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The World of Watercolor: Color Transparency

Just like any other type of paint, watercolors are defined by their own set of properties. In the next few blog posts, we will explore some of these properties, doing some simple exercises to get to know our colors and how they react to each other. Today we begin with color transparency.

Watercolor transparency exercise

Let’s explore color theory in watercolors beginning with transparency

The spectrum for this property is made up of three types of watercolor paint: transparent, semi-transparent and opaque. Each of them cover the surface of the paper to a different degree, letting more or less of the light reflected from the paper through the pigment.

It is very convenient to understand transparency and have a sense of the degree of each color’s transparency in our palettes, so we can gain a bit more control over the final results of our paintings. Well, we want as much control as possible with watercolors, as they can be very unpredictable. However, that’s often the fun part!

Testing transparency

Watercolor transparency exercise

This method will not only test each colors’ transparency, but it will also reveal how the colors on your palette interact together.

To get started, begin by painting a long and thick horizontal stripe with one of your colors. Allow it to dry completely. Then, paint vertical lines over it, using the rest of the colors on your palette. Some colors will let more of the underlying pigment through than others, while showing how each color is affected by the rest of them.

Repeat this exercise with all the colors on your palette. You can label the brushstrokes and save this page as future reference. Revisit it whenever you need to know what the resulting color will be when you overlay any two given colors.

Testing Watercolor Transparency

If you only want to test your colors’ degree of transparency without testing how they interact with each other, you can do the same exercise with one minor change: Use black India ink to create the long horizontal line. Let it dry completely and proceed as indicated above.

The paint you place over it will react in one of three ways: It will either disappear completely, partially cover that area or something in between. This reaction will determine whether the paint is transparent, semi-transparent or opaque.

Try out this exercise to get more acquainted with you palette. Next week we will talk about color value.

What are you eager to learn about in watercolor theory?

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Frances E. Luymes

What a great help and creative ideas this has. I am an old time painter since 1950 and I continue to explore new ideas and helps. I am helping a beginner artist tomorrow. This site gives me some new freshness. thank you, Frances E. Luymes


Thank you for a really good idea. I wondered if it might also be a good idea to draw the line of ink through each horizontal stripe, so that you could see how opaque the combination would be? I also have a question. I bought a pan set of artist quality paints, and find I much prefer the more transparent colors. When I go to replace them, can I trust that another brand’s color of the same name will be transparent also. If I’m buying a color that’s completely new to me, is there something on the tube that will help me tell?


I loved this post! As a beginner, it is super helpful 🙂 Thank you for sharing!


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