Category Archives: 1.2 Transparent and opaque

1.2.1 Tonally graded wash

We’re asked to practise painting carefully graded washes of one and two colours. It feels quite rewarding to do an exercise repeatedly practising one thing, and to see a gradual improvement in the quality of outcome.

I used thin cartridge, gessoed then wet, taped down and dried; and acrylic paints. 


1,2. Cad red (CR)  Used very wet brush.  Paper immediately buckled when painted, so it dried in puddles.

3. CR. Kept the brush only just wet enough to allow brush marks to merge. No buckling while applying paint, smoother grading. 

4. CR. More even grading, but there are small spots in the deeper paint. Paint not mixed with water thoroughly enough?

5. (Not pictured) Daler Rowney Process Magenta (PM). Used a small stiff old brush to mix the colour more thoroughly. Noticed I got smoother blending using the flat of the brush rather than the tip. Even wash, except for a pale area between deeper colour, where I tried to get rid of a brush hair.

6. (Not pictured) PM. Quite even, improving. Imperfect gesso undercoat due to application in poor light caused texture marks at the sides.



Next I used the last four attempts to paint wet in wet blended washes, allowing the two colours to merge in the centre. 

4. The paper had buckled while waiting, so the smoothness of the second wash was affected.  This gave me a sheet with fairly even, intense colour from top to bottom, but with the colour gradually changing from CR to PM.

3. result not so even as the previous one.  Also paler in the middle. 

5. Best so far. Quite even, and intense in the middle. Still getting those small spots – thinking maybe there’s a residue of soap in my brushes. 

6. Not bad, though paper seriously buckled when wet – but dried flat again. 



1.2.2 Overlaying washes

The exercise is firstly to paint graded washes again, with the second colour painted over the dried wash this time


I used Canson XL Mixed Media 300gsm paper for this exercise, not gessoed; I only taped the corners. 

First I painted four initial graded washes and left them to dry.  The paper hardly buckled at all. My brush marks are too obvious, although the 4th paper was best (top right), so my technique was improving. 


I’ve found it handy to use a palette with several deep wells, 3 wells per colour – strong, medium and weak solutions. 

The second colour brushed onto the dried wash using a softer watercolour brush. 


Differences in the way the paint and colour behave:

  • Overlaying a wash seemed to give greater control – when adding wet into wet I felt I could be pushing the previous carefully applied layer around and creating unevenness. Overlaying allowed for time and reflection between washes – merging wet colours means preparing both washes beforehand and following one immediately by the other, before the first has time to start drying. 
  • The colours merged and floated together when painting wet into wet, (although when I was ready to apply the second wash the first was damp rather than wet) and became in effect one wash comprising two graded colours.  By contrast the overlaid wash didn’t merge, but became a separate, transparent layer, with the first showing through and modifying it. This created a subtly varied and more interesting surface. 
  • I can think of many and varied uses for these techniques. On a large scale, I could create a sky with smoothly modifying colour towards the horizon. On a smaller, detailed scale I could use glazes to build up subtly changing skin tones on a figure painting. The technique would produce good results using colours close to each other on the colour wheel – complementary colours would produce a dun-coloured wash, but that would be good for moderating colours to light greys and tans in aerial perspective. 
Other colours – making both wet in wet blended washes and overlaid glazes
Canson cartridge paper with W&N Finity Artists Acrylic Colours. Sheets are numbered clockwise from top left. 
  1. Ultramarine with Pthalo Green Blue Shade overlaid glaze; diluted the blue too much, so didn’t start with a very intense shade. I found the paper more absorbent than the gessoed paper I’d used so far; the pigment seemed to sink in leaving a hard-edged brush mark. So before I overlaid the green I dampened the paper with a sponge; this helped the edges blend.
  2. Same colours, second wash applied wet in wet.
  3. Wet paper with sponge. Permanent Alizarin Crimson with Pthalo Green Blue Shade overlaid glaze. Before applying the second wash I used a hairdryer to get the paper completely flat, and it was easier to get a smooth result. Complementary clours merged to form a grey in the middle. 
  4. Permanent Alizarin Crimson with Ultramarine wash applied wet in wet.  I worked over it too much and the two colours blended and streaked. 
  5. Coat of white gesso allowed to dry first. Napthol Red Light with purple (mixed from the same red, and ultramarine) overlaid glaze
  6. Coat of white gesso allowed to dry first.  Same colours, wet in wet. I had thought the gesso might allow the washes to float on the surface and the brush,arks to merge, but it didn’t make for a less absorbent surface.  
  7. Coat of white acrylic  allowed to dry first.  Azo Yellow Medium with purple overlaid glaze. Complementary clours merged to form a light tan in the middle. 
  8. Coat of white acrylic  allowed to dry first.  Azo Yellow Medium with Napthol Red Light wet in wet wash.  I felt the initial coat of white helped make the paper less absorbent.
I’m beginning to realise how hard it is to achieve perfectly even glazes and washes.  In the board above, the first two (blue/green) and the last one (yellow/red) are best. But my best results so far were the glazes done on the Canson Mixed Media paper (see top of this post). Overall I found glazing gave me better results than blending wet in wet washes. 
Notes on properties of colours
Ultramarine in some cases (4, with Alizarin;  6, with Napthol Red; and 7, with yellow) dried with a sediment and seemed harder to blend.  But it blended ok with Pthalo Green.
To see what would happen, I overlaid a third, related colour on my board of washes painted for the previous exercise, ‘Tonally Graded Washes’.
I found the sheets began to acquire a little more depth and subtlety. The earlier ones even started to look texturally quite interesting where there had been runs and streaks. 
I’m leaving this exercise now to look at the colour field paintings of Mark Rothko. 

