Comparing similar colors – part 1

November 15th, 2019

Have you ever wondered which of two or three similar watercolor paints to buy?  Many manufacturers sell several different but similar colors, and it can be hard to know which would best suit your needs.  What qualities should you look for in the paint that’s right for your use?

I’d like to use these last three blogs of the year to shed some light on this question, using two of my favorite brandsWinsor Newton Professional Watercolors and Golden’s QoR Modern Watercolorsas examples.  I’ll be looking at a few frequently used browns, as well as several versions of the primary colorsyellow, blue, and red.  I will not try to cover all the choices of these hues by these manufacturers, but just what I have on hand to use as examples.

This time I’ll be focusing on some frequently used browns and yellows.

Some of the qualities I’ll be considering are whether they are staining or not (whether they can be easily lifted off the paper), whether they are permanent or fugitive (having a tendency to fade or change color over time), how transparent or opaque they are (evident by how well the underlying print shows through the paint layer in the chart), their comparative chroma (how “pure” or muted each color appears), and whether they have a warm or cool bias in comparison to other similar colors.

Browns:  Comparative-chart---browns Inorganic, earth pigments, such as umbers, siennas, and ochres, made from ground stone, tend to be non-staining, resting primarily on the surface of the paper, rather than soaking deeply into the fibers.  This means that most of the pigment can be lifted back off the paper, if desired. However, PR101, from which both the WN burnt sienna and transparent brown oxide colors are made, is a synthetic red iron oxide.  It behaves differently from the QoR burnt sienna (which is based on PBr7), and is more transparent.  Although most of the QoR paints are very difficult to lift, the PBr7 pigments are a notable exception, lifting easily off the paper’s surface.  (Note:  Golden has recently introduced a QoR “Lift Aid” medium to apply to the paper before painting to help in lifting other pigments.  It helps, but don’t expect to regain the original white of the paper.  One of the benefits of the QoR colors is the strong pigmentation that fades less than traditional colors do as they dry.)  Umbers tend to have a cooler bias than siennas.  Another option with a cool bias, VanDyke brown, tends to be fugitive, fading or changing color over time and exposure to light.


Comparative-chart---yellowsAlthough the colors of the first few yellows shown here are similar, notice that yellow ochre is semi-opaque, so is not as good for mixing or glazing as the more transparent colors are.  And quin gold is dual-toned, leaning toward a transparent brown when applied densely, but a somewhat cooler, transparent yellow when well mixed with water, providing greater flexibility for mixing a variety of greens. The coolest yellow shown here is Winsor lemon.  Another cool alternative, aureolin, is not lightfast, so is not a good choice if longevity is a concern.  Indian yellow and new gamboge (which replaces the original, fugitive version of gamboge) provide warmer alternatives.

Notice that the same pigment is often used for a variety of colors, dependent on the processing method used.  Different manufacturers may use very different names for the same color, or the same name for very different colors; so when selecting paints, you should rely more on the pigments used than on the name, although the name may offer some clues.  As a general rule (though with exceptions) although the coloration may vary, other characteristics of the pigment will generally tend to be pretty consistent.  Some traditionally used pigments tend to be fugitive, while the more modern pigments that replicate them are usually more permanent.

Such reformulated colors are often (though not always) referred to on the label as “hues.”  (Some “hues” are also formulated to replicate colors that traditionally relied on pigments that are either very expensive or are no longer available.)  Other terms in the name, such as “permanent” or “new,” usually indicate that this formulation replaces a similar but more fugitive color.  So if you see a color labeled as “permanent,” it’s wise to avoid paints using the same name without the “permanent” designation unless you know that, like quinacridones or phthalos, the pigment used is indeed permanent.

I generally prefer to avoid cadmium colors.  Several manufacturers, including Winsor Newton, have recently introduced some cadmium-free formulations as alternatives to their traditional cadmium colors–primarily yellows, oranges, and reds.  I have been content with my existing palette so haven’t felt a need to try them out yet.  If you’re interested in them, you may want to do some of your own comparative testing against similar colors already on your own palette.

Keep in mind that the paints discussed here are limited examples of only two brands of watercolor.  Similar colors of other brands will vary, depending on the pigment(s) used, formulation, and processing.  Read the labels or manufacturers’ information sheets for clues regarding transparency, permanence (lightfastness), and whether they are staining or non-staining.  Only direct comparison will determine temperature bias and chroma as related to similar colors.

-Lightfastness is often noted as ASTM I, II, III, or IV (the lower the number, the better—look for ASTM I or II), but not all pigments have an official rating.

-For clean mixing of colors (to minimize “mud”) look for transparent paints.

-For glazing, look for transparency, which allows underlying layers to shine through.  (Take note of how well underlying marks show through the paint in the chart.)

