What is Translucent Paint and How To Use It

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Last Updated on August 1, 2023 by Dee

How to tell if you’re using translucent paint.

What is translucent paint?

Paint of any kind can be either opaque or translucent. To test out whether your paint is opaque or translucent, use your paintbrush to paint a single stroke of paint on a white surface (either paper or canvas is fine).

You can tell that your paint is transparent when you can see through the brushmark you have painted. If you can clearly see the paper or canvas shining through your layer of paint then it means you are using translucent paint.

Translucent paint gets used for a variety of decorative and artistic techniques. I often use transparent paint in my art journal to cover areas of text or pattern that I want to be hidden – this is so that I can draw or paint or collage on top of it!

Some types of paint are inherently translucent – such as watercolor paint. One of the more common watercolor paint techniques is layering translucent washes of color on top of one another in order to construct forms, shadows and highlights.

[Related Article: Explore using Pen Ink and Watercolor!]

Paint that is opaque completely covers what is beneath it. Basically, you cannot see the canvas or paper shining through opaque paint. Because opaque paint is solid color, you cannot build up colors through layering your paint, like you would with more translucent paint.

paintbrush painting a brush mark

How do you make paint look translucent?

Almost all types of paint can be made translucent.

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Here is a list of the different types of paint and how you can make them translucent:

Acrylic paint

Acrylic paints can vary in their opacity when used directly from the tube. It is always important to test out the opacity of your paint before you begin painting.

The most common way people make their acrylic paint translucent is by dipping their paintbrush into water to water down the acrylic paint.

Adding water to your acrylic paint speeds up the drying time of the paint. Although this is a very easy way to make your acrylic paint more translucent, it can be a problem because your acrylic paint may dry too quickly. This makes it difficult to blend paint or achieve an even paint surface. Additionally, adding water to your paint means your paint can easily run and you have less control over it.

Instead of water, you can use a matt or gloss acrylic gel medium which slows down the drying time of the acrylic paint and gives the paint a more translucent effect. Also, gel medium doesn’t run and so it’s easier to control what your paint is doing on the surface of your canvas.

Using a gloss medium also means that your final painting will have a lovely glossy sheen to the surface if that is the final effect you want.

Gouache paint

Gouache paint is opaque if used straight from the tube. You can water it down to create an almost watercolor effect by dipping your paintbrush into water and mixing it with the gouache.

Gouache paint runs each time water is added to it, even once it is dry on your paper or canvas. For that reason, it is a good idea to use an acrylic medium with your gouache paint to increase the transparency of the gouache while creating water-resistant paint at the same time.

Oil Paint

Oil paints can vary in their level of opacity depending on the brand of oil paint.

There are various mediums you can add to your oil paint to make it translucent.

Turpentine: This is a solvent which will thin your oil paint and speed up the drying time. By using turpentine, you will have a matt finish to your painting.

Oil of spike lavender: This is an oil which you can mix in to your oil paint to create translucency. Using this with oil paint leaves a glossier finish to the surface.

Refined linseed oil: This is an oil that has been commonly used with oil paint for hundreds of years. It helps to extend your oil paint and slow down drying time in order to paint in glazes. Linseed oil has a slightly yellow/gold tint to it.

A list of translucent paints you can buy for various surfaces:

Translucent paint for plastic

In order to paint on plastic you need to make sure you have the right paint. Not all paint with adhere to the plastic surface, and often the wrong paint will peel off.

A good option for painting on plastic, is to thoroughly clean the plastic surface with soap and water, and then prime it using a primer. The Krylon Aerosol below, is easy to use and dries quickly.

After your primer has dried, you can paint translucent acrylic paint on top of it. Once the translucent paint has dried coat it with another two layers of transparent primer spray.

Translucent paint for metal

As with painting on a plastic surface, the same applies to metal.

Wash your metal surface thoroughly and paint or spray a clear primer over the surface.

After you have allowed time for the primer to dry, you can paint a coat of translucent acrylic paint. Once the translucent paint has dried, you can then spray two more coats of primer over the surface to seal the paint.

Translucent paint for wood

There are two main ways to create a transparent paint effect on wood. You can glaze the wood, or you can stain the wood.

Wood glaze: This is a much thinner consistency than paint and is not water-soluble Wood glaze comes in a variety of colors and takes quite a while to dry. The glaze sits on top of the surface of the wood and usually creates a glossy sheen that protects the wood ( you can get a wood glaze with more of a matt finish). You apply wood glaze using a paintbrush.

Wood stain: This has a lot more color pigment than wood glazes. Wood stains come in a variety of colors and soak into the wood surface. The finish can be both matt or gloss. Like wood glaze, you apply the wood stain using a paintbrush.

Translucent paint for walls

To create a faux effect for a wall mural or a decorative wall you can use acrylic paint mixed with a gel medium – either a matt or glass gel medium.

Translucent spray paint

You can buy a variety of different colored translucent spray paints in the Krylon range. This type of spray paint can also be used as transparent paint for glass surfaces.


There are many ways to achieve a translucent paint effect in your artwork. Have you ever tried working with translucent paint?

Other articles you may enjoy…

Gouache vs Acrylic Paint | What’s the best paint for you?

translucent rainbow paint

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