      June 13, 2018 at 8:51 pm

      you’re welcome :)

  • Joelle
    April 18, 2019 at 11:49 am

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

  • Dom
    November 26, 2019 at 1:01 pm

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

  • E. G. Kane
    January 17, 2020 at 5:48 am

    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.

  • Anita Rubio
    April 15, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    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 !!

  • Misfit
    April 16, 2020 at 5:56 pm

    So glad it helped ?


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