Versatile Opaque Paints
Watercolors for Beginners

Apart from the profound, theoretical basics, the Pelikan Theory of Opaque Paint also covers a broad, practical spectrum.

Further material for this article.

Versatile Opaque Paints - Watercolors for Beginners

Beim Aquarellieren mit Deckfarben erscheinen weiße Flächen durch das Aussparen von Farbe. Man benutzt also kein Deckweiß.

When painting in watercolors, white areas appear by omitting paint. So, you do not use opaque white.

Teachers' Information

Apart from the profound, theoretical basics, the Pelikan Theory of Opaque Paint also covers a broad, practical spectrum. Having said this, it is not so much for the purpose of teaching how to paint "right" than for discovering the different painting techniques. High emphasis was placed on the methodical/didactical preparation of the material, in order to implement the color theory effectively into the curriculum of students reaching from elementary school to early middle school age.

Watercolor Painting

Painting with watercolors is by far one of the oldest painting techniques. Already cave paintings involved the use of simple paintbrushes and charcoal dissolved in water. Minerals, such as hematite for a red coloring, have also been used for a long time already.

Artists like Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) or Rembrandt (1606-1669) especially used watercolors to sketch out their pictures as a preparation for their oil paintings. It was only in the 18th century that painting in watercolors was elevated to an art form of its own, when painters like William Turner (1745-1851) began to create complete artworks using this painting technique. Numbering among artists such as Christian Modersohn (1916-2009), Paul Cézanne (18939-1906) and Emil Nolde (1867-1956), many more artists increasingly began to work by this method.
Owing to its texture, paper provides the different possibilities that constitute painting in watercolors. Therefore, it is mainly paper that is used as a painting surface for this art form: Diluted strongly, the applied paints diffuse uncontrollably in all directions. You can dilute the paint even further by applying water directly onto the paper with a paintbrush. You can also mix the different watercolors together or you can apply the same color anew in a different pigmentation. There are also many different additives, such as alcohol or ox gall, that have different effects on the characteristics of paint, for example, some provide a shimmer to it and others have an influence on the time it takes the paint dry. Again others accentuate the single picture details. Your choice of paper quality and the sorts of paper you choose as a painting surface, also have a great influence on your end result. This said, there is, for example, smooth paper, absorbent and handmade paper as well as laid paper and light, silk paper. There are also many different kinds of paintbrushes that differ in style and quality. The range of paintbrushes reaches from ones with thick and short bristles over ones with synthetic fibers to paintbrushes made of fine marten fur. Painting means to perform improvised strokes over a chosen painting surface.

Despite the wide range of possibilities that watercolor painting provides, it is the three primary colors (cyan blue, magenta red, yellow) that should be available to you as a part of your basic equipment. Any other existing color can be mixed out of these three. This combined with the use of special painting techniques, such as the wet-on-wet technique, can lead to interesting color mixtures. The primary colors are part of the basic equipment of the Pelikan opaque paintbox.

Teaching Unit "Versatile Opaque Paints - Watercolors for Beginners"

This is what you need:

  • Pelikan K12 paintbox
  • Drawing paper C3 DIN A3
  • Poss. artist quality watercolor paper Fine Torchon
  • 1 thick fine-haired paintbrush
  • 1 black fineliner
  • 2 glasses of water
  • 1 small sponge
  • 1 plastic pocket DIN A4
  • 1 thick bristle paintbrush
  • Paper towels
  • Toothpicks

An Introduction to Painting with Opaque Paints

For a "real" watercolor picture, special artistic watercolors and specially selected papers are used. Plus, there is a variety of terms that describe the different painting techniques of which most can only be applied by use of expensive additional materials.
There are, however, different preparatory exercises for painting in watercolors that are performed with regular opaque paints, provided they aren't used in "opaque" state, but diluted with a large amount of water. The most suitable paper for painting in watercolors is a drawing pad with extra strong paper with the paper being attached to the pad on all four sides. Regular drawing paper is a lot thinner than real watercolor paper. If you are using it anyway, there is a trick to prevent the paper from making waves: The piece of paper is stuck onto an underlay using water as glue. The underlay should be made of glass or plastic (e. g. a plastic pocket). Allow it to dry there. This way, the page will become smooth again.
Regular drawing paper is suitable for preparatory painting exercises, but we recommend you to use strong watercolor paper for your actual painting. This way, your picture will not get soaked; it will not get out of shape or even dissolve, if you have to paint repeatedly over single areas of the picture.
Contrary to opaque paints, the special artist watercolors have a high amount of pigments, yet they do not contain binding agents. The advantage of these colors towards opaque paints comes out when you are painting in layers. Here, the colors diffuse by covering each other and keep their color brilliance at the same time. They shine from within, whereby the bottom paint layers support the strong color effect.



