Watercolours have a unique ability to depict atmosphere and light with a magical quality. To be able to use these qualities to the full, it is necessary to 'get to know' the characteristics of the colours you intend to use.
Paint is made from pigments. Some of the pigments occur naturally and some are manufactured synthetically.
In the traditional English style of watercolour, white paint is not used, as the watercolour paper provides the 'white'. As watercolour paints are generally transparent, the reflective surface of the paper shines through the transparent colours. Different tints of a colour are produced by the amount of water mixed with the paint.
Some colours however are not truly transparent due to the nature of the substances (pigments) used in their manufacture. Such colours are termed 'opaque' though the term is used relatively as watercolours are used as a thin film of paint which will generally appear transparent.
Colours can be tested easily to show whether they have any opacity, by painting over a dry patch of India Ink. When the colour is dry, if it is visible on top of the ink it is opaque. The cadmium colours for example, are in the opaque category.
As the colours are generally transparent, when a new colour is painted on top of another (a glaze), the colour underneath will show through the second colour modifying its appearance (see opposite). The effect is similar to laying sheets of coloured glass on top of each other.
Some colours have staining properties. This can be helpful particularly
if you intend over painting an area as the colour will not lift as readily
as a non-staining colour. However, if you need to 'lift out' colour it will
be difficult to completely erase a staining colour so avoid using them if
you plan to lift out as part of the painting process.
Most of the modern organic pigments are staining. e.g. Winsor blue
Some pigments produce granulation effects which give a grainy or mottled appearance. This property can be used to provide texture to a painted area and is one of the unique qualities of watercolour. Granulation works best when the pigment is used with a lot of water with the paper surface flat. Mediums are now available which can further enhance the granulation effect in granulating pigments and can also make a non-granulating pigments produce the effect. Not all Artists like the granulation effect so they avoid these pigments or minimise the effect by paining dryer and/or use distilled water which reduces the tendency of a pigment to granulate.
The table below shows the characteristics of the individual colours of the paints in a typical landscape set of 12 colours
|Colour Name||Description||Mixing Code||Staining
|Cadmium Lemon||Cold Yellow||Yb||S||AA||O|
|Cadmium Yellow Pale||Warm Yellow||Yr||S||AA||O|
|Cerulean Blue||Cold Blue||By||G||AA||O|
|French Ultramarine||Warm Blue||Br||G||AA||T|
|Cadmium Red||Warm Red||Ry||G S||AA||O|
|Permanent Alizarin Crimson||Cold Red||Rb||S||A||T|
|Raw Sienna||Greyed Yellow||Ybr||G||AA||T|
|Burnt Sienna||Greyed Orange||YRb||AA||T|
|Burnt Umber||Greyed Red||Ryb||AA||T|
|Payne's Grey||Greyed Blue||BRY||S||A||O|
|Light Red||Greyed Red||Rby||AA||O|
|Winsor Blue (red shade)||Cold Blue||By||S||A||T|
|Key: S = Staining, T = Transparent , G = Granulating, AA = Extremely Permanent, A = Permanent|
|Data in last 3 columns by kind permission of
Winsor & Newton
Data Sheet by Winsor & Newton: 'Perfecting the Fine Art of Water Colours' - available free of charge from your local Winsor & Newton stockist.
The colour chart below shows the two colour mixes for the typical
landscape set of 12 colours.
The colour patches have been reproduced from scans of actual mixes but they should be used only as a guide due to the limitations of equipment used to copy the colours and the differences in monitor colour reproduction.
The colours used are from the Winsor & Newton Artist quality series.
The intersection of each two colours shows the resulting hue.
Let the mouse hover over the colour patches to see the mixing colours:
|Cadmium Yellow Pale|
|Permanent Alizarin Crimson|
|Winsor Blue (red shade)|
|Hues & Tints produced from mixing varying proportions
of two near primaries:
Cadmium Yellow Pale (CYP) and French Ultramarine(FU)
|CYP||Hue1||Hue 2||Hue 3||Hue 4||Hue 5||Hue 6||Hue7||Hue 8||FU|
| Hues produced from mixing varying proportions
of two near complementary colours:
French Ultramarine(FU) and Burnt Sienna (BS)
|FU||Hue1||Hue 2||Hue 3||Hue 4||Hue 5||Hue 6||Hue7||Hue 8||BS|
The interactive chart above shows only one proportioned mix of two colours. A much greater range of hues for each combination is possible by varying the relative proportion of each colour and a wider range of tints is possible by the addition of more water. The next chart shows the result of varying the proportions of each of the two colours being mixed. The first example shows the effect of mixing two colours which are near to primary colours. It also shows the tints available by adding more water to one of the hues (Hue 6). The second example shows the neutralising effect obtained when complementary colours are mixed in varying proportions.
When mixing colours start with the lighter of the two colours and gradually add the darker colour until the desired tint is achieved. Mix colours by combining the minimum number of colours, two if possible, this way your colours will stay clean and fresh.
Get to know the properties of the paints you are using. Make a chart like the one below which shows combinations of your palette of colours with each other, this will save time and money in the future and will provide valuable experience in identifying the colours which you can achieve using your palette of colours - Use a maximum of 10 colours and stick to these until you become familiar with their properties, mixing abilities, granulation etc.
It's much better to start with a palette consisting of a few colours and mix others, rather than have a large number of ready made colours. In any painting it is also better to use only those colours that are necessary- usually no more than six or seven. This way the picture will have harmony as the resulting colour mixes will have a common theme. Many successful pictures are painted using only 3 or 4 colours e.g. French Ultramarine (blue), Light Red (red), Raw Sienna (Yellow) and Burnt Sienna (Orange). It's good practice to paint pictures with a limited palette such as this.