What is Opaque Watercolor?

Opaque Watercolor: combining watercolor with gouache and painting in an opaque manner.

Watercolor is usually synonymous with the idea of transparency, but combining watercolor pigments with gouache and painting in an opaque manner (applying paint somewhat thickly and in layers) allow me to work in the kind of spontaneous and improvisational way that appeals to me. With opaque watercolor, I can put colors down and if I don’t like what I see, I can quickly make adjustments, changes, and corrections because I can easily cover darks with lights, melt colors together to create intriguing new colors that can’t be named, or remove colors entirely and begin again. I also love the velvety matte picture surface that results with opaque watercolor.     

While many watercolor artists equate opaque painting with the word mud, I find that I get brighter, clearer and more beautiful colors with the opaque approach. However, it did take quite a bit of experimentation to determine which pigments would deliver the kind of color and surface qualities I was after. Initially I mixed only white gouache with my watercolor pigments and worked that way for many years. Recently, I’ve been experimenting more and more with tube gouache pigments. What I’ve found is that there is very little difference between gouache colors and the watercolor-mixed-with-white-gouache colors that I mix up on my palette.   

For the most successful results, I’ve found it’s best to think of opaque watercolor as a distinct medium separate from transparent watercolor because each requires a different mindset and different painting techniques. Most of the problems I encounter with opaque watercolor have to do with adding too much water to my pigments (a habit left over from my transparent watercolor days). Controlling the pigment/water ratio is key, and the only way I know of to acquire that key is through deliberate practice. In terms of techniques, I use techniques borrowed from oil painters, acrylic painters, and pastel painters. 

Choosing a medium and molding painting techniques to suit an artist’s personality is a very personal journey. It’s not as simple as selecting a medium and learning “how to” paint in that medium. It’s about finding a medium that speaks to us, because that medium is going to speak for us.  In choosing a painting medium, two important tasks must be taken into consideration. The first is discovering what touches our heart and stirs our soul. And the second is figuring out how we’re going to to express all that with our chosen medium.      

Happy Painting! 


In today’s post I thought I’d demonstrate my approach to painting a figure in opaque watercolor.  

While anatomy is important to me, drawing and painting anatomically correct figures isn’t. In my paintings, I’m much more interested in realizing these two intentions: 1). Going beyond the obviousness of a subject to create a world that is at once both personal and universal, and 2). Creating a rich picture surface that is alive with emotion and enchantment. My subject is the jumping off place for achieving my two intentions.  

Working from a photo I took in New York’s Central Park, I began with observation, aiming to understand the figure; its anatomy and what its body language says to me. Then I looked for the natural abstraction present in the subject, working hard to see everything as simple masses of shapes and values.

In putting together my compositions, my aim is to put together a design that consists of a few large interlocking masses of light and dark. That design provides the abstract structure for my painting. The composition process begins the moment I choose my subject, and doesn’t end until I place the last brushstroke on my painting.

Because I like to let everything unfold in an intuitive, spontaneous, improvisational way in my paintings, my medium of choice is opaque watercolor (watercolor combined with gouache), which allows me to change my mind, make corrections, and try out any ideas that occur to me in the process of painting without worrying about ruining my picture surface.

Here is how the painting process unfolded for my painting, Morning in Central Park:

Step 1:

In this step, I did a drawing on my surface (Crescent #15 Hot Press Watercolor Board) using a staining watercolor. In this case it was Holbein’s Bright Violet. When the drawing was dry, I mixed up a light green wash on my palette and did a transparent underpainting.

Step 2:

In this step, I began the process of building layers of color and searching for my painting’s composition and color scheme. This is a spontaneous, improvisational process of putting down colors and responding. If I like what I see, it stays. If I don’t, I adjust the color or colors until I see something I like.