Two glasses of water are filled with clean water.

Important: Glass 1 is for rinsing your paintbrush - Glass 2 is for soaking your paintbrush in clean water.

Work Place

Before you start, make sure your work place is properly prepared. Place the plastic pocket on a solid underlay (e. g. a piece of cardboard or a table) and fasten it sufficiently with tape. Cover the rest of the table with newspaper in case of spills or paint splatters. Fold a small package out of 2 paper towels. You will need it to dab off your paintbrush from time to time.



Pelikan opaque paints impress with strong color brilliance and a well-covering, opaque application. However, when diluted sufficiently, they can be used for watercolor painting as well. Even then, they still keep their color effect and can be used for many wonderful pictures, due to their high amount of pigments.
For a start, we get by using only the three primary colors yellow, cyan blue and magenta red. In doing so, it can be useful to take out all the remaining color pots to make sure that only these primary colors are used. This will also help you to minimize the risk of accidentally mixing them with other colors. Now, mix each of the three colors with a sufficient amount of water in one of the mixing pots at the inside of the lid of your paintbox.



Divide a sheet of size DIN A3 drawing paper into 4 pieces and lay one of the quarters onto the plastic pocket. Moisten one side of the paper with a sponge, so that it sticks to the plastic pocket. Next, also moisten the other side and carefully smoothen your paper beginning from the center of the page.
Now you are ready to start painting. Our examples will show you how.

Work Pace


To prevent the paper from drying out, it is important that you work swiftly. However, if you must, it is possible to carefully spread more water onto single areas later on. If you are working with salt, quick-paced working is equally important, as the salt grains will not absorb any more water as soon as they are dry.
On the other hand, when you are painting in layers, it is necessary that you allow the single layers of paint to dry thoroughly before you continue to paint.


Painting in layers

Painting in layers is an important watercolor painting technique. Start by applying a single color onto your painting surface that can be either wet or dry. Allow the paint to dry thoroughly.

Bei noch feuchtem Malgrund verlaufen die Farben eher (links), bei einer trockenen Farbschicht scheint die untere Farbe deutlich durch (rechts).

If your picture is still wet, the colors are more likely to diffuse (left). On a dry layer of paint, the colors shine through clearly (right).


In a second work step, mix another color with water and apply it to your paper. By doing so, you will be painting over the first paint layer; however, it will shine through later on. If you wish to apply a third layer of paint, make sure the picture has dried thoroughly again before you do so. This way, you can continuously apply several layers of paint.
If you do not want the picture to be painted entirely in layers, you can also add opaque elements to it (see picture of green caterpillar). This is where the advantage of opaque watercolors comes into play, as they can be used right out of the paintbox. Nevertheless, here, too, it is necessary to allow the previously applied paint layers to dry thoroughly.


Single Techniques / Basics


It is a version of color diffusion, in which the amount of color components varies. In this technique, you will only be able to reach the desired color effect, provided that the painting surface (picture) is wet enough. Otherwise the colors may not diffuse properly and will not mix together.

Step 1:


Soak the painting surface (paper) in water well enough to allow the colors to diffuse as soon as you start to paint. Be sure to calculate the wet area large enough to work for several strokes straight. We start at the bottom of the page with a swath of cyan blue.
Step 2:


Now paint a yellow stripe above the blue one, allowing both lines to clash. The yellow paint will immediately mix with the cyan blue and form shades of green.

Only after the paper has dried completely, we continue with the second work step, which involves painting in layers. In another mixing pot in the lid of the opaque paintbox, mix cyan blue with a small amount of another shade of blue. Now, on the cyan blue surface, the fish are painted over with the watery mixed blue paint. Here, working in layers means that the color underneath still shines through, yet the fish is still perceptible as an object. With this technique, additional fish can be painted after the first one has dried. They will, for their part, cover up the ones behind them; yet the silhouette of the other fish will still shine through. A three-dimensional underwater world can be created this way using opaque paints.


