Many beginners start their watercolour painting and drawing hobby, without knowing the attributes of the paint and how best to make use of the medium.
I sometimes teach watercolour painting at beginner level, and find that most are eager to learn techniques and how to paint in a certain way.
But many would benefit spending time trying to understand the characteristics of the media and how to exploit it.
At the outset, there is a lot to gain by taking time to research the medium and play around and explore rather than trying to produce a finished piece of work.
Learning to use watercolour is difficult enough. But with some understanding of the attributes of the medium, a head start is possible.
One of the attributes of watercolour is transparency, and it is a characteristic that many of us fail to utilise fully when learning how to paint with the medium.
Watercolour transparency can be dependent on how much the pigment is diluted with water. The hue can also make a difference. When starting out in this medium this can take time to understand and master.
Even opaque colours when diluted with a lot of water can appear in some circumstances to be transparent. Likewise, if transparent colours are applied thickly enough, they can then become opaque.
Before starting a piece of work, I always lay colour on a test piece of watercolour paper to establish hue, transparency and a host of other things.
I do this to make sure that the paint I have selected is suitable for the techniques and design I want to create.
Why is transparency important in watercolour painting?
Knowing if a watercolour paint is transparent or opaque, gives you a step ahead in learning how to paint with the medium.
A transparent colour maintains luminosity because it allows the white of the watercolour paper to reflect through the paint.
In contrast an opaque watercolour pigment blocks the light and prevents luminosity.
While diluting opaque colour can make it more transparent, it will lose it’s intensity (strength of colour).
Glazing or layering of colours is a fundamental technique in watercolour painting.
When you lay transparent layers of pigment, one on top of each other, the layering of paint modifies the values and the colour of the final painting. This creates a range of interesting values and colours.
Beginners watercolour materials
Nearly every beginner has a set of unbranded tubes or pans of watercolour paints.
Most of the sets are usually gifts from friends or family. They have no idea that the set they have gifted is about to make the beginners journey even more difficult.
Along with cheap watercolour paper, a topic for another blog, the result is that the beginner usually gives up before they have really started.
If I was to receive a £1 for every time I have advised a beginner to stop using substandard materials!
How to identify transparent colours?
When buying a good quality branded watercolour paint, the product labels give you a wealth of information.
One of the brands I use is Winsor & Newton Artist Quality Watercolours and they display the attributes on their products. You can find a table and detailed explanation on the Winsor & Newton website.
One of the tasks I encourage beginners to do is to carry out a transparency test. It really helps to get to know which paints are opaque and which are transparent.
The test is very simple. All you need is some watercolour paper, a black permanent marker and your watercolours diluted to the same consistency.
Not too much water. Otherwise they will lose their intensity and the test will not be realistic especially for the opaque colours.
This is an old video that I made for my students, explaining the process.
And at the end I demonstrate a very simple glaze.
I have a watercolour floral in my portfolio (Roses) that makes use of transparent washes, layers and negative painting. The layers for the leaves are painted from light to dark allowing each layer of paint to dry before the next layer of paint is applied. Painted some time ago but still one of my favourites.
I hope this tips and tricks article has been helpful. If it has please follow my blog or get in touch – thanks for loving my art.