Opaque colour mixing

This exercise involved producing graded grounds in acrylic using addition of white to produce the gradation in tone, rather than water.  I found this slightly easier eventually but it involved completely different technique and some of the things that had worked for watery washes did not apply to opaque colour mixing.

I tried a variety of grounds / surfaces:

  • cartridge paper – recycled from the previous exercise and prepared with gesso.
  • watercolour paper 300 gsm in a gummed pad.
  • MDF board, prepared with gesso. 


The first exercise was done on a long strip of MDF.  I chose a long thin strip to try to get a more gradual change in tone.  I am quite pleased with the graduation but the paint is of inconsistent thickness and appears blotchy.  I used an ultramarine acrylic paint by Daler-Rowney, a cheaper brand than for the first exercise because I did not want to waste more expensive paint.  The colours differ.  I initially applied the wash vertically but the paint began to run and, being quite thick, it stained the gesso and was impossible to completely remove. Therefore, towards the bottom, I thinned the paint with a little water in an attempt to wash off the paint that had run, and also because the brush was clogging up. This has created a noticeable difference in the consistency and one of the runs is apparent beneath the paint.  I used gesso rather than white paint to change the tone and wonder now if this made a difference to the covering ability and/or to the consistency of the paint.


I tried again on A3 paper which was recycled from the previous exercise and gessoed. There is still some blotchiness.  The gesso helped to flatten the paper but it paper is not completely flat and has reflected the light oddly in places becasue of this so the reproduction here is not completely representative (cf. the one above which does appear flat).  Brush strokes are visible at the top of the page. 



The colour in both of these is very different from that in the washes in the previous exercise.  This is at least in part due to using a cheaper paint this time – although I really like the brightness of this blue. 

In the next attempt, I used a madder deep and ultramarine mix, which had been used in an earlier transparent wash exercise.  This worked reasonably well until I spilled a couple of drops of water on the paper and went back to correct it, which resulted in smears. 



In the exercise up until now I had used gesso to create opacity rather than titanium white. Some questions to which I wanted answers were:

How does titanium white compare with gesso in terms of paint texture and colour?

How do they compare in terms of coverage?

Does the paint feel different when it is being applied?

Findings: It was harder to obliterate the brush marks with titanium white than with the gesso which, although not granular, does give a more matt / chalky finish than acrylic white paint.  The gesso / paint combination gave slightly more coverage but this may not be a fair comparison because amount of paint on the brush and thickness of the application must also play a part.  The paint mixed with titanium white did feel smoother in use than gesso. 

The visual outcome is shown below: the ground on the left is the same one as directly above, i.e. made opaque using gesso.  In the centre, titanium white was used to produce opacity and I tried to pull the darker shades further down the paper so that the tints developed more gradually.  Looking at it now, it seems to have been easier to produce a tonal gradient with the titanium white but this is may have been due in part to a conscious attempt on my part to improve! There is definitely a difference in the texture of the surface – use of titanium white has reduced the ‘chalkiness’, now very evident in the gesso (left).   

An aim of this exercise was to replicate the effect of a water-based wash using increasing amounts of white instead of water.  As my earlier washes were not successful, I did another using the same acrylic colours as a starting point.  On the right, I made a new acrylic wash using water instead of white for comparison. The colour is lost too suddenly producing too steep a colour gradient.  I wiped the brush carefully to avoid adding too much water but will obviously have to watch that I don’t remove too much pigment at the same time.  The colour at the top of the page should be identical, i.e. pure pigment. That it is not reflects that less red than blue was used creating a deeper violet, bordering on indigo.  Further down the paper, however, the tones are similar (more easily perceived if the top half is covered).   This exercise has highlighted the importance of mixing enough paint for a specific purpose at the start because trying to match a shade later is time-consuming and can waste paint.  

Screen Shot 2013 09 29 at 12 33 28


For comparison, I rubbed an ultramarine acrylic wash (i.e. only paint with water) onto A4 watercolour paper using a piece of kitchen towel (below left), to see whether the consistency was noticeably different from application with a brush.  I was not consciously attempting a graded wash, although it does fade towards the bottom where the paint was running out!  The consistency is not bad.

I tried repeating the exercise with opaque colour (below right) and this time to see if a tonal gradation could be achieved. The result was irregular – the thicker paint did not easily cover the textured surface when applied in this way. However, I did discover that madder deep + ultramarine + white can produce some wonderful warm cloud colours.  Both of these might be useful as grounds, however, where most of the surface will be covered with a new layer of paint. They were applied much faster and with less frustration!

Screen Shot 2013 09 29 at 12 58 36


Whereas the transparent washes would be useful for glazing, the opaque mixes produce more solid background colour.  I could imagine using these where I want the base colour to show through in places and avoid white paper.  The British artist Hashim Akib does this and uses base colour – often a colour that is complementary to a dominant colour – to help create an overall mood in a painting, melding the surface with the base colour to create coherence in an image.  

 What I learned from this exercise:

  • keep paint and water to one side of the paper – don’t reload the brush over the paper.
  • thick opaque washes are best applied flat. 
  • mix paint with a palette knife
  • mix sufficient paint – perhaps store in a screw top jar.
  • try to apply paint smoothly and relatively quickly to avoid stickiness as the paint dries.
  • resist retouching!

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