-Many organic pigments (quinacridone, phthalocyanine, indanthrone, etc.) tend to be transparent and have strong, staining characteristics.  Many (though not all) also tend to be more lightfast.

-Inorganics, such as cadmiums and earth colors (ground stone) are generally easier to lift off the paper but, because they are often granular, they tend to be somewhat less transparent.  But don’t expect any paint to lift entirely off the paper without leaving some color influence behind.

Only you can determine which qualities are most important to you and your working methods.  I hope these comparisons and tips help you in making wise selections for your own palette.

In part 2, I’ll be comparing some popular blues.

Trying out QoR Lift Aid

November 1st, 2019

Having decided to focus on watercolors for the time being, I’ve narrowed down my watercolor paints primarily to two brands—Winsor-Newton Professional and Golden’s QoR Modern.

I love the QoR colors for use in my studio work because of their vibrancy and strength, with minimal fading as the paint dries.  The downside of this is that these paints tend to stain the paper considerably more than the Winsor-Newton paints do, so they are very difficult to lift off the paper to adjust values after the initial application has been applied.

On the other hand, I use Winsor-Newton paints mostly for teaching purposes because of the consistently high quality throughout the line, and the pricing and availability that make it feasible for beginners to buy.  I also use it in my travel kit because I can apply it quickly, with minimal fuss, and no concern about washing on overly strong colors in my sketchbook when I just want a subtle reminder of color – a potential problem with QoR.

Fortunately, I discovered recently that Golden has introduced a Lift Aid medium for their QoR watercolors.  Could it really help me lighten areas of my paintings?  How well would it work?  Would applying it mean I wouldn’t have to tape off the edges of my paper to ensure a clean border, but merely sweep my brush around the outside to clean up the overlaps?  And would it require any special application technique, as frisket does?  I decided to put it to the test. 

I began by applying a single layer of Lift Aid to four different brands of standard, cold-press watercolor paper—Arches, Strathmore (series 400), Fabriano, and Joe Miller’s Kilimanjaro—and allowing it to dry.

Using colors in the QoR line—both typically “staining” and “non-staining” colors—I applied several stripes of color to each of the papers.  On all except the Arches paper, I used both treated and untreated paper to illustrate the difference between using the Lift Aid and not using it.  The QoR colors I used were quinacridone gold, burnt sienna, permanent red, dioxazine purple, cobalt blue, indigo, and hookers green.

In lifting the color, the first attempt was made by dampening and blotting or wiping to lightly lift a little color (though this method often removed more than “a little”).  The second attempt was made by scrubbing to remove as much of the remaining color as possible.

QoR-Lift-Aid-TestThe Kilimanjaro paper showed minimal difference in lifting, whether the Lift Aid had been applied or not; only the (typically non-staining) cobalt blue lifted out to any great extent.  The surface of the Fabriano and Strathmore papers “pilled” (balled up) with scrubbing on the untreated side, damaging the surface, and to a lesser degree on the treated side of both.  The Lift Aid was most effective on the Arches surface, allowing every color to lift with the least difficulty, and almost entirely, with little or no damage when scrubbed.  Runners-up were clearly the Strathmore Series 400 and Fabriano, … if you don’t need to scrub back to near-white.

It is evident that the paper used is critical.  There was a considerable difference in the lifting ability on the various papers.  Apparently, the Lift Aid works in conjunction with the existing sizing (applied on the surface or incorporated into the paper by the manufacturer) to help seal the surface, minimizing how deeply the pigments can penetrate the paper.  The Lift Aid might be more effective on some of these papers if more than a single coat were applied before painting.

"Vermilion Cliffs," by Charlotte Mertz (8"x10" watercolor, #191005w)

“Vermilion Cliffs,” by Charlotte Mertz (8″x10″ watercolor, #191005w)

Here is a completed painting, for which I pre-treated portions of the Arches paper with Lift Aid.  I have been finding the Lift Aid a considerable help in adjusting the values and achieving the subtlety of colors needed for my recent compositions.  I wouldn’t trust even a pretreated paper, though, to allow me to entirely clean up the border edges, so I’ve still been taping off the desired dimensions for most of my recent studio compositions.  It’s important to keep in mind that it does not do the same job as frisket in reserving the original white of the paper.  It simply makes it easier to reduce the amount of pigment left on the paper.

I also feel a need to immediately rinse and then thoroughly wash the brush I have used to apply the Lift Aid so it doesn’t become compromised with the dried medium.

Would I recommend Lift Aid?  Absolutely, if you love the strong QoR colors but want the option of lifting some of the color after the original application.  Just test it yourself on your chosen paper before undertaking a critical composition.

The subject made me do it!

