Using the phytoplankton size-class model of Brewin et al. [Ecol. Model.221, 1472 (2010)], the two-population absorption model of Sathyendranath et al. [Int. J. Remote. Sens.22, 249 (2001)] and Devred et al. [J. Geophys. Res.111, C03011 (2006)] is extended to three populations of phytoplankton, namely, picophytoplankton, nanophytoplankton, and microphytoplankton. The new model infers total and size-dependent phytoplankton absorption as a function of the total chlorophyll-a concentration. A main characteristic of the model is that all the parameters that describe it have biological or optical interpretation. The three-population model performs better than the two-population model at retrieving total phytoplankton absorption. Accounting for the contributions of picophytoplankton and nanophytoplankton, rather than the combination of both as in the two-population model, improved significantly the retrieval of phytoplankton absorption at low chlorophyll-a concentrations. Class-dependent specific absorption of phytoplankton derived using the model compares well with previously published models. However, the model presented in this paper provides the specific absorption of three size classes and is applicable to a continuum of chlorophyll-a concentrations. Absorption obtained from remotely sensed chlorophyll-a using our model compares well with in situ absorption measurements.