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Understanding the Differences Between Opaque and Transparent Watercolors

Updated on October 24, 2014

Opaque Watercolor Paints

Have you ever played around with watercolor paints and then noticed a chalky appearance on your painting after it dried? If so, you were probably using opaque watercolor paints.

When I first became interested in watercolor painting and decided to move from my kid-oriented el-cheapo set to something a little nicer, I thought that opaque paint must be better than transparent paint. "Transparent" sounded cheap and flimsy and like it wouldn't deliver bright colors, so I picked out a set of opaque watercolor paints, watched a bunch of painting tutorial videos online, and started playing around.

My mostly opaque watercolor paints
My mostly opaque watercolor paints | Source

After a little while, I decided I wanted to learn more about watercolors and enrolled in watercolor painting classes with a real, live artist instead of a screen. One of the first things my teacher insisted was that I should only ever use transparent paints and that transparent watercolors are the key to glowing, luminous colors. As I studied the medium more, I learned that many watercolor artists feel this way, and that most watercolorists who use opaque paints only use them in moderation and in conjunction with transparent paints. Transparent watercolor paints are what give watercolor paints their unique glow and enable artists to capture beautiful scenes of sparking water and still lives with cut crystal and shimmering vases.

Some of my transparent watercolor paints
Some of my transparent watercolor paints | Source

Opaque vs Transparent Watercolor Paints

To put it simply, transparent watercolor paints are, well, transparent! They allow any previously applied colors, and even the background paper, to shine through. Opaque watercolors block out whatever is behind them.

In my experience, transparent watercolors not only allow you to create paintings with more depth by layering colors, but they also allow you to more effetely blend colors and create more natural-looking scenes. To demonstrate this, I drew up two quick mangos.

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I then wet the left-hand mango with clean water and painted it using wet on wet techniques and opaque paints. I attempted to encourage the paint to mingle. Using the exact same brush and the same wet on wet application, I painted the right-hand mango using transparent paints.

The opaque mango's colors do look a bit more vibrant, but they also didn't mingle well. The red portion looks red, the yellow yellow, and so on. It doesn't look very realistic! The transparent mango looks more soft and the colors mingled easily into each other.

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When you look at the opaque mango up close, you can see where the pigments tried to blend, but didn't quite succeed. The colors don't look very natural on top of one another.

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Here are a few more examples of quick paintings I've done this month with opaque watercolors.

You can see the same unwillingness to mingle in this tree.

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This little imaginary mountain landscape shows how the opaque paints fairly effectively block out the colors behind them.

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In contrast, these (unfinished) mangos show how transparent paints coexist. The top right mango, in particular, shows the yellow shining through both red and green, adding luminesce to the fruit.

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How to Test your Watercolors for Transparency

It's very easy to find out whether your watercolor paints are transparent or opaque, even if they don't tell you on the label. First, take a piece of watercolor paper and draw a thick, dark line of permanent marker down the middle.

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Next, paint stripes of the colors you wish to test. Paint from one side of the marker line across it to the other side, as shown below.

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Once the paints have dried, look at where the paint stripes cross the permanent marker line. If there is a distinct tint of color/a chalky residue, the paint is opaque. The top three paints in the photo below are opaque. The yellow's residue is most visible, but the red and blue also left a residue behind.

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If you can see some hint of color but there is no residue, the paint is transparent.The bottom three paints in the photo below are transparent. You can see a bit of color where the paints cross the black line, but mostly in places where the marker line did not fully cover the paper. There is no chalky residue.

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Are Transparent or Opaque Watercolors Better?

Ultimately, whether you use opaque or transparent watercolors depends on you and what you want to accomplish with your paintings. While many professional watercolor artists do use primarily transparent paints, there's nothing inherently wrong about using opaque paints. My set of opaque paints cost me about $25, but tubes of transparent paint I own cost somewhere between $7 and $12 each. If you're just getting started with watercolor painting and plan to watch a lot of tutorial videos and see if you enjoy it, I see no reason not to experiment with a set of opaque watercolors that cost a bit less.

Resources for Studying Transparent Watercolors

Even though I still play around with my opaque watercolors, my painting instructor has convinced me that transparent watercolor paints are the key to creating rich, vibrant paintings. One of the books she recommended for really understanding transparent colors and how to mingle them to create beautiful, luminescent colors is Daring Color by Anne Abgott. If you just do a quick internet search for her artwork, I think you'll be very impressed!

Anne Abgott isn't the only artist who favors using transparent watercolors - Soon Y. Warren also an excellent book that discusses how to use transparent colors to the fullest in order to create paintings that seem to shine. Painting Vibrant Watercolors has a thorough explanation of the differences between color value and hue, as well as how to create captivating compositions. The second half of the book contains multiple step by step examples of how Warren creates her paintings in multiple layers from an initial pencil sketch to completion.