October 15th, 2019

Despite my recent resolution to stick with watercolor for a while, first thing this month the subject and atmosphere simply cried out for pastel.  So I heaved a sigh, collected the few pieces I’d set aside “just in case,” and some precut papers (ditto), and set out on a brief jaunt before the humid atmosphere should clear in the Florida heat and talk me out of working en plein air.

"Orange River Etude," by Charlotte Mertz (5"x7" pastel, #191001-sp)

“Orange River Etude,” by Charlotte Mertz (5″x7″ pastel, #191001-sp)

I suppose it could be justified as a study, not intended to be displayed.  And it could serve eventually as the basis for a watercolor studio painting.  (I’ve long avoided using pastel in my studio, due to the dust it creates.)  But after all, drawing on the claim of “artistic license,” I shouldn’t really need to justify it at all, should I!

It was fun to use pastels again, just for a change.  But they still don’t call to me full time, as watercolors do.

Under the umber-ella of experimentation

October 1st, 2019

Last time I showed a couple of my early experimentation with raw umber, using it for the basic dark tone on my palette, in lieu of the colder black.  Those paintings were done over a pre-applied imprimatura to lend an undercoat of color to the three-primary-color palette (plus raw umber and white) that I had limited myself to.

My third study was on a white-gessoed but unpainted canvas.  I sketched in my areas of darks using the raw umber and allowed it to dry overnight as I evaluated any changes I thought it might need. I realized that I should have given the entire canvas a light coat of the alkyd medium to make it easier to adjust the sketch.  Fortunately, there was little that needed adjustment!

The next day I covered the entire surface with a light coat of the medium and began the work in earnest.  Once again, the pre-applied dark areas guided me through the design, helping me to adhere to the original notan structure.  I altered details somewhat as I proceeded, identifying features I wanted to take advantage of or eliminate, and recognizing that some of my earlier ideas could be improved to enhance the focal concept or the overall design.

“The Rim Trail,” by Charlotte Mertz  (7”x7” oil, #190903-o)

“The Rim Trail,” by Charlotte Mertz
(7”x7” oil, #190903-o)

This composition was suggested by a scene I had enjoyed at Yellowstone, but as I worked with it, the “music” in my mind began to shift into another season, a variation on the theme, so I took some artistic license as it developed.


From umber beginnings

September 15th, 2019

This summer I have been working primarily in watercolor and oils.  However, the oils I have at my summer studio are made with slow-drying linseed oil and remain tacky after several weeks of drying time.  I realized that if I want to have them dry before we return home, I would need to use a faster-drying medium.  So I set aside the old paints, reserving only my three basic primary colors, which I supplemented with alkyd medium (since alkyd works well with oils but dries much more rapidly than the more widely used linseed oil-based paints), alkyd titanium white (to replace my slow-drying titanium white), and a raw umber, with which I had been wanting to experiment.

So my new palette for September would now consist solely of raw umber, the original primary yellow, red, and blue paints, and all the value variations available by incorporating the alkyd white.  The alkyd medium would serve as my thinner and only medium.  It was time to play!

I dug out some small pieces of canvas on which I had already applied and dried a monochromatic imprimatura (with leftover paint from previous palette scrapings) to seal the surface.  Then, referring to old photo files, I found a few images that I thought would work with two of the underpaintings—one green, the other a muted rose.

The first, “Lakefront Morning,” shown below, was worked over a green imprimatura.  Although the base color, in its original hue and chroma, does not appear anywhere in the finished painting, it contributed to the atmosphere when modified with the palette colors.

"Lakefront Morning" by Charlotte Mertz (5"x7" oil, #190901-o)

“Lakefront Morning” by Charlotte Mertz
(5″x7″ oil, #190901-o)

Focusing on the umber-and-white combination in various values, and incorporating the primaries to provide appropriate variations in temperature and hue, I was astonished at how much easier it was to create and maintain a strong notan structure.  It was also easy to maintain a sense of color harmony in both my paintings.

I realized that the reason for this new sense of ease was that my focus was on value first, since the raw umber (warmer and more transparent and lively than black) provided the necessary dark tones, while the white produced the lighter values.  Hue was of much less concern and required little more than a suggestion from any of my primary tubes to provide the necessary temperature bias and warm or cool variation from that provided by the underpainting.  A few spots of lightly blended or entirely un-diluted tube color were all that was required to provide some chromatic contrast, as well.

"Niagara" by Charlotte Mertz  (5"x7" oil, #190902-o)

“Niagara” by Charlotte Mertz
(5″x7″ oil, #190902-o)

“Niagara” was painted over a rose-toned imprimatura.  Once again, although little of the base color actually appears in the finished painting, it definitely contributed to the rich lighting effects of the low-angled sunlight, while the umber provided the critical range of value needed to suggest atmospheric perspective.