Why Does It Matter If My Paint Is Transparent Or Opaque…As Long As I Like The Color?

Knowing a paint’s attributes puts you a step ahead as an artist. By being familiar with whether a pigment is transparent or opaque, staining or non-staining, saturated or unsaturated, for instance, you will begin to be able to predict how the paint will behave. Understanding your pigments is an important step in getting the results you want and in being successful as a painter.

TRANSPARENT VS. OPAQUE:

A TRANSPARENT color maintains its luminosity or brightness because it allows the white of the watercolor paper to reflect back through the paint to the viewer’s eye. Since a transparent color lets light through, it is possible to create the illusion of a ‘glow’ of light in a painting.

 

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Apple Blossoms – You can see the first layers of color through the transparent pigments.

In contrast, an OPAQUE watercolor pigment blocks the light and prevents luminosity. While thinning an opaque color can make it somewhat more transparent, it will then lose intensity (strength). In general, you cannot see the white of the paper through an opaque paint. The more opaque a color is, the more it blocks the white of the paper, particularly if it is layered.

STAINING VS. NON-STAINING TRANSPARENTS:

If you plan to glaze one color on top of another color to create optical color mixing, use transparent colors. If you want to create the effects of light and produce a ‘glow’, use a paled, transparent color.

Be aware that there are both STAINING and NON-STAINING transparent colors.

STAINING TRANSPARENT pigments, such as Indian yellow, Phthalo/Winsor Blue, Phthalo/Winsor Green, Prussian Blue/AntwerpBlue, Phthalo Violet, are bold and intense. They are NOT easily lifted. Because they are transparent, they will NOT produce mud IF mixed with other transparent  colors. Mixed full strength, they create rich darks.

NON-STAINING TRANSPARENT pigments, such as Permanent Rose, Aureolin Yellow, Viridian, or Cobalt Blue, on the other hand, are delicate and can be lifted easily. They are ideal for glazing, layering, or mixing a transparent gray from primary colors.

Still other pigments, like Lemon Yellow, Gamboge, Quinacridone Rose, Cobalt Violet, Sap Green, or Ultramarine Blue, are LOW-STAINING and transparent to semi-transparent. Intensity of these colors is average, and they can be partially lifted.

If you wish to lift one color of a mixture and reveal a second color underneath (e.g. by blotting out clouds or scraping paint back to create rock texture or a tree trunk), then combine a staining pigment with a non-staining pigment.

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Stormy Hills – Opaque pigments do not allow earlier color layers to show through.

OPAQUE colors tend to be less bright, although semi-opaque pigments, such as Cadmium Red, Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Yellow, or Cadmium Lemon, can be somewhat luminous when thinned or diluted. The opaque earth colors, like Indian Red, Light Red, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Umber, Sepia, Indigo, or Cerulean Blue, are often LOW-STAINING and UNSATURATED (not a vivid bright). Burnt Sienna and Raw Sienna, earth colors, are a bit unusual in that they can be transparent. Remember that adding an opaque color to a paint mixture or layering with an opaque pigment will make creating ‘muddy’ color more likely. Further, if you begin a painting with opaque color, you’ll probably lose the effect of light.

CREATE A COLOR CHART TO DETERMINE TRANSPARENCY:

Transparency and opaqueness of paint pigments can vary quite a bit by manufacturer. For example, Raw Sienna ranges from yellow to orange to brown depending on the company that formulates it. So, get to know the specific paints YOU have on your palette by creating a color chart. First, draw a line with a black permanent marker (or waterproof India ink). Allow to dry. Paint swatches of medium dark paint over the black line. Transparent colors won’t cover the black line. Opaque colors will. Staining colors will look dark.

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Two Color Chart examples.

IN SUMMARY:

Most organic or synthetic paints are transparent, while earth colors tend to be semi-opaque or opaque. The transparent pigments are the most versatile type of watercolor. They remain transparent when mixed with other transparent colors. Opaque colors, on the other hand, DO NOT mix well with other opaques. Try to combine opaque paints only with a transparent color or colors, if possible, to avoid mixing muddy colors. Or, best of all, use an opaque pigment by itself to show off its best attributes.

Get to know the paints on your palette. As Jean Dobie states in Making Color Sing, “To paint glowing, vibrant watercolors, you must become familiar with your pigments’ personalities.”

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Glaze To Mix Luminous Watercolors!

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Watercolor painters learn many different ways to combine and paint color to produce varied effects. While color can be mixed ON THE PALETTE, single colors can also be added to and partially blended ON THE PAPER (as in wet-in-wet, or charging). Adding single colors to paper tends to create lively and vibrant color mixes with lots of variety. (See my recent blog post titled “Charge Ahead and Mingle: Blending Colors on Watercolor Paper,” https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/06/04/charge-ahead-and-mingle-blending-color-on-watercolor-paper/, published June 4, 2019, to learn more about ways to mix color on the paper.)

Glazing is a somewhat more advanced variation of altering color ON THE PAPER. Colors are NOT mixed! A glaze is a transparent wash of color over another (thoroughly dried) layer of color. This stacking or glazing of pigment modifies the underlying color to create a full range of interesting values and colors. (A simple example would be a glaze of pink painted over a layer of yellow to create an orange or peach color.) Glazing can be done on large wash areas or on smaller parts of a painting. Often the light-value colors are applied first, but reversing the order of color application can affect the final appearance in interesting ways. Under most conditions, a painting also progresses from large general areas of light washes to small specific areas of darker washes. When you glaze over only part of your work, try to avoid hard edges left from the glaze by softening or fading out the edges with a clean, damp brush. (See my blog post titled “Softening an Edge or Fading Out”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/23/softening-an-edge-or-fading-out/, published October 23, 2018, for more information on softening an edge.)

