Transparent and Opaque Colors: How We Perceive Them

Through the following illustrations, I hope to demonstrate what happens to transparent colors when they’re applied over an opaque color, over a dark base and over a white base.

Transparent Washes Over Opaque
With opaque colors, light will hit the first layer and bounce off, but will never get to the lower layers. In this case, the eyes will just see pink (magenta with white), but it will appear flat and “chalky.” (See illustrations A and B below.)

Transparent Colors Over a Dark Base

Transparent colors will allow a light source to pass through them. However, a dark base will absorb the light, leaving a dull, less vibrant final color. (See illustrations C and D below.)

Transparent Colors Over a White Base
White is opaque and reflective—it hides what is below it and bounces light back to the surface through the layers of color. In this example, when light travels through the magenta / yellow / magenta layers, the eye will see an orange mixture with a slight red tint. When you use transparent colors over a white base, you get a lot more glow and vibrancy, and your colors have more depth. (See E and F below.)

E image: Transparent on white schematic

Click here to learn more about David Kitler’s painting techniques in the April 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine, available for digital download.

Click here to see his demonstration for masking with cellophane.

David N. Kitler’s paintings are now part of corporate and private collections in North and South America and in Europe. He’s a member of the Artists for Conservation Foundation, the Society of Animal Artists and the Group of Twelve. Besides painting in his studio in Calgary, Alberta, Kitler takes research trips with his wife and shares his passion for nature and art with his many students. He also continues to support fund-raising activities for numerous organizations. For more information, visit his website at Kitler has three instructional DVDs, produced by Creative Catalyst.


Ively (Lee) Kitler is a management consultant specializing in marketing and communication strategies. Her love of travel and deep appreciation for all living things dovetail with her husband’s goal to showcase nature’s intricate beauty.



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