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.

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.      

Happy Painting! 

17 thoughts on “What is Opaque Watercolor?

    1. Donna Post author

      Thanks for stopping by and for your comment. Although the medium of gouache has been around for hundreds of years, I find that it’s still under the radar screen for many watermedia painters.

  1. Sally

    What you have written has stirred my heart and soul. I left watercolor painting and am now painting in oil. But, when I paint en plein air, I pull out my watercolors and gouache paints. I love mixing the two together! I love your art work! Thank you!

    1. Donna Post author

      Thank you Sally for your comment. I used to paint in oil but made mud because I wasn’t patient enough to let layers dry before piling on the paint. Opaque watercolor and gouache dry quickly and I can pile on the paint almost instantaneously.

  2. Laurie Mueller

    Hi Donna,

    Very interesting post. Thank you! I have been a fan of your work for a long time, and am going to be joining you in Ann Arbor at the end of March for your workshop. I am really looking forward to it!

  3. Dorothy Thompson

    Since taking your workshop in Anchorage several years ago I have been using opaque water colors ….your article on this media is spot on. Thank you for inspiring me to reach the next level in my paintings.

    1. Donna Post author

      Hi Dorothy – great to hear from you. That Anchorage workshop was so fun! Lots of great work, lots of great people. Keep on keeping on and say hello to everyone for me.

  4. Diane

    I have been thinking of dipping my paintbrush into gouache and I am wondering what is your favorite surface for painting in this manner.

    1. Donna Post author

      Hi Joe – Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment! I love watercolor and the opaque approach helps me express myself more effectively with it because I can easily make changes. That aspect frees me from worrying about making mistakes or taking risks in my paintings.

  5. Hal Wright

    Timely! I’ve been working on a watercolor I like pretty well, but something is missing. I’ve decided to use it as an under painting, and work over it with paint and white gouache. Should be fun.

    1. Donna Post author

      Hi Hal,
      Good to hear from you! It’s always comforting to know there are ways to take our paintings further and deeper.

  6. Georgia Lawson

    Hi Donna….I am hoping that you will be back to the Las Vegas, NV area again so I can take another workshop from you…..I enjoyed your workshop….it was more in touch with being an artist and why you wanted to be an artist than ANYTHING OTHER WORKSHOP I HAVE ATTENDED….you awoke in me the OLD LOVE for painting that had gotten lost in the shuffle of time!

    1. Donna Post author

      Hi Georgia – Your comment touched my heart. Thanks so much for your kind words. I wish you continued success in your journey as an artist.

  7. DEBORAH Meyers

    Hi Donna
    I love your artwork! and I too have been using white gouache and love it with watercolour. I don’t don’t stick to rules I like feel free in my artwork
    thank you for your valuable advice.

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