In this technique, colored dots are put on paper and these, in turn, contain dots, too, however in a different color. The colors will spread wide on the watery painting surface. By again placing new dots, you can create interesting mixes that are made up of two, sometimes even three primary colors.


Start by painting a dot of magenta red in the middle of the page. Now apply different colors around the red dot using a fine-haired paintbrush. Wash out your paintbrush for this, dab it off and take up some paint. Apply the paint to the painting surface with a dash.

Hint: In our model, the artist worked from the inside to the outside. However, to add variety to your artwork, you can just as well work the other way around.

For the following painting techniques, we recommend the use of watercolor paper to gain more satisfying results. At this point, you now may want to extend your range of colors and use the remaining colors of your paintbox as well.

To make things interesting, only moisten the actual picture area instead of the entire painting surface. This way, the dry edge will create a borderline over which no paint will spread. You can gain impressive results like this apple with only two diluted shades of opaque paint.

So zu arbeiten lohnt sich besonders bei runden Objekten...

It is really worth using this technique for round objects...

The white surface can easily be integrated into your composition. In our example, the plums were made with two color shades, diffusing them towards the white surface (the three-dimensional appearance is created by the point of light on the plum).

... die dadurch ihren plastischen Charakter erhalten. they gain their three-dimensional character this way.

For the pumpkin, we also mixed different colors directly on the paper. First, use your paintbrush to apply water to the pumpkin shape. Then swiftly color it with thinned down, yellow paint. By specifically leaving out white areas of the paper, the motif gains its vivid appearance and a three-dimensional effect.

Apply orange paint to the yellow areas, which should still be wet. Only after the paint is dry, paint in layers the green stem, the triangles around the lid and the face. The outlines can be traced with a soft-leaded pencil (graded B). It will make them come out even better. You will only need to draw a few lines to actually gain an effect.

Die Kürbisgrundform muss gut trocknen, bevor sie übermalt werden kann.

Allow the basic shape of the pumpkin to dry thoroughly before painting over it.

In diesem Beispiel entfalten selbst Bleistiftlinien eine gestalterische Wirkung.

In this example, even the pencil lines have a creative effect.

Negative Painting

Performing spontaneous, emotional strokes with your paintbrush is what actually constitutes painting in watercolors. Nevertheless, you can also gain interesting effects by leaving areas out, but they require careful consideration in advance. When you start to make the paper wet, be sure to omit the areas that are supposed to stay white.

Ohne Farbe gestalten: Diese Segelboote erscheinen erst, nachdem die Umgebung eingefärbt ist.

Designing without paint: These sail boats appear only after having colored the surrounding area.

Dilute the opaque paints and apply them to the wet areas of the picture. This way, you can diffuse the colors without affecting the dry area. When you are finished painting your picture, the omitted areas will surprisingly gain a whole new function – they become the motif itself. In our example, the areas for the sail boats are left out. The sea and the sky are painted and only a few moments later, the sail boats appear.

Briefly explained: Wash

Usually during a wash, you work with only one color. The different shades are created by diffusion of the paint, by painting in layers and by painting with the same color. The intensity of the color shades depend on how much water is added.

The shading ranges from a clean paper surface (negative painting areas) to an undiluted color shade. Basically, you work yourself through from light to dark.
From famous artists, especially the ink washes are known. For this technique, you do not only need a paintbrush, but also a quill.

In the widest sense, this technique can be seen as a preliminary stage of watercolor painting.

Watercolor Painting Example - An Owl

First, we sketch out the motif in fine pencil lines (see picture). Next, strongly dilute a color of your choice. In our example we used black (the amount of paint depends on the size of the motif).

Die vorgezeichnete Eule wird zuerst mit dem stark verdünnten Schwarzton (Grau) angemalt.

The sketched out owl is first painted with strongly diluted shades of black (gray).

Die folgenden dunkleren Farbtöne werden durch Übermalen und immer mehr Zugabe von Schwarz erreicht, wobei die Lichtpunkte in den Augen ausgespart werden.

We created the following dark color shades by painting over them and adding more and more black, omitting the points of light in the eyes.

Special Working Techniques

Dry Brush Technique (dry paintbrush strokes)

For this painting technique, fine torchon paper is the best choice, for example to create glittering water effects. Using a thick fine-haired paintbrush (size 10/12) and a small amount of paint, paint the surface relatively dry, so that only the highlighted areas of the page are covered in paint. This is a good way to create glitter effects, especially as known from an ocean scenery with waves.

