Are They Transparent or Opaque?
Watercolor paints can be transparent (you can see through the color to the layer below) or opaque (the color covers the layer below so it can’t be seen).
Transparent colors are the best for layering – starting with one wash of color, then adding more washes of color until you build up to the depth of color you want. Transparent colors excel at giving you that beautiful stained-glass-with-a-light-behind-it glow of color in your paintings. They mix well and are user friendly. Some examples: any quinacridone color (golds, reds, browns, purples) and thalo blue (also known as winsor blue and many other names).
Opaque Colors – What Are They Good For?
Opaque colors are said to have more ‘body’ than transparent colors. They cover in one coat and look more solid than transparent colors. This makes them perfect for skin colors, which are very light – mostly water and a touch of paint. If you are working wet on wet, opaque colors will tend to spread more slowly than transparent colors and dry with more saturated color. Opaque colors are gorgeous, but they don’t mix well, turning muddy and ugly in many mixtures. Examples: cadmium red, cadmium yellow, naples yellow, and cobalt turquoise light.
How To Tell If Watercolors Are Transparent Or Opaque
Some tubes of paint will say transparent or opaque. Most art supply stores on line will have the properties of a color listed if you click on the color name. An excellent way to test your own colors without a lot of research is to paint a color strip.
Creating Your Own Watercolor Test Strip
1. About 1 inch from the top edge of your paper, use a permanent black marker to draw a line of black about 1/4″ thick across the paper.
2. Using a damp brush, take fresh paint right from the tube and paint a strip of that color (as thick as you can make it and still be fluid) starting at the top of the paper and continuing over the black stripe and another inch of paper, then start adding water to the paint, thinning the color as it goes towards the bottom. Write the name of the color so you don’t forget which color it is.
3. Repeat step 2 for all your paints, keeping the colors together for easier comparison (blues in one group, reds in an other, etc.)
4. When your colors are completely dry, the transparent colors will virtually disappear on top of the black stripe, while the opaque colors will cover the black and be visible. In the close up of the color strip you can see the cadmium red, cobalt turquoise light and naples yellow on top of the black stripe. That shows they are very opaque colors.
Are Your Colors Staining or Liftable?
Place two pieces of masking tape across the color stripes, leaving an area of color open between the two pieces of tape as shown.
Use Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser or a scrubbing brush to wipe away or scrub off the color between the two pieces of masking tape. You’ll be able to see if the colors lift back up easily or stain the paper.
How To Use Your Test Strip
Keep your test strip handy. With one look, you can see how each color looks at its most saturated level, how dark or light, whether a color is opaque or transparent, and whether it’s staining or easy to lift back up. That’s a lot of information to have at your fingertips and should help make your painting easier and more successful.