Project: Transparent and Opaque – Exercise: Monochrome Studies

09 – 10/02/15

Monochrome Studies

Draw main outline of a tree, including trunk and the main branches, and then roughly sketch in the diminishing outer branches and twigs.

Preliminary sketch of apple tree. Pencil in A4 sketchbook.

Preliminary sketch of apple tree.
Pencil in A4 sketchbook.


Rough outline pencil sketch of apple tree in preparation for monochrome studies.








Prepare two supports, one with dark coloured wash and the other with a light grey background mixed opaquely or by using a wash. Copy the pencil image onto each with charcoal and light dust off the charcoal to leave a faint image.

Monochrome Studies. Positive shapes on light background.  Acrylic on A2 acrylic paper.

Monochrome Studies.
Positive shapes on light background.
Acrylic on A2 acrylic paper.


I chose to use an opaque ground of light grey.  Using a rigger brush, I outlined the positive shapes of the trunk, branches and twigs, filling in the area with the dark wash colour with a flat and a medium round brush.  I then added the finer twig shapes with the rigger.  I tried to reduce the density of the colour as the twigs decreased in size.







Monochrome Studies. Negative shapes, light grey on a dark wash. Acrylic on A2 acrylic paper.

Monochrome Studies.
Negative shapes, light grey on a dark wash.
Acrylic on A2 acrylic paper.

On a dark wash of Prussian Blue and Raw Sienna, using a light grey mix and a large flat brush, I cut into the drawing with negative shapes.  As I neared the bulk of the branches I switched to a small flat brush.  Once all the negative shapes were blocked in and the basic tree shape emerged, I added some of the dark wash colour to the mix around the twiggy branch shapes.  It was suggested in the brief to modulate the grey tones further away from the main trunk as the thinner branches may appear to be a half-tone.  Adding more of the darker wash colour to the negative shapes helped give the illusion of these twigs being finer and further away.  I also became less precise and let the wash colour go over the dark branches and twigs so that they were less defined and sharp further away from the trunk.  This worked well, and if this was a finished painting, I would also have worked more finer strokes for twigs as I did for the previous study.


Positive Shapes – Dark on Light.

Working this way round, I could see my faint charcoal line drawing clearly to follow the image, although of course, it would have been also have been just as easy to draw in with paint.  The brain is used to positive shapes and more readily accepts what the eye sees the hand doing. Once the basic larger shapes were blocked in, it was also straightforward to add little fine flourishes eg the thinner twigs.

In this exercise the background was static and the image looked a little lifeless.  You could of course, use negative shapes in the background to vary contrasts and tones however, once all those finer twigs were established you would risk losing them and having to reinstate them.

Negative Shapes – Light on Dark

When attempting a complex subject, drawing negative shapes around the subject can simplify a drawing.  I found this previously in the drawing course, when drawing a basket of flowers.  You can fool the brain by not concentrating on what the mind knows but only on what the eye sees. Cutting in up to the subject can also add texture, particularly with trees that are virtually in silhouette. Modifications can easily be made up to a point.  The background can also be more expressive and tonally adjusted to help bring life and balance to the image.

Working with negative shapes, I found it quite difficult to see where my charcoal lines were and missed one particular small negative shape I had purposely drawn in.  Concentration had to be constant in the early stages – this was particularly true working on a dark background.  Fine lines, such as the end twigs were impossible to add by cutting around them, although, there is no reason why they could not be added in a positive way later.

I found that, particularly with the negative shape study, it would be very useful to use the two methods, opaque and transparent together to achieve an overall effect.  Up to a point, I have used both in the same painting with realising it.  This exercise has however, made me more conscious of the techniques and when they would be of use.


Project: Transparent and Opaque – Exercise: Opaque Colour Mixing


Opaque Colour Mixing

Choose at least three of the washes you’ve painted (including the single colour ones) and attempt to recreate exactly the same colour, shade and tone of each of these in turn.  This time, though, you’ll be mixing colours by adding in white, making the paints opaque.

Overall, an interesting exercise, not to mention, mind bending and frustrating!  The single washes (along the top row), were not too bad, the simple addition of white instead of thinners to lighten the tones, worked fairly well, although, white also had to be added in a very small quantity to the darkest tone too.  Otherwise, particularly with the Sap Green and Deep Violet, it was too transparent a pigment. An observation, now that the swatches are completely dry, is that, although I painted very carefully, it does look haphazard and not smooth in the slightest.


Opaque colour mixing - acrylic on acrylic paper. Attempt at replicating previous exercises washes in tone, shade and colour with opaque mixes.

Opaque colour mixing – acrylic on acrylic paper.
Attempt at replicating previous exercises washes in tone, shade and colour with opaque mixes.

With the two colour examples, I couldn’t just turn the paper round and proceed in the same way as in the previous transparent exercise.  With the addition of the white the base colour would just have been covered over.  Therefore, I also had to mix some of the base colour in the middle of the sheet to maintain the shade created by the transparent washes.

