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.
With opaque watercolor lights can be painted over darks.
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.
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 Hawaii, I began with observation, aiming to understand the figures, their gestures, and their body language. 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 are some process photos for my painting, Susie’s World:
I am pleased to announce that I have an article in the current (April) issue of Watercolor Artist magazine! In the article, titled “Don’t Forsake Opaque“, I share some ideas for how to put together a personal working palette that will allow you to paint bold, delicious, high-intensity watercolor paintings, how to relate manufactured tube watercolors to the artist’s color wheel, how to understand and use the various characteristics of manufactured tube watercolors, and how to use the three properties of color: hue, value, and intensity to create bold and expressive paintings.
I also share tips and ideas for working with opaque watercolor, a technique that easily allows for changes and corrections during the painting process. Painting with opaque watercolor can remove some of the technical difficulties and fears associated with traditional transparent watercolor painting and allow you to be more confident, free, and spontaneous. This article was a joy to write because it represents the small but noticeable progress I’ve made in a personal goal I set for myself about a decade ago to move from being a “value painter” to being a “color painter”. Reflecting on where I was and how I thought about color and value back then – and how differently I think about them today, I feel like I have definitely taken some steps forward in my journey as an artist. Art is long, life is sweet!