Step 3:

In this step, I continued to lay down and adjust the colors and their values. Nothing is finalized at this stage –  I’m just sort of feeling my way through the painting. I won’t be able to judge whether my color and value choices are working until the whole picture surface is filled in –  what I call “grunt work.” For me, a painting doesn’t really begin until the “grunt work” is done and the whole picture surface is filled in and I can start looking for creative ways to connect everything together into what will hopefully be a strong abstract composition.

Step 4:

In this step, I experimented with ideas for how I might approach the painting’s negative space.

Step 5:

The finished painting, Morning in Central Park. This painting won the Francis Nell Storer Memorial Award in last year’s American Watercolor Society Exhibition in New York City.

Happy Painting!





“If you aim at nothing you will hit it every time.”   Zig Ziglar

“A dream without a goal is a wish. A goal without a plan is just a dream.”   -Unknown

“Actions speak louder than words.”   – Unknown


It’s already the second week of the new year! How are you doing with your art goals for 2017?  

While I’m not a fan of making new year’s resolutions, I do love dreaming and envisioning new possibilities for where I might take my art in the future because doing so inspires me to raise the bar higher and hopefully move my paintings a little closer to where I’d really like them to be.  

This year I added a new question, “what habits or personality traits might trip me up?” (see my last post) to my yearly art review and goal setting practice and wow, was that informative! I realized that I have LOTS of habits that trip me up and stand in the way of moving forward in my art! That led me to ponder the second new question I added this year, “what actions will I take to overcome them so that I can achieve my goals?” for a very long time. In getting totally honest with myself, I became aware that while I’m good at making plans, lists, and setting goals, I’m not so good at staying the course and continuing on the path I chose for my art when I’m distracted by something in my personal life, when life gets too busy, or when I feel discouraged about a painting I’m working on. 

With that in mind, I chose a watchword for 2017 to help me stay clear and focused on where I want to go this year and the actions I will take in order to get there. A watchword is a word, slogan, or phrase that can be used as a focusing or re-focusing tool – basically a watchword is a reminder to yourself of your intentions. In 2016 my watchword was CONTINUITY. Last year, one of my art goals was to be in the studio regularly and to be continuously connected to what was going on in the studio even during those times when it was impossible for me to actually be painting. By recalling my watchword regularly, I was able to remind myself routinely that my big picture goal is to always have and feel connected to something percolating in the studio no matter how stressful, challenging, chaotic, busy, or wonderfully distracting things are in my personal life. Having a relevant and personal watchword proved to be a very useful tool that helped me achieve some of my art goals last year. An added bonus was that I also learned that sometimes a “slow drip” approach to the percolating process yields tastier results!   

After generating a lot of words and phrases over a number of days, I chose FOLLOW THROUGH for my 2017 watchword. I think it will be a perfect reminder to me to keep on keeping on in terms of my art goals and action plans at those times when time and my personal life become challenging, and most especially at those times when I haven’t a clue about how to resolve a painting I’m working on, or when I feel totally discouraged or depressed about how my work in general is progressing and feel like abandoning my art practice altogether. I guess this year’s watchword, follow through is a lot like my 2016 watchword continuity. For me it seems to be all about getting my head in a good place, always having something percolating in the studio, and showing up regularly. 

I encourage you to choose a 2017 watchword.  And if you do, please share! Send it to me via the comment section below. We all learn from each other and seeing someone else’s watchword may open up possibilities we may never have thought of.

 Happy Painting and Writing!

