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Artist Paint Opacity

What to Look For and How to Test

Paint opacity is critical for accomplishing the effects you want. Are paints opaque, translucent or transparent? How do you know?

Artist paint opacity Until I had an understanding of what to look for in paints when I buy them and how to test them once I have them, they were all just a pile of paints to me.

I was getting frustrated by the fact that I would highlight an area as the finishing touches on it, only to discover that when the paint dried, it wasn't any more highlighted than what it was before.

I would add white to colors for highlights because I knew that white was opaque, but sometimes I didn't want to alter the colors that much.

I wanted a pure color lighter than what I had,to stand out as the highlight.

I finally decided to research the problem and this page will give you all the information I found, so you can be less frustrated by the same problem.


What is Opacity?

It is the ability of the paint to prevent the color underneath from showing through.

What are Semi-transparent or Translucent Paints?

These are paints that are only partially opaque, allowing some of the color to come through.

What is Transparent?

It is the inability of the paint to prevent any of the color from coming through from underneath it. The only thing I can think of that would be close to 100% transparent would be clean water, but if you have any paint in it as a wash, it will be less than 100%

Testing the Paints You Have


It is really is quite simple.

Paint three black lines parallel to each other on a piece of canvas paper. It is probably best if you use acrylics so the black dries quickly.

Choose the colors you want to test and paint them across the black lines.

Be sure to identify each color and give the significant details that will help you analyze what features make the colors do what you want.

Compare what you see to what you want and you are all set.

Looking at the Samples

If you look at the three greens, all three were semi-transparent, or translucent. These two terms are used inter-changeable, by the way. They mean the same thing.

The top green was a water-soluble phthalo green, while the other two are both permanent sap green acrylics, but by two different manufacturers.

There is a definitely a difference in the transparency of the colors, even though they both have the same name. This is something you want to be aware of in choosing between manufacturers.

I'll discuss more detail later about what to look for to distinguish the opacity and transparency of the color.

With the red you can see that the one to the lower right is definitely more opaque than the other one. They are both water-soluble oils and are both cadmium reds.

The difference is that the top one is a Series 1 and is a
"red Hue" while the other is a Series 2.

"Hues" tend not to have as much pigment in them and are of lesser quality. They are also less expensive, so you have to decide what your priorities are.

With the yellow samples, you can see the same difference in the two center ones which are both water-soluble oils, but # 2 is a Series 2 cadmium yellow while #3 is a cadmium yellow "hue."

The first and forth ones are both acrylics, but two different brands. It is interesting to see that the 1st one is a light yellow and is more opaque than the medium yellow in the 4th one.

So you can see, just from the paints I all ready have, there are lots of differences.

When you go to buy paints you have to look at many factors.

  • How opaque or translucent can the paint be?
  • What will You be trying to accomplish with that color?
  • How do brands compare?
  • How much do You want to spend?
  • Are there any clues to help me decide?

The answer to the last question is "Yes"

Reading the Labels

Before you try to do this, bring a magnifying glass unless your eyes are really good.

Labeling Opacity

Some brands actually tell you if they are opaque, translucent or semi-transparent, or transparent.
The problem is, this is not consistent.

Some brands have it on the front; some on the back; some at the top; some at the bottom; and some no place.

One brand actually demonstrates the opacity by painting the color over black strips like we did.

Look at the Name of the Paint

As I showed in the samples, if it says "Hue," you can depend on it being more semi-transparent than if it doesn't include hue in the name.

The name may also include one of the key ingredients, such as cadmium, and this can be important but not necessarily.

Look at the Ingredients

There are some general rules that may help, but are not completely consistent from brand to brand. The following chart is designed to give you a basic feeling for ingredients and how they relate to opacity.

These names are mainly for oils and acrylics. The second chart shows watercolors.

Generally Inorganic
Mineral based

Translucent and Transparent
Generally Organic
Also called Modern

Cadmium Red
Hnaza Yellow
Cadmium Yellow
Phthalo Blue
Quinacridone Red
Raw Sienna
Quinacridone Nickel Azo Gold
Chromium Oxide Green
Phthalo Green
Ultra marine Violet
Permanent Violet Dark
Violet Oxide
Quinacridone Violet
Generally  Cadmiums Carmin Red
Ultra marine blue

Titamium White

A few basic bits of information for acrylics and oils.

When mixing secondary colors, if you mix only opaque colors, the resulting color will be duller than if you as mixed an opaque one with a translucent color.

In acrylics, some people use gesso as their white source rather than titanium white. This is fine, but the resulting color after drying will be flatter, with no sheen and less opaque.

You can paint oils over acrylics, which is great for accenting highlight or foreground colors.

The only thing you cannot do is mix gesso into the oils as a white source.


The following chart gives more names of colors to help you choose.



Cadmium red, yellow, orange
Brown Madder
Cerulean Blue
Payne's Gray
Cobalt blue (slightly transparent)
Permanent Sap Green
Yellow Ochre
Windsor Red
Raw Sienna
Alizarin Crimson
Raw Umber
Windsor Blue
Burnt Sienna (slightly transparent)
Windsor Green
Burnt Umber
French Ultra marine Blue (almost completely


Probably the best way to tell which colors meet your needs is by testing them as I showed you. for colors you don't have, talking to a knowledgeable person who has used the colors is you next best choice.

I hope this has been a help to you. If I come across anything more, I'll add it to the page.

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