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Ford and Footbridge (Glazed water).

Strive to use only fairly pale mixes of color in glazing. If a glaze color is too intense, the underlying layer will have difficulty showing through. By properly applying a glaze, in pale transparent layers, an artist can achieve a “glow” of light as the white of the paper and the colors of lower layers show through later layers of color. Stop adding layers when you have arrived at your desired visual color, because painting too many layers will eventually cut down the amount of light reflecting back from the paper and will deaden any glow. Be careful about using more than three or four glaze layers.

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The End of the Day (Glazed sky,  buildings, and snow).

What specific pigments work best for glazing? Most often, the best artists use the three primary colors and make sure their pigments are transparent. Specifically, you might use non-staining Aureolin or Hansa Yellow Light, Permanent Rose Quinacridone or Permanent Rose, and Cobalt Blue. If possible, avoid using transparent, staining pigments such as Indian Yellow or Gamboge Hue, Winsor Red or Permanent Alizarin Crimson, and Winsor Blue, which tend to dye the under layers and start to dull or destroy glow or translucence. If you must use staining colors, make sure they are quite diluted (unless, of course, your intention is to revive a dull dark).

Glazes are most effective when the colors used contrast with each other — e.g., warm over cool, blue over orange, etc. The farther away from each other the chosen colors are on the color wheel, the more dramatic their glazing impact on each other. A beautiful, luminous gray can be created by layering yellow, then red, then blue.

A soft brush (often a large flat) will give the best results as it disturbs previous layers of paint less. Layer each wash gently in a smooth, even application over a dried surface, and DO NOT scrub. (If the first layers of color are still wet, the colors can blend and not stay in the separate layers that you are aiming for — you will not be glazing.)

Remember that if the colors you use in glazing are transparent (NOT opaque), the colors beneath will continue to glow through glazes laid on top. Colors will appear to be mixed even though each is in a separate layer. These layers are more luminous than colors mixed on the palette because light passes through each separate layer and takes on each color’s characteristics. (NOT all watercolors are transparent! Cerulean Blue, Indian Red, Cadmium Red, Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Orange, Payne’s Gray, and Yellow Ochre are some of the opaque watercolors in common use.)

 

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Mating Season (Glazed background).

With glazing, you have to think ahead and in layers of color. As you draw your picture on watercolor paper, plan the white areas to be saved. Further, also determine where you DON”T want your first glaze to be painted. (Often the first glaze is yellow, which is relatively light and does not readily cover other pigments.) If you planned a cool section for your painting, you might not want to cover that area with your warm yellow glaze. (You needn’t apply glazes over your whole paper.) Once you have applied your yellow glaze, evaluate whether it is too light, too dark, or just right. Adjust color intensity NOW, before adding a second color, by lifting lightly with clear water to lighten or by darkening with a second yellow layer.

While waiting for the yellow glaze to dry, plan ahead and consider what areas you want to cover with the pink (red) glaze. Will you paint some of the white areas with pink as you work to a final lavender color? Will you leave a snowy area untouched by this pink glaze? Will you still preserve some white paper to ‘pop’ in the final image? Paint a layer of pink, saving all areas as planned.

While waiting for this layer to dry, plan for the next glaze. Decide which areas of the painting will be covered by the blue glaze. Glaze some of the white with a layer of blue —  for example, in a snowy area or a shadowed  space. Avoid painting the blue glaze in a sunlit spot, ending the blue glaze and then softening with clear water into a sunny field or sunlit side of a building.

Finish your painting when the blue glaze is dry (or drying) by adding mid-tones and darks. Strive to preserve a good deal of your glazed area, however, to maintain the luminous, clean color mixes created by glazing.

Paintings with problem areas can often be rescued by using glazes. You can adjust and improve a painting that may lack mood, unity, or focus. Painting a thin, pale wash can add mood to a foggy scene. A single layer of color over the whole painting (or some parts) can add unity by giving all the colors a similar flavor. Further, darkening a section of a painting with a glaze can urge the eye to focus on more important and lighter areas. In the painting below, all of the background was glazed with Ultramarine Blue to tone down and bring more unity to disparate colors as well as help the background fade away and frame the center of interest (i.e. the blossoms).

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Apple Blossoms (Glazed background and shadowed buds/blossoms).

Glazing can also help you avoid muddy, opaque, or dull shadows. Bring a dull dark back to life with a glaze! To create a luminous shadow, first paint the subject (through BOTH the light and shadow side of the object) with the same local color. (In the above apple blossom picture, the buds and blossoms were painted with varying amounts of pink.) Then, when the first layer has dried, glaze a shadow color over the portion of the image in shadow. The first (local) color will show through the transparent shadow glaze (mixed in this case from yellow, red, and blue to create a transparent gray).

Transparent glazes applied separately change the colors under them. Color is built up optically on the paper by layering instead of mixing color on the palette  prior to painting. Learn to overlap your glazes to produce satisfying colors. Develop your glazes from transparent watercolors, preferably non-staining. Begin with your lightest pigment, usually a yellow. Keep your washes diluted and pale. Remember to dry the previous layer before painting a new glaze. Always use the three primaries — don’t eliminate a layer! Instead, control the final appearance of color by strengthening one or two of the three primary colors. To create interesting, vibrant color, avoid making all three layers equal in intensity (which  instead would produce a dull neutral).

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