Yearly Review and Setting Art Goals for 2017


“I will join Alice and explore every rabbit hole, even at the risk of shrinking and expanding. I will join Huck and ride the river, even if con men are waiting. I will discover the essence of poetry, unravel the mystery of song, grasp the intricacies of color. I am one terrific explorer.”     Eric Maisel 

“If we did the things that we are capable of doing we would literally astound ourselves.”   Thomas Edison

“Commit to a process and see where it leads.”    Chuck Close

One of my favorite things to do at this time of year is to sit down with my art journal and page through the year’s entries. I review what I focused on and thought about as I worked on this year’s body of work and ask myself what worked, what didn’t work, what still needs improvement, and what needs to be changed. Then I make a list of ideas for where I might take my work in the coming year and clearly identify some action steps for getting there.  Ideas for potential action steps can also be found in art books and magazines, on-line research, and studying other artists’ paintings that interest you. I add content ideas, series ideas, ideas and plans for how I might make needed improvements or stretch myself further, and more action plans to the mix. I believe that you can never have too many ideas or too many action plans for improving your art!

This year I changed up the questions I asked myself for the sake of more clarity and to achieve a deeper, more authentic intentionality in my paintings. If you would like to do a yearly review and set some goals for 2017, here are those questions. Enjoy! 

      1. What do I most want to achieve in my art in 2017?

      2. What habits or personality traits might trip me up?

      3. What actions will I take to overcome them so that I can achieve my goals?

      4.  What two or three specific areas would I really like too improve in my art in 2017?

      5.  What action steps will I take to manifest those improvements?

It’s fun to list goals and dreams, but without formulating specific action plans for achieving them they’re just empty words. You need to know where you want to go and what actions you need to take in order to get there. All of the answers are found inside of you. Always remember, you are the best expert on your life.

P.S. I recommend answering these questions over a number of days. It may take awhile for the more authentic answers to bubble up to the surface.

Happy Writing!


How to Break Out of a Creative Rut


A comment from a reader on my last post inspired me to think about some of the strategies I use for breaking out of a painting rut. When fear and inertia start creeping in, I seek stillness and solitude, and in my journal I write down ideas and thoughts for where I might take my painting practice next. Here are some of those thoughts and strategies. I hope they help you out at those times when you’re in that yucky place of feeling creatively stuck, blocked, bored, or in a rut. 

1. Experiment With Color

  • . Find a color scheme in a work of art that interests you, describe it in your own words and try that color scheme in a new painting.
  • . Paint with “wild color.” You get to decide what “wild color” means.
  • . Make a painting using a limited working palette; mix every color for the painting from just 4 to 6 tube colors.
  • . Put colors you’ve never tried before on your working palette and experiment with new color mixtures and new color schemes.

2. Experiment With Your Painting Surface

  • . Try Hot Press paper if you usually use Cold Press.
  • . Try Cold Press or Rough if you usually use Hot Press.
  • Try Yupo paper.
  • . Try 300 lb. paper if you usually use 140 lb.
  • . Use gessoed paper.
  • . Try one of the new multi-media boards.
  • . Try Aquaboard
  • . Start with a bright underpainting.
  • . Start with a neutral underpainting.
  • . Start with an abstract underpainting with lots of texture and mark making.

3. Forget About Product. Focus instead on Process, Exploration, and Play

  • . Play with personal mark marking, brushwork, and non-descriptive textures. 
    . Experiment with a decorative use of line. How many ways can the element of line be used in a painting?
  • . Use your subject as a jumping off place for exploring personal creativity and expression rather than description.
  • . Don’t paint things, paint abstract relationships of color, shape, and value. 
  • . Discover new painting possibilities in the work of another artist. Don’t copy. Describe what you love about his or her painting in one or two words and let those words be the intention for a new painting.
  • . Empower yourself to try something unexpected, out of the box, and really risky.
  • . Make a big mess. Make a lot of mistakes. Bask in the joy of not knowing what the heck you’re doing. Proceed anyway. Then smile and pat yourself on the back for being so courageous. That’s what the creative process is all about!  

Happy Painting!



I am a watermedia painter and I teach painting workshops all around the country. As anyone who knows me or has taken one of my workshops can attest to, I love talking about art, thinking about art, reading about art, writing about art, looking at art, and practicing art - so grab a cup of coffee, join me in the studio and let's talk art!

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March 27-29, 2017
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Contact: Debra Zamperla
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