Understanding the Differences Between Opaque and Transparent Watercolors
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This little imaginary mountain landscape shows how the opaque paints fairly effectively block out the colors behind them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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