Archive for March, 2011

A Limited Palette

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

Wave to Me Frondly

Viewers may wonder how a painter can create a color-rich scene without using a palette overflowing with paint choices. The key to successfully using a limited palette is in choosing a few primary-based paints that work well together and that blend to create the supplemental secondary and tertiary hues needed.

In “Wave to Me Frondly” (#110108), I used only four paints–three primaries and a secondary color: new gamboge, indigo blue, brown madder, and sap green. (Despite it’s name, “brown madder” actually is considered a red.) All four of these colors have a warm cast, which helps to convey the warmth of the sun-lit scene.

I began with a background wash of a mixture of new gamboge and brown madder, varying the proportions as I washed them across the paper so the background wouldn’t be all the same flat blend. Most of the fronds are painted with a blend of brown madder and sap green, with some indigo blue added in the darkest areas. A pale wash of pure indigo tints the highlights on the fronds, and an extra bit of new gamboge brightens the sun-kissed spots on the leaves. I dropped in some extra areas of brown madder at the end of the painting process to help balance the nearly-finished painting. But no additional paint colors were needed.

If you like this discussion of paints, you might also be interested in reading “A Palette to My Taste” (December 1, 2010),“Staying Out of the Mud” (March 1, 2011), and “Selecting Paints” (to appear later this year).

Staying Out of the Mud

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

One of the banes of novice watercolorists is that old bugaboo “mud.” It took me a long time to realize what caused mud to develop both on my palette and in my paintings. Part of it, I knew, came from overworking the paint, combining too many colors to create the hue I wanted. Yet I wasn’t sure how many blended colors equaled too many.

I began working on the theory that cool-slanted colors shouldn’t be mixed with warm-slanted colors. But that theory didn’t prove true in every case. At last I realized that when opaque or semi-opaque pigments were mixed with transparent ones, the transparency was sacrificed, and the result became a muddied concoction.

The question then became, “How can I tell which pigments are transparent enough to work well with my palette, and which will I need to be careful using?” I eventually found the answer to that in the color charts most paint manufacturers provide. One of the paints that had been a staple for me from the beginning was yellow ochre, which I discovered was considered either opaque or semi-opaque (depending on the manufacturer). That pigment proved to have been the culprit in many of my muddy blends. Another popular color that caused problems for me was cerulean blue, which is often actually a mixture containing white, and is also semi-opaque.

I still use opaque colors, but with considerably more discretion than before.

There is definitely a place for opaque and semi-opaque pigments in watercolor work. And there simply seems to be little option for some hues. But I’ve learned that it’s usually more effective to use the opaque pigments in the base layer of a glazed painting or for detail on the top layer, rather than to blend on the palette with transparent paints for a widespread wash over the paper.

Unless you understand the components of the paint you use, it’s difficult to know what to expect of it. When a single-pigment paint is available for a certain hue, I try to use that rather than a blended version so it is easier to predict how it will react with other paints, how transparent it will be, and how stable the hue will remain over time.

Most paint manufacturers provide a chart that reveals most of this information for their own paints. To see comprehensive comparison charts, including transparency, opacity, and permanence of a wide range of colors and manufacturers, I’d recommend that you refer to Hilary Page’s book Guide to Watercolor Paints. Because the information changes continually, the author also provides free updated information online at www.Hilary

If you like this discussion of paints, you might also be interested in reading “A Palette to My Taste” (December 1, 2010) and “A Limited Palette” and “Selecting Paints” (both to appear later this year).