Wildlife in Watercolour

The Devon Artist

Understanding Watercolour Painting Jargon

Watercolour pan paint properties

We know that watercolour is a very popular medium.  It is a simple concept to paint with coloured water.  But it is also a medium which allows you to create intense colours and amazing transparencies.  It can even enable you to give your paintings a sparkle of life and realism.  But understanding all the watercolour painting jargon is another matter all together.

The terms used by manufacturers can be confusing or at worst off-putting.  Do the paints fade in the sun or are they ‘light fast’, are they transparent or opaque?  Then what’s all this about pigment and granulation and what on earth is a series?!

I hope my ramblings clear up some of these very arty words and help you to choose the right type of paint for the paintings you wish to create.

Watercolour transparencies explained
Transparency & Opacity

Watercolour is classed as transparent when it allows the white of the paper to show through from underneath. Transparent colours are great for layering over one another to achieve deeper tones.  Layering a transparent colour over itself will work in exactly the same way.  Transparent colours are used quite a lot by botanical artist.  They create some amazing soft layers in flower and plant paintings.  It is also a property that I take advantage of in my wildlife paintings.
An opaque version of a paint will basically mean that it doesn’t allow much in the way of colour through from underneath.  So if you paint it over another colour, that colour stands very little chance of showing through.
As you know, I use opaque white for many of my paintings.  Indeed, this allows me to paint over some of the darkest areas for fine hairs, eye highlights and so on.
I usually class the transparency levels in three ways, transparent, semi-transparent and opaque.  When you have got a few spare minutes, maybe have a play with your own palette and work out how transparent each of your colours.  Alternatively take a look at the packaging/tubes and see what they say.  This will really help you when you come to layer them in your work


Basically, pigment is what gives your paint its colour, and it is held together with the use of a binder. The cost of the paint will reflect:
– The amount of pigment used within the binder
– How rare the pigment is and how much it costs to produce and include.  This can vary considerably from pigment to pigment.
– The quality of the binder used

Paints with richer, more concentrated pigments will give you the ability to mix your colours more easily.  As a consequence you will use less paint to obtain the same depth of colour.  You can work up poorer quality paints to achieve the same depth of colour.  But you will use more paint, and it will take slightly longer to apply all the layers needed.

Paint Series

Paint very often comes in what is called a series, this is because the colours cost different amounts to produce.
When you look on a tube of paint or a pan wrapper, there is often a number or a letter displayed. The higher the number/letter the more expensive the paint is to produce.  For instance, they may contain rarer pigments.
So for example you may find cadmium yellow from the * Winsor & Newton Professional range is Series 4.  Whereas burnt sienna is Series 1.  Manufacturers do not charge the same for their paints when they cost different amounts to produce.  Cadmium yellow is more expensive to produce than burnt sienna.  Therefore, in all the ranges it is likely to be more expensive.
But to add to the confusion, when you look at prices based on series number, a cheaper price doesn’t mean that a colour is any poorer in quality. It just means that it is less expensive to produce……now if you understand all that, you are doing better than me!

Winsor & Newton transparencies watercolour paints
Winsor and Newton Professional Watercolours

Buy some paints, try them out, swap them with a friend and try theirs out.  Find the ones that suit you and your style of painting.  I very often say ‘buy the best you can afford’ and this is the reason why.
So there you go a little about transparencies, opacity, pigments and series.  I hope it has helped your understanding of the watercolour painting jargon.
Which paints do you use, and how are they marked up for transparency and series? Let me know, I’d love to hear from you.
Till the next time, keep them brushes wet!  Paul


*I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you from the links above. 

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