Comparison of Both Methods

To make the comparison more valid, I used acrylic on acrylic paper for the opaque colour mixing. Therefore, an interesting observation would be that the transparent washes were more inclined to be lifted off the paper when worked over when wet, the opaque, however, seem to adhere to the support better with the addition of the white.  The single Sap Green example is a good illustration of this as the brush marks are less obvious as more white is added.

The Alzarin Crimson, the more resistant to transparent washes, again was a little harder work than the other two (Sap Green and Deep Violet).  I can only think that this is because it is a stronger pigment, it did blend with white but took more mixing to become a consistent colour, yet when this was done, it did smooth out better than the green or violet.

Of course the main difference is that, with the transparent wash, the base colour is visible beneath the top. With the opaque, as the base colour is obliterated, the blended colour in the middle of the transparent washes has to be physically mixed with both pigments and white in the correct ratios to replicate this. More effort is required, and I think I only just managed this in the middle bottom row sample.  However, I then struggled to produce a smooth transition of tone.

Another difference, which goes back to the issue of paint lifting off with the transparent washes, is that taking a clean damp brush to the opaque graduated tones, helps the transition from one to the next – as long as the acrylic hasn’t dried, this did not work with the washes.

Think about ways in which both methods could work together:

  • Transparent washes in a lit background where opaque mixes would be applied to objects against the light.
  • Working tonally in a monochrome way and then use transparent washes to build colour glazes.
  • Working abstractedly, opaque solid shapes and glazes of colour to enhance mood and atmosphere.
  • Transparent washes may help to enhance aerial perspective where the middle to foreground may increase in opacity.


Project: Transparent and Opaque – Exercise: Overlaying Washes


Overlaying Washes


Once your papers are dry, make up the same colour mixes only this time paint the second colour over the dried wash that you set aside. Notice any differences in the way the paint and colour behaves and make notes in your learning log.

As is often the case with exercises such as these, I was not overly enthused with doing it, however, once involved, it was very interesting.  The way different paint, colours and supports affected the outcome was quite a surprise.  As mentioned before in the previous exercise, Tonally Graded Wash, I found it very difficult to achieve a smooth transition between tones down the paper. Below are detailed photos, my findings and comments on each.

Overlaying Washes - Wet in Wet, oil on oil paper.

Overlaying Washes – Wet in Wet, oil on oil paper.


This is an example of the wet in wet wash with oil paint from the previous exercise.  My expectations were that this would be the best result as have previously done this with watercolour paint very successfully.  How wrong was I? The oil paint behaved very different to watercolour, in fact, I was more successful in painting off the first layer with the second sweep of colour.  The double dose of thinners makes for greater separation of gradation and pigment. It streaked so that the brush strokes were clearly visible.  Should you require a more expressive result, then this would work and give a degree of unpredictability and a less uniform effect.




Overlaying Washes - Wet on Dry, oil on oil paper.

Overlaying Washes – Wet on Dry, oil on oil paper.


After (im)patiently waiting overnight and most of the next day for the initial wash to dry, I tried the wet on dry approach.  Again, I was surprised by the result.  This proved the better of the two techniques to achieve a smooth transition of gradual tone down the page.  As the first wash layer was dry, there was no lifting and brush marks were minimal.  Again, depending on what was required, this would be useful for a softer, subtle effect and covers the white of the paper more.  It does however, illustrate how difficult it is to produce a strong, darker tone with this technique and should such a thing be needed, would require several layers to build it up.



Now that you have worked on single colour washes, wet-in-wet blended washes and overlaid glazes, practise these different ways of mixing transparent colour using a range of your pigments and note down the mixes that work well.  Are there colours that are hard to blend?

As my room was “awash” with drying sheets of oil paper, I decided to switch to acrylic paints to speed up the drying process and also compare the results.  My initial experiments were made on acrylic paper.

Overlaying Washes - Acrylic on Acrylic Paper.

Overlaying Washes – Acrylic on Acrylic Paper.

My intention was to continue with a similar brief to the Tonally Graded Wash exercise and use colours on the same spectrum.  From the colour guide on the tubes, I went for Permanent Rose and Crimson Alzarin, as they appeared to be distinct from each other.  On squeezing out two dollops and diluting with water, it became obvious they were almost identical in colour! Inexperience showing itself, I thought, however, I carried on anyway.  What I discovered was again, surprising and interesting.  Whereas the colours were similar, their behaviour wasn’t.  Permanent Rose reacted more like traditional watercolour, in that it mixed with the water completely and gave a more transparent glow of colour.  Streaks were minimal and could be over-brushed with little lifting.  The Alzarin, however, wanted to retain its solidity and diluted less evenly in the water.  Consequently, the brush marks remained visible and the pigment was more prone to streaking and lifting.  Accidentally, I had come across a valuable reference point, for a similar colour, I could achieve different effects depending on which I chose.

Overlaying Washes - Acrylic on Acrylic Paper.

Overlaying Washes – Acrylic on Acrylic Paper.

