Understanding Opacity, Transparency and Permanence for the Serious Oil Painter

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Opacity, Transparency and Permanence

Diagram of paint label showing the various technical aspects of the pigment with each clearly labeled.

Have you ever read on the back of a tube of paint and seen the permanence rating and wondered what it was or how to use that information?

Or have you ever wondered which colors make the best glazes?

Do you know which colors are the most opaque and are best for foundation underpainting?

These are important questions for the serious oil painter. And much of this information needs to be committed to memory so that quick and quality decisions can be made in the studio.

This blog post will seek to answer these basic questions about color pigments and help to resolve any confusion on these subjects.

And just to let you know, all of the product links in this article are Amazon affiliate links. That means I get a small commission if you buy anything from Amazon, but it doesn’t cost you any extra. Don’t worry, I’m always honest, open, impartial with my reviews – I only recommend the good stuff – but this affiliate income helps keep the site running.

Opacity

Opacity, Transparency and Permanence

Titanium white is one of the most opaque pigments. It can be used to paint over or block out segments of a work in progress.

Opaque is explained in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “exhibiting opacity : blocking the passage of radiant energy and especially light”.

As such, opaque pigments let less light through and allow better coverage in oil painting.

These are the colors that are the best for underpainting. They cover quickly and thoroughly, hiding or blocking any colors that are underneath them.

Titanium white is one of the most opaque pigments. It is a color that can be used to paint over or block out segments of a work in progress.

It can used instead of gesso. If you are not happy with a portion of your painting, just use this color to paint over it.

Once it is dry, you can start new with a surface that will be just like your underpainting. Shop now for Titanium white on Amazon.

Transparent or Lake Colors

Opacity, Transparency and Permanence

Transparent pigments allow colors underneath to show through and are ideal for glazing.

Transparent colors also known as Lakes are explained in the same dictionary as “a. having the property of transmitting light without appreciable scattering so that bodies lying beyond are seen clearly; or b. fine or sheer enough to be seen through”.

Transparent pigments allow colors underneath to show through and are ideal for glazing.

I remember how surprised I was to learn that oil colors actually vary in the level of opacity.

Some are more translucent, whereas some are more opaque than others.

For example, there are several types of white pigments. Some of them are opaque, but some are transparent.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to identify the opaque colors versus the transparent ones other than by memorization.

To make it a little bit easier, I have compiled a list of common pigments divided into two sections; opaque and transparent. Here they are listed for you:

Opaque
Cadmium Yellow
Cadmium Red
Cobalt Green
Ivory Black
Mars Black
Raw Umber
Titanium White
Vermillion
Zinc White (semi-opaque)

Transparent or Lake
Alizarin Crimson
Burnt Sienna
Cobalt Blue (semi-transparent)
Cobalt Violet (semi-transparent)
Davy’s Gray
Hansa Yellow
Phthalo Blue
Phthalo Green
Prussian Blue
Ultramarine Blue (semi-transparent)

Permanence

In simple words, permanence is how long the paint will last without fading.

For example, vegetable dies fade very fast but pigmented paint last much longer. But pigment paints have different qualities and that’s why manufacturers have developed ratings.

Opacity, Transparency and Permanence

Zinc white is rated as one of the most permanent pigments, meaning it will last a very long time without fading.

Different companies use different codes.

For example, Winsor Newton “AA” is the most permanent, “A” is second place but also good, then they have “B” and “C” that are not very permanent but are cheaper; but others brands use ” I ” to indicate the best and “II” the second place, so it can get confusing.

I was equally surprised to learn of a varying degree of colorfastness or permanence within the vast spectrum of oil colors. It seems to me that oil color is oil color, but that’s simply not true.

Again, there is really no pattern to the colorfast quality of pigments.

A good quality manufacturer will provide only the best pigments recommended as permanent for artists’ use, with a rating of “extremely permanent” or “permanent”.

However, there are very few colors which do not reach this standard and are provided only because of the lack of permanent pigments in certain color areas.

Sap Green and Carmine are examples of oil colors that are sold by manufacturers of fine oil paint but rate low on the permanence scale.

An artist may choose one pigment over a similar one because of the permanence rating. For example, Titanium White, Underpainting White and Zinc White all are rated by Winsor Newton as being extremely permanent (AA), but Foundation White and Flake White are only considered permanent (A).

Often a manufacturer will manipulate a pigment to offer an alternative to one with a weaker permanence. For example, Winsor Newton provides Permanent Sap Green with an A rating as an alternative to Sap Green, which they also sell but with a B rating (Moderately Durable).

Let us know about your experiences with this subject in the comments below.

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Comments

  1. How long lasting or what is the difference in quality is oil paint in their permanence rating from one level to the next? For example, is a rating of 4 mean the paint won’t fade one or two shades over 10 years? Are we even talking in years or is it decade? Can you explain in more detail the effect or result of using lower permanence paint in term of time and actually shade scale? Thanks

    • Gary Bolyer Fine Art says

      Permanence ratings generally deal in decades. High quality oil colors can last hundreds of years. Any modern pigments in any permanence will certainly outlive the generation of the artist who made them.

      • Vítor Oliveira says

        you also have to consider the environmental conditions on which the painting was produced and exhibited and the quality of your canvas or panel. Permanence is a very tricky subject that does not rely entirely on paint quality.

  2. This info is worth everyone’s attention. How can I find out more?

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