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Watercolor Transparency

Watercolor transparency is one of the mediums most engaging features. Those beautiful, luminous glazes and subtle colors built from carefully layered washes are what make the medium so appealing. In this article we are going to look at amplifying watercolor transparency by contrasting it with areas of flat opacity.

Watercolor pigments are classified by, among other things, hue, permanence, light fastness, staining ability, granulating ability, price series and transparency. Many of these parameters vary according to the dilution of the pigment.


Watercolor transparency is very dependent on pigment dilution. A normally opaque pigment like Cadmium Orange can be diluted to a point where it becomes quite transparent. Likewise, a transparent pigment becomes more opaque the heavier it is applied.

These two gradations of pigment show the effect of dilution on watercolor transparency. The first color, Cadmium Orange (in this case gouache) is considered an extremely opaque color, but when diluted and painted over a stripe of black ink, a shift to transparency can be seen.
The second color, Quinacridone Gold watercolor, is normally considered transparent, but when applied heavily enough, also becomes opaque.

stripes of watercolor and gouache demonstrating transparency and opacity




The band of warm Orange over glaze in this detail is a dilute wash of Cadmium Orange Gouache. Not a pigment we would normally choose for a transparent glaze, but when thinned right down it has a wonderful warming effect.

Watercolor painting of Venice using transparent orange glaze



What all this means is simply that the labelling and common knowledge regarding watercolor transparency is fairly loose. Opaques can be made transparent and transparents can be made opaque.


The real excitement starts when we play transparency and opacity off against one another. An area of transparency is made incredibly luminous when it is surrounded by a field of opaque pigment, and the velvety flatness of a solid opaque seems to jump out of a surrounding mass of transparency.

This simple little seascape above uses pale, transparent washes of Phthalo Blue, and Phthalo Green for the cool green of the breaking wave. The transparency of this area is amplified by contrasting it with a splash of solid, opaque white gouache, giving the ocean that luminous green quality.




This landscape is mostly opaque mixtures of watercolor, white gouache and gesso. The only area of transparent watercolor pigment is the glowing red/orange of the mountain. Permanent Rose and Aureolin were built up in layers for maximum transparency.

The foreground was under washed with a layer of transparent watercolor, then worked over with gesso followed by tinted gouache to create a shimmering shift between opaque and transparent. The vibrancy of the red mountain would not have been as intense had it been surrounded by transparent watercolor washes.

Watercolor painting of outback australia




Here, an old weathered trawler was built up with wet transparent watercolor washes of Phthalo, Ultramarine and Cobalt Blues. Warm transparent brown shadows were worked into the outer regions of the hull, while large chunks of white paper made up the highlights of the hull and cabin.


Detail and dark shapes were added with ink and watercolor before heavy, opaque white gesso was scrubbed over parts of the hull and background. Finally, to sharpen the focal point, some clean transparent Cobalt blue was added to the white of the cabin and a contrasting mark of solid opaque Mid Magenta Acrylic was placed adjacent to it.

watercolor painting of fishing trawler using transparent glazes and opaque gesso




In this painting the buildings and water are an oscillating mixture of transparent watercolor glazes. This transparency really makes the dead flat Ultramarine Blue gouache of the boat hulls stand out as a focal point.




A thick, creamy mixture of Ultramarine Blue gouache tinted with White gouache produced the velvety flat sky in this painting.


The contrast between the glowing orange (Permanent Rose and Quinacridone Gold) transparency of the rocks and flatness of the sky make the rocks appear almost flood lit.


The complimentary arrangement of blue and orange also exaggerate the difference between sky and rock.

Watercolor painting of rocks using transparent washes and opaque Ultramarine Blue.


It’s easy to fall into the trap of simply considering the hue when deciding on which colors to use. The next painting you do, give some thought to playing off the difference between transparency and opacity to give your work more impact.


Pages 8 & 9 of this Winsor and Newton article list and describe all their opaque and transparent colors.

M Graham & Co classify all their artist watercolors in four categories from Transparent to Opaque.


Author: John Lovett

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