I continued with other paints and experimented with wet-in-wet and wet-on-dry techniques.  Nothing as obvious really occurred to me as before, although the following may be noted:

Ultramarine is slightly grainier than the other pigments I tried.  Both of the greens, Sap and Pthalo, became more stable the more water was added, producing some lovely washes. Whereas, the Deep Violet and Ultramarine never quite fully diluted and retained both brush strokes and streaks.

Overlaying Washes - Acrylic on Acrylic Paper.

Overlaying Washes – Acrylic on Acrylic Paper.


I began to wonder how much the support used had affected the end result.  I then decided to try the exercise on 300gsm watercolour paper and see what happened.  I suspected that the lack of absorbency of both the oil and acrylic papers made a significant difference particularly with the wet-in-wet technique.

I decided to test, both the Permanent Rose and Alzarin, the Deep Violet and Sap Green.

Overlaying Washes - Acrylic on Watercolour Paper.

Overlaying Washes – Acrylic on Watercolour Paper.

Using different combinations, here’s what I found:

Permanent Rose over Deep Violet – wet on dry:
Both merged well, however, as before the Violet tended to streak, the Rose diluted well again yet appeared to streak purely because the wash was stronger over the white gaps of paper.
Permanent Rose over Deep Violet – wet-in-wet:
This was more successful at blending as the streaks of violet were still damp enough to absorb the Rose and soften the streaks.
Sap Green over Alzarin – wet on dry:
The Alzarin appears the “streakiest” of them all!  Definite brush strokes left on the paper and the Sap Green obligingly filled the gaps very smoothly.
Sap Green over Alzarin – wet-in-wet:
The streaks were blended more with the immediate addition of the Sap Green, however, the gradation of the Alzarin wash almost disappeared, leaving its pigment mainly at the top.

My conclusion is, neither one thing, a specific pigment or paint, or the support used, absorbent or not, makes a significant difference.  It is the combination that counts, paints that easily dilute in water or thinners are more successful at soft, subtle blends and even more so on absorbent surfaces.  Those that refuse to dilute easily will always streak to a degree, oil blends better wet on dry, acrylic blends better wet in wet regardless of surface but more so on absorbent.  However, I have yet to try this exercise on damp paper with acrylic???!

Mark Rothko – Seagram Project:
We were asked to look at the Tate Modern collection of Rothko’s Seagram Project.  Initially a commission by the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Segram Building in New York of nine paintings.  Rothko produced around 30 paintings in the series and because he was specific about the space in which they should be displayed, eventually cancelled the commission. Following the interactive tour I was able to zoom in on most of the work and some of its studies.  Due to the technology available in analysing paintings nowadays, the layers of pigment have been examined in detail and even though Rothko was very private in the way he worked, some insight into his methods have been discovered.  His careful planning process, studies and layering with use of media including acrylic, egg tempura, damar painting medium, oil and alkyd oils etc plus painterly brushwork, bely the instant impression his work may give.

Project: Transparent and Opaque – Exercise: Tonally Graded Wash


Tonally Graded Wash

Load a medium-sized brush with fluid colour and work from the top to the bottom of the sheet with increasingly dilute mixes of the colour, until, at the bottom of your sheet, you have a very pale wash, almost faded out to white. Practice this several times until a satisfactory progression from deep tones through to the very palest. One or two of the best sheets to be put aside to dry for the next exercise.  

With another colour, close to the original in the spectrum, make another fluid mix and work the graded washes down wet in wet over the original sheet starting at its palest end. You should have several sheets of merged washes.

Tonally graded washes. Oil colour on oil paper.

Tonally graded washes.
Oil colour on oil paper.

This was much harder than I anticipated.  I have never used oil in such a fluid way, rather I use it more or less straight out of the tube.  The course text advised that there is a variety of ways of doing this, I discovered and tried a few. I have done this in water-colour before and the absorption of the paper helps significantly, there is no such aid here.

I tried loading the brush and working my way down adding more thinners to my mix about halfway through and only succeeded in added more colour. Then again by working down with strong colour at the top and dipping in the thinners as I progressed – this only made the paper wetter and the pigment even more tricky to handle, tried again, slightly less thinners – same result. I cheated and tried wiping out the additional pigment at the bottom with a rag and blending back up, sort of worked but not ideal.

Next, I loaded up the trusty brush, worked my way down the sheet until it was running out, dipped in the thinners and carried on till that ran out and repeated.  Best result so far. When I turned the sheet around and added the second colour in the same way, it worked so much better wet in wet. I had a sneaky look at the next exercise and we’re to do the same but on the dried wash – should be interesting – if it ever does dry that it is!

Lessons Learnt

  •  Keep the work surface clean – dilute paint splashes about – avoid cross contamination.
  • Mix washes with a different utensil to that you intend to paint with – avoids a lump of neat colour spoiling the gradation of the wash.
  • Once washes are on – don’t be tempted to go back over and fill in any gaps – this only takes off the paint that’s already there.
  • Appears easier to gain a smoother gradation working wet in wet.