Of course, the best way to learn about watercolor painting and improve your skills is to paint! Get your brushes wet every day, enjoy yourself, and remember that you never have to share a painting with someone else if you decide you don't like it.

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    • kschimmel profile image

      Kimberly Schimmel 2 years ago from North Carolina, USA

      Oh, I haven't painted in so long--but now I want to go get some paints! It is transparency that makes watercolor so versatile. I love to play with colors, so the more I can layer them, the better!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I haven't painted for some time, either, but I always preferred transparent watercolors to opaque ones. Thanks for sharing the useful information and photos.

    • Natashalh profile image
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      Natasha 2 years ago from Hawaii

      With transparent colors you can just layer, layer, layer! Some artists say areas of their paintings have up to a dozen layers on them.

    • Natashalh profile image
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      Natasha 2 years ago from Hawaii

      Aren't the transparent colors so beautiful? I hope you find the time to paint again soon!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Natasha - Wonderful, informative, and pleasing to the eye Hub. Love it. My grandmother painted in watercolors and there was a lot of blending and mingling of soft colors. I think she must have primarily used transparent watercolors. Wonderful. :)

    • Natashalh profile image
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      Natasha 2 years ago from Hawaii

      I've really come to love the soft appearance of watercolors. I feel like a watercolor painting can really tell you how something is, not just how it looks. If that makes any sense! They're so perfect for capturing moods and generating an overall feeling instead of just capturing all the details like a photo.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

      Your explanation with visuals is extremely helpful and should assist aspiring artists.

    • Natashalh profile image
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      Natasha 2 years ago from Hawaii

      Thanks so much!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 2 years ago

      You are a true artist and teach your subject with great flair. I love the example used with the mango. I tried watercolor once but found the experience a bit too challenging. I admire your talent!

    • Natashalh profile image
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      Natasha 2 years ago from Hawaii

      Thank you! You are too kind. Watercolors are challenging, but I love working with them.

    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 2 years ago from South Carolina

      Hi Natashalh,

      Great tutorial with specific examples and wonderful illustrations!

      Voted up across the board, except for funny, and shared.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 2 years ago from USA

      Good explanation of the difference between opaque and transparent watercolors. When I think of opaque watercolors, I think of poster paints, not something I'd use on my good watercolor paper. I love the transparency of good watercolors and use them exclusively! Although transparent watercolors are more expensive, there are student grades that cost less, but still give you that lovely watery look. Enjoyed your article and demonstration pictures! Voted up!

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Never realized the difference. I thought all watercolors were transparent. Amazingly beautiful photos in the hub. Voted up, beautiful and sharing!

    • starstream profile image

      Dreamer at heart 2 years ago from Northern California

      This is helpful to understand the way watercolors mix. I am inspired to try a few small sketches today to experiment. Life is full of color. It is important to experiment with this to better understand it.

    • Natashalh profile image
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      Natasha 2 years ago from Hawaii

      Thanks for voting and sharing! I've been thinking about doing more watercolor tutorials, but it keeps being super grey and cloudy out so I can't get good pictures.

    • Natashalh profile image
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      Natasha 2 years ago from Hawaii

      There are definitely some student grade transparent watercolors. Opaque paints just aren't the same at all! Even "good" paints don't have to cost that much, especially if you an catch a sale on Cheap Joes!

    • Natashalh profile image
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      Natasha 2 years ago from Hawaii

      Thank you so much! I was the opposite - I didn't realize for the longest time that there were transparent watercolors.

    • Natashalh profile image
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      Natasha 2 years ago from Hawaii

      Experimenting with color is so much fun! I've been doing a lot of painting this week and have really enjoyed it. Thanks for stopping in!

    • Rachel L Alba profile image

      Rachel L Alba 24 months ago from Every Day Cooking and Baking

      I used to love to do art work but I used to use chalk. But now the paint, especially the way you describe everything looks so pretty. I thought when I retired that I would have more time. Well, now I am retired but still don't have much time, but I will make time. Thank you for making this hub so interesting.

      Blessings to you.

    • randomcreative profile image

      Rose Clearfield 24 months ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

      Thanks for putting together this fantastic resource. I know next to nothing about watercolors and learned so much from this article. Thanks again!

    • Natashalh profile image
      Author

      Natasha 23 months ago from Hawaii

      I've noticed that's how life tends to be - we think we'll have more time once x or y happens, but it never seems to work out! Best of luck finding time for art again.

    • Natashalh profile image
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      Natasha 23 months ago from Hawaii

      I didn't know much about watercolors until I started taking classes last fall! They've been really fun and I'm trying to plan a trip this summer around a workshop that's being offered by one of my favorite artists.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 23 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      Great hub, Natasha, about the two different types of paints. You've done a good job on describing the differences between the two real well. Very useful and voted up!

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