Thursday, May 24, 2012

Opaque watercolor

I'd like to talk about the workshop I took at the Beverley Street Studio School in Staunton, Va., ( a few weeks ago with Charlottesville, Va.-based artist Rick Weaver ( on sketching with opaque watercolors.

I was a little confused regarding the term "opaque watercolors" prior to the class. I realized that some people  use that description when they are talking about gouache. Searching online, I found that some painters, such as Bill James (, use gouache regularly, albeit thinly, while describing his paintings as watercolors. Others, such as Donna Zagotta ( mix traditional watercolors with permanent white gouache. Donna has a wonderful blog post that describes this method in detail (

Once I got the materials list for the class, I saw that no gouache was required, but an extra-large tube of Titanium White watercolor was needed.

I had first learned of watercolor artists using Titanium White when I read a feature article on Jeannie McGuire (, from whom I later took a workshop. But Jeannie's use of the unorthodox white isn't particularly opaque -- it just adds a sense of body to her compositions.

As it turns out, Rick Weaver's use of Titanium White is much more opaque than I had previously seen in watercolors. But also Rick comes at each work from an oil painter's perspective.

As he explained in the workshop, he had started using watercolors for a practical reason -- it was easier to travel with watercolors than with oils because of all the restrictions airlines and the TSA now enforce regarding the transport of chemicals. So watercolors have become an ideal sketch medium for Rick to use while traveling.

However, his use of watercolor is consistent with the kind of painting technique you would find in oil or acrylic painting.You don't save whites. You paint over elements you may not like. And nuance in paint application and paint edges is very important.

His palette includes a lot of opaque watercolors as a start (cerulean, cad red and cad yellow, yellow ochre) as well as some heavily staining colors (pthalo green, permanent rose, dioxine violet). And then nearly everything gets mixed with varying levels of Titanium White before being applied to the paper. Water was used mostly to clean off his brush and to get a yogurt-like paint consistency.

I found this kind of painting to be very difficult. I've never worked with anything but traditional watercolors, so I had a hard time simply getting the paint off my brush. With the white mixed in, colors actually dry darker on the paper, which is the opposite of my normal watercolor experience where transparent glazes dry lighter. My inexperience definitely showed, as Rick's comments to me mostly stressed the need to move away from transparent applications and to go more opaque.

One interesting element in his painting setup is his use of colored matboard as a painting support. Like a pastel artist, the use of a toned background was often helpful, it seemed, in building body in the painted areas. I started off on plain, natural white 300-pound Arches, and really struggled to get opaque. Not having any matboard with me, I used another participant's idea and toned some white watercolor paper with a staining color. Once that dried, it was more like Rick's toned piece of matboard -- and I found it easier to work the next day because of that head start. But it was still a difficult process for me to work through.

I've not tried anything else since the workshop, but I have a little travel palette now labeled "Opaque," and I want to play with the idea again at some point. And, I'd like to know if there are other artists out there using watercolors in this kind of opaque application.

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