1.2.3 Opaque colour mixing

I Had to do fresh transparent washes as I had overlaid all my earlier single colour washes. Used DR S3 Process Magenta, and W&N Artists Burnt Umber and Ultramarine I prepared four control sheets:- two single and two overlaid washes (still found Ultramarine a difficult pigment for achieving smooth transitions ). 

Using an easel painting vertically, controlling washes to avoid running. Using separate small brush to mix pigment with water.

I found these washes were easier and better than my earlier attempts – I’ve learned something!


Then I tried to replicate their tones in the single colour washes using white paint instead of water to lighten the tones. The magenta went reasonably well. The burnt umber colour was altered by adding white, strangely becoming darker in the darkest tones, but the sheet had reasonably smooth transitions. 

When I painted my first two-colour sheet I realised too late that the opaque first colour (burnt umber) completely concealed the ultramarine underneath, and I ended up with a single-colour burnt umber opaque sheet. So I went back in with ultramarine, mixing with white and burnt umber gradually. The result was a bit of a disaster, but it’s a learning curve!

The second, burnt umber and process magenta with white went a little better. Each time I do these washes I gain a little more control over them. But they’re far from perfect, and lots more practise is needed.  These techniques are fundamental to painting, and practising them like this it feels rather like learning scales on a musical instrument – repetition is the key. 

In the photos below the left hand of each pair of sheets is transparent, the right opaque. 



Converting the photo to black and white rather shows up the differences in tone on the opaque sheets compared to the transparent sheets. 


Compared to the transparent washes, the opaque colours feel somewhat deafened by the addition of white, as though all the light is being absorbed rather than reflected from the support through the transparent layers.

I think transparent methods would be good for producing atmospheric light, sky, water, distance, mist, cloud and transparent  objects, such as the subtle and translucent quality of natural objects – skin, flowers, shells.   Opaque methods chime more with solid objects, such as in a still life of man-made objects, buildings, and in a landscape might be applied to the foreground. 

1.2.4 Monochrome studies


This exercise highlights the difference between painting an object and painting the negative shapes that give it form.

As I did it, I also learned more about my materials. The greys I used were mixed from three colours, which was a useful exercise in its own right. I learned the extent to which acrylic paint dries significantly darker, and the need to mix enough paint beforehand to cover an area that needs to be consistent in tone. I learned that precise, painstaking painting isn’t so enjoyable or so effective as wading in broadly with big brushes and a palette knife. 


This is what I did:- 

Made two observational drawings in my 25×25 Seawhite sketchbook. The first a young oak (dark trunk and branches against the background); the second a poplar, Populus Alba (pale trunk and branches against a dark, wooded background). Both done in graphitint pencils and water brush. Impatiently, I didn’t finish toning in the negative spaces in the second; warning bells should have rung at his stage, but I left it there anyway. 



For the oak tree I used some old Arches rough watercolour paper 180gsm, gessoed 34×55.  I laid in a transparent background using S3 Process Magenta, Cyan and Yellow with water. In painting the tree with a concentrated mix of the same colours, my aim was to avoid detail and keep the brush marks free.  I successfully modulated the tones of receding branches, and roughly scraped a stiff old toothbrush around to create an impression of masses of twigs.  I broadly painted the background context of the tree, this time adding white to the dark mixture. The simple composition indicates a foreground, middle ground and distance, but I found the tones didn’t give the impression of aerial perspective and I had to try again. Aerial perspective is a bit of a bugbear for me, and I was also thrown by inexperience with using acrylic paint. 

The final painting therefore has both transparent and opaque areas. 


I found the ‘Negative painting’ method much harder. The instructions puzzled me, and I thought at first the idea was to end up with a light toned tree against a dark background. I checked a few student blogs and realised we were being asked to paint the negative spaces with a light tone over an initial dark layer, and the dark tree would emerge.

My first attempt (Canson cartridge, gessoed 50×70) was painstakingly done but I was mixing (opaque) paint on the go instead of mixing enough of one tone to cover an area; and I was underestimating how much darker the paint would dry. As a result, while I had sharp, detailed edges to trunk and branches, the tones of the negative spaces were all over the place, and the overall background was much too dark- the tree hardly stood out.  On the other hand the effect was quite good, reminiscent of a patchwork quilt or stained glass window.

Next session, with my palette knife and almost white paint I thinly and roughly covered the background, which apart from being enjoyable to do, gave an impression of texture and leaves. This also dried too dark as it was quite thin paint. I persevered, obliterating, adjusting tones, redoing the dark branches and twigs where they’d been lost. This is the stage where I decided to stop – by no means a finished painting, but better than the first version. 



 Although more difficult to get the hang of, painting negative shapes seemed to give a more lively result. My feeling is it would be especially effective where light is shining through from the distance towards the viewer, as here in a rough ink sketch I made in Drawing 1. The light yellow negative shape seems to pop the trees to the foreground. 

A limitation of painting the negative shapes, is that it is difficult to paint them consistently and accurately when the foreground object is highly complex, such as the delicate tracery of masses of branches and twigs, but approaches to solve this problem will come with experience.

Transparent paint might be used where delicate colour modulation is needed, with underneath layers modifying the layers above. Transparent layers could be added to opaque areas to modify and vary tone and colour. Opaque paint could be used for representing solid and plastic surfaces.