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.