Acrylic Paints: Opaque vs. Translucent/Transparent

I’ve been asked what the difference is between transparant and opaque paints and how you apply them to the canvas to get a variety of effects. It is also challenging to tell if a paint is opaque or if it is transparent (translucent) by just looking at the paint on your palette.

I have used Titanium White vs. Zinc White to illustrate the difference in opaque and translucent Acrylic Paints in the picture above. Titanium white is an opaque paint and zinc white is a translucent paint. A good way to think of this is opaque paint is not see through and translucent/transparent paint is see through. In the photo you can see the blue paint peeking through underneath the zinc white, but the titanium white hides all of the blue paint underneath it.

I also painted in with gesso to show how it is in between transparent and opaque. This is why I always paint two to three coats of gesso when preparing a painting surface.

Definitions of the two pigments or paints:

Translucent/Transparent Paint: When an object is dyed to be translucent, it allows more light to pass through, reflecting off the objects behind the surface and allowing them to reflect their own color wavelengths, increasing their visibility. When applying translucent paint over the top of another color of paint, it allows the lower color to show through creating an “mixed” color of the two different colors.

Opaque Paint: A paint color is said to be opaque when it hides what’s underneath it. When you can’t see any or very little of what’s painted beneath the color, it is an opaque paint. If you can see a color that is underneath, then that paint is just the opposite of opaque, it is transparent.

Semi Transparent and Semi Opaque Paints: And just to confuse all of us, there are also may paints that are in between. They are classified as semi transparent (more transparent than opaque) and semi opaque (more opaque than transparent.)

I made a list of the transparent and opaque paints I use regularly as a reference sheet in my studio. I have shared it below. These are my personal favorite colors I use the most, there are many other colors created by paint manufacturers. I use Grumbacher, Golden and Liquitex acrylics.

Transluscent/Transparent Paints (includes semi transparant)

Zinc white, alizarin crimson, dioxazine blue, ultramarine, pthalo blue, Prussian blue, viridian green, terre verte, sap green, burnt sienna, raw sienna, raw umber. Even though raw unber is on this list, I think it covers really well.

Opaque Paints (includes semi opaque)

the cadmium’s: yellow, red, orange. Lemon yellow, yellow ochre, burnt umber, Vandyke brown, Paynes grey, ivory black, cerulean blue, cobalt blue, chromium green, Indian red, and titanium white.

I have found that using semi opaque or semi transparent paints in my painting process is the best way to get familiar with how transparent/opaque they appear.

Color Mixing

Mixing a transparent paint with an opaque paint can make it more opaque. As an example, I mix sap green which is semi-transparent with a tiny bit of cadmium yellow and it covers more like an opaque paint.

Some brands of paint have begun using a chart from 1 to 8 to determine the opaqueness of each paint. Most paints have a transparancy/opaque reference on the tube, but if you don’t see it, refer to their website for that and more information about each type of paint.

Water Based Mediums

There are also all types of water based add ins and Mediums that can change the density of your acrylic paints, too. But that’s a huge topic for later!

Let me know if you find this helpful!

Have a wonderful, creative, day filled with joy! -Janell

P.S. Yes, I am back to blogging after taking a couple of years off. I so enjoy talking about art and painting and sharing my processes and experiments that I decided to get back to blogging. 😊