Working on a drawing pad gives you the opportunity to laxly go over the particular areas of the painting surface with a white candle (tea candle). The paint will drip off in these areas, which will make the dry brush technique work on a regular piece of paper, too.

Der Angler wurde lasierend aufgemalt, die See hingegen im Dry-brush-Verfahren.

The fisherman was painted in layers, the sea, however, was painted using the dry brush technique.

Especially in seaside pictures, the way the sky is painted can strongly influence the overall impression of the picture. In our example, we started out by painting the sky with a small amount of cyan blue on a wet painting surface. By dabbing the paint with a crumpled-up tissue, we created the impression of clouds. By applying different amounts of pressure, one time more and one time less paint is absorbed by the paintbrush. This, in turn, leads to an even more realistic overall impression, as shown in our next example:

Tupfen für eine realistische Wirkung: So entsteht der Eindruck eines nahenden Unwetters.

Dabbing for a realistic effect: This is a good way to create the impression of an upcoming storm.

By the way, the more intense you dab, the stronger the disturbance in the picture will appear. The sea and the weather appear to be stormy.

Watercolor Tools

Salt Pictures

This technique is perfect in order to depict snow flakes. Start by moistening your painting surface thoroughly. Omit the shape of the snowman. For the sky, apply different shades of blue with your paintbrush. Immediately sprinkle grains of salt into the still wet paint. Then allow the picture to dry until the salt absorbs the liquid paint. Finally, remove the salt carefully.

Salzkörner (links, vergrößert) sind das Geheimnis dieser Schneeflocken (rechts)!

Salt grains (left, enlarged) are the secret behind these snow flakes (right)!

Note: Do not eat the salt after having used it for painting!

Working with a toothpick

For some effects, there are useful, additional tools that can be found in any household. This toothpick with its pointy end, for example, provides possibilities that a paintbrush, at times, cannot offer. In this case, you can work with a very fine-haired paintbrush, too.

Die feinen Haare entstanden in solider Handarbeit – mit einem Zahnstocher.

The fine hair is handmade - with a toothpick.


The caterpillar is painted on a dry painting surface with two diffusing shades of green. Tick off the still wet paint along the caterpillar's back in an outwards movement. This way, we create the impression that the caterpillar's body is covered with tiny hair.
After the caterpillar has dried, paint red dots onto the caterpillar using opaque paint. Now follow the feet, the face and the leaf that the animal is moving on.


Working with a Bristle paintbrush

Viewed in isolation, each of the basic watercolor painting techniques, provide a wide scope of design possibilities. A picture becomes the more appealing, either the more techniques are combined in it, or the more the techniques that are used differ from one another. In our example, a leaf is made with the wet-on-wet technique on a dry painting surface. For this purpose, dilute two different shades of green. Then draw the outlines of the leaf with a pencil and start to paint using only one color. Do not paint the entire leaf, but only single areas of it. Now mix the still wet color with the other shade of green and paint the remaining areas of the leaf.

Die Raupe kommt besonders durch den leuchtenden Komplementärkontrast der Deckfarben zur Geltung.

The caterpillar stands out completely, due to the bright complementary contrast of the opaque paints.

Also sketch out the caterpillar with a pencil and paint it with diluted opaque paints. For the hair on the back, use a dry bristle paintbrush and move in strokes that pull the still wet paint away from the edge to the outside. Compared to the results we gained with the toothpick, the hair of this caterpillar looks wilder, as not every single hair can be recognized.

It takes a little practice to work with the bristle paintbrush, because the bristles get dirty rather easily and have to be cleaned with a rag or a sponge from time to time.

Accentuating with a Fineliner

To add zest to your watercolor painting, you can also set graphical accents as we did here with the fineliner pen.

Punkte, Kreise und Linien bilden das Gerüst für ein schönes Aquarell aus Deckfarben.

Dots, circles and lines are the structure of this wonderful watercolor painting made with opaque paints.

Start by setting a big, yellow dot. Paint different-colored, diffusing circles around it. Use the fineliner only after the paint has dried entirely. With your pen, add big dots and more lines and decorations. The advantage of a fineliner over a toothpick is that no wet paint is needed to draw lines and the decorations can be added to the picture on top, as supplemental design elements, so to say.