by Miriam Schulman
To See Or Not to See: A guide to understanding the differences between transparent, opaque, permanent, and non-staining watercolor paints.
The beauty of painting is that no matter how long you’ve been at it, there will always be more to learn: new mediums, new techniques, and surfaces.
As you begin to make creative decisions to develop your personal style, you will naturally lean towards the look of certain types of paint or be drawn to the effects they make. Knowing about different properties of paint will help you get there, and so I’ve put together this guide to understanding the differences between transparent, opaque, permanent, and non-staining watercolor paints.
How can you tell if a paint is transparent or opaque?
Transparent and Opaque paints have different applications. For creating thin layers or washes that allow the underlying surface to remain visible, transparent paints are the way to go. Opaque paints, when used without dilution, create solid layers of color that completely cover up anything underneath them.
To determine if a paint is transparent or opaque, try this simple test:
Using a swatch of watercolor paper, draw a solid stripe using a black sharpie. Using the paint in question, paint a few lines over the stripe, not covering it up completely, and allow the swatch to dry (I use a heat gun to speed up the drying process, but you can use a hair drier or a sunny windowsill). Have a look at the result: it should become pretty clear (or not clear) if the paint is transparent or opaque!
What is the difference between permanent and non-staining paint?
This question comes up very often, and particularly with watercolor painting, knowing the answer will save you much confusion and heartache.
Permanent watercolors, also known as “staining” watercolors, are paints which absorb into the fibers of your watercolor paper, and do not lift off once dry.
Non-staining, or non-permanent watercolors, are pigments which can be applied to the surface of the watercolor paper, and will remain workable – meaning that the paint itself becomes reactivated and can be moved around with water, even after it dries on the paper.
To determine if a paint is permanent or non-staining, try this:
Using a swatch of watercolor paper, apply the paint in question and allow it to dry completely overnight (cue the hairdryer, or my fav, the heat gun). Make sure the paper gets bone dry, all the way through. Now, using a clean paintbrush with a generous amount of water, wet the paper, brushing the surface as you would if you were trying to remove the paint. If the paint does not budge, it’s considered permanent, or staining. If the paint begins to dissolve, you have a non-staining paint on your hands. Literally.
Note: you can also discover this the hard way when you get this kind of watercolor on your clothes and it doesn’t come out.
A Quick-Start Guide for Watercolor Success
When I teach my online “Watercolor Secrets” class, I give my students this handy guide so they can easily reference the properties of commonly used watercolor pigments.
Ready to get started?
Get FREE access to my watercolor supply list, the same list I use in my “Watercolor Secrets” class, which includes all of the pigments and tools you’ll need to get started, by clicking the image below.
Find even more tips for watercolor and creative inspiration online at TheInspirationPlace.net .
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About the Artist (Miriam Schulman)
In case we haven’t met yet, I’m an artist and founder of The Inspiration Place, where I help other artists learn how to profit from their passion or become better artists. Through online classes, business coaching programs, and a top-ranked podcast, I’ve helped thousands of artists around the world develop their skill sets and create more time and freedom to do what they love. My signature coaching program, The Artist Incubator, helps artists go from so-so sales to sold-out collections.
A graduate of Dartmouth College and M.I.T, I initially pursued finance but after witnessing 9/11, I abandoned a lucrative hedge fund job to work on my art full time. Since then, my art and my story have been featured in major publications including Forbes, The New York Times, Art of Man, Art Journaling magazine as well as featured on NBC’s “Parenthood” and the Amazon series “Hunters” with Al Pacino. My forthcoming book with HarperCollins Leadership on how to make it as an artist is scheduled to be released January 31, 2023. When I’m not in the studio, you can find me hanging out with my husband, adult kids, and a tuxedo cat named Ebony. I’d love to invite you to check out one of my free resources for art lovers (of every passion level) at schulmanart.com/freebies
2 thoughts on “Guide to Understanding Watercolor Paint Properties”
Very helpful and to the point yet simple to understand – i am interested in re-creating french watercolor renderings of landscape plans such as those of Jacques Greber for the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
See my blog = Franchitecture.com.
Thank you 😊