How to Use Watercolor Like Oil Paint?

"Pulling Together" transparent watercolor 22" x 30" 1994

The blog post: “Oil, Watercolor, and Acrylic – Each is Great” prompted this question from a reader, “Tell us how you  use watercolor like oil paint.”

Traditionally watercolors have the reputation of only looking good when applied in such a way that features transparency.  If you like the watercolors of John Singer Sargent, Edward Hopper, and Winslow Homer – and I assume all aquarellist do – you should be aware that these giants of the medium used lots of opaque white paint. Why they chose to use opaque pigments I must assume is for the same reason I use them, they look good and serve my purposes. I am not pointing fingers here and saying that transparent watercolors are not beautiful. I love the luminosity that can be achieved by layering transparent pigments. I also love the relationship of the juxtaposition of opaque and transparent areas in a painting. I have no biases in this regard.

"Without Fear" opaque watercolor 22"x 30" 2006

Now for the answer to your question, “Tell us how you use watercolor like oil paint.” It is really quite simple, I use less water and more paint.

Any pigment can be made transparent or opaque by adjusting the amount of water used when mixing. Using pigments as they come from the tube without water are opaque thick. Mix any pigment with lots of water and they become transparent.  This works for opaque and transparent pigments alike.

White pigment can be made transparent and a transparent pigment like phthalo green can be applied opaquely. Look at the watercolors of  Andrew Wyeth and you will discover the shadow areas have a milky translucent quality achieved by the use of davy’s grey and other semitransparent pigments.

That is how I do it the more important question is why I do it. In a word it is freedom.  Painting is hard enough without building self imposted limitations.Remember you get no extracredit for making your job more difficult. If I can improve a painting by adding white paint, black paint, or fire ants I will use them. I do not feel more self-righteous when I use nothing but transparant pigments anymore that I do when using opaque pigments. Let us make personal creative decisions based on intent not technique.

Thanks for the question and great creating.


  • Cathy

    Jan 20, 2012 at 7:59 pm Reply

    I appreciate the freedom to paint how I like whether or not it follows the “rules”.


  • Sean

    Aug 2, 2014 at 1:51 pm Reply

    Lots of paint very little water. When the paint is dry go over it with a clear crayon and spray with a clear matte finish.

  • Brenda Stephenson

    Jan 10, 2016 at 12:38 pm Reply

    Love the idea of freedom, but some say its best to know the rules and then break them….

  • Cindy

    Apr 27, 2017 at 7:21 pm Reply

    Thank you! Your article made me feel better. I am super hard on myself when my paintings get too opaque! But now I’ll just go with it!

    • Skip Lawrence

      Aug 3, 2017 at 7:44 am Reply

      Thank you Cindy for your kind thoughts. Slkip

  • Yolanda Frederikse

    Jan 20, 2018 at 2:26 pm Reply

    Lots of paint and just a little water…..been painting like this for years! Started with W/C
    classes with you many years ago and with your encouragement! Thanks Skip!
    Greetings from Durban, South Africa
    Yolanda [Lanna}

    • Skip Lawrence

      Feb 14, 2019 at 6:53 am Reply

      Thank you Yolanda for your sharing. It’s been a long time. Glad to know you continue to make art. Skip

  • Lori-Ann Willey

    Feb 14, 2019 at 6:12 am Reply

    This is an amazing quote!

    “Remember you get no extra credit for making your job more difficult.”

  • Jay Bainbridge

    Aug 2, 2019 at 3:46 pm Reply

    Since I began painting in watercolors about 20 years ago, I have gone in this direction. I love the rich jewel like colors I get. Thank you.

Leave a Comment & Share

Leave a Comment

Did you like this post? Share it with your friends!