Demonstration: Opaque Figure

18 x 24 opaque watercolor on 140lb arches cold press paper

This demonstration will show you how to use strong transparent colors as an under painting, and then a fairly dry application of more opaque colors, Titanium white, Naples Yellow from Da Vinci, and Coastal Fog, Peachy Keen and Sky Blue from Cheap Joes’s American Journey line of watercolor.  Two things to know before starting are that you apply the opaque colors with a very stiff brush, ox hair filbert or one of the really expensive Skipper Brushes from Cheap Joes, you need the stiff hairs to push the paint on to the paper, and then you need to remember to shake the extra water out of the brush when applying opaque colors.  You need some water to make it spread but too much will really dilute the under color and create a nasty, cloudy mess.

Start the painting with a simple line drawing of a figure, no details are important, you are just looking for an interesting shape to apply broad passages of colors. 

I must tell you now I think my drawing is pretty boring but sometimes even the instructor has moments of lack of expressiveness. The painting is basically just a warm toned figure with a cool background.  Really use bright colors because the opaque colors will grey them out when you put them on top.

After I get the drawing on the paper, I use some Higgins Eternal Black ink to create some nice dark accents on the edge of the figure.  For the ink I am using a regular no. 12 wash brush.

Without letter the ink dry I mover right into the rich passages of transparent watercolors.  I am using New Gamboge, Cadmium Scarlet, Cobalt Blue, Skip’s Green from American Journey, and Olive Green.  I put the colors down in a middle value with very little water.

Again without letting the transparent washes dry I begin to over paint with the opaque colors,

I really control the water in the brush, I shake the brush into a trash can that sits right next to me, and try not to over rub the paint,  I want a nice interplay between the under painting and the opaque colors.  I work on the edges of the figure with the edge of my brush charged with rich thick whites and Coastal Fog.  I also use the occasional knife to scratch the edge.

I pull some of the background colors across the edge of the colors on the figure.  I really try to modify the edges with scraping, and the use of dry brush paint.

Now I start to adjust the colors adding warmer and cooler colors into the broad passages in the background.  All of the time I am thinking of edges and the variety of color.  Keep moving without letting the paint dry, don’t add water because at this point, watery paint will push a hole in the color.  It will be very hard to fix later.

I get to the end of the painting and I find the background is boring and flat.  By adding more whites, grays and blues, I begin to get a more interesting look.

I modify the edges and colors merging the figure in and out of the background.  It is not a great painting but it does works as a solid demonstration.

Keys to remember:

Don’t rub the paint

Use a stiff brush for the opaque colors

Use less water with the paint

Really work on the edges.

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  • moira StevensonSeptember 1, 2011 - 7:58 pm

    Steve thank you SO much for this demonstration. It is exactly what I needed both in terms of how to apply the paint and understanding the interplay between opaque and transparent colours.

    I love your style of work and your style of teaching. Thanks again – just the jumpstart I need xReplyCancel

    • SteveSeptember 4, 2011 - 2:55 pm

      I am glad that you got something out of it. It has been a few years working like that and it took me a while to get used to the amount of water to use. Better to stay a little dry that too wet.ReplyCancel

  • MercedesJuly 21, 2014 - 9:32 am

    Dear steve. I have over read this post of yours. I like very much both your exposure of the development of the technique, very complete, and I also like the result of it. I am very interested in knowing other applications of this technique. Would you be so kind to tell me this? Thank you very much. RespectfullyReplyCancel