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Opaque Watercolor
Detail of opaque watercolor in Fernand Léger’s Accordion as seen through the microscope. The field of view is 5/16" in diameter.

Opaque Watercolor

Also known by the French term gouache, opaque watercolor is a water-based paint composed of ground pigments and a plant binder, traditionally gum arabic, much like transparent watercolor. Unlike its translucent counterpart, however, opaque watercolor is a dense paint that fully covers the underlying surface in one coat and characteristically renders a flat matte surface. This is due to a greater proportion of pigment to binder and, in some colors, the addition of inert white clays or opaque pigments, such as Chinese white (zinc oxide). The small amount of binder creates a lean, brittle paint layer, and the development of minute cracks is a common occurrence, as shown at the left.


Example from the Collection


Accordion, 1926
Fernand Léger, French
Opaque watercolor over graphite on laid paper
Image: 12 1/8 × 9 1/8 inches (30.8 × 23.2 cm) Sheet: 13 x 9 7/8 inches (33 x 25.1 cm)
A. E. Gallatin Collection, 1952
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The French artist, Fernand Léger, typically depicted everyday subject matter from the world around him, rendering it in decisive form, carefully balanced proportions and pure color. In The Accordion he takes advantage of opaque watercolor's capacity to conceal underlying paper and paint, allowing him to make subtle adjustments in contours and colors. The bare paper is visible only in the small square in the bottom right and the wavy vertical band behind the trumpet keys. Otherwise only glimpses of the paper are visible where two color areas meet, as in the vertical black and pale green stripes at the right. In these areas, when viewed with magnification, ruled graphite lines are sometimes visible, evidence that Léger laid out his composition with the same precision seen in his graphite drawing of Mother and Child.

This and many other works of art presented here are from collection of Albert Eugene Gallatin (1881-1952) who "established in 1927 the first collection on public view in the United States devoted exclusively to Modern Art," the Gallery of Living Art, at New York University. In 1943 Gallatin bequeathed more than 160 works from his collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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