Palette organization

February 1st, 2020

The question sometimes arises as to how best to organize a palette. There are a number of ways to do so, depending on what medium you are using and how many colors you intend to use, as well as your own working methods and personal preferences.

While oil painters may separate their colors into value ranges (darks, mid-tones, and lights) to keep any white additives out of their darks and black additives out of their lights, watercolor are not handled in the same way. This is because, with transparent watercolors, darkening with black and tinting with white rarely come into play. In watercolor, tints are produced by increasing the proportion of water to paint, and darks through using a lower proportion of water and/or the addition of supplemental hues. Although I have begun to include a bit of white gouache in my palettes, it is solely to reclaim lost points of white, not for creating tints.

Palette---Tom-Jones

As I do with oils or acrylics, I find it easiest to lay out my hues in the order in which they would appear in a color wheel (no matter the shape of the palette configuration). But when I set up a watercolor palette, I virtually ignore value in lieu of temperature bias.

This means that I pay attention to not only primary and secondary colors but also to the tertiary colors that are created by bending the primaries and secondaries toward their neighbors on the color wheel.

Separating the colors by temperature helps to maintain consistent light/shadow effects on turning forms and helps me find truer complements when looking for interesting gray tones.

Watercolor palettes are usually designed with wells or cups to keep the colors separated. Besides separated wells, most have a flat mixing area. This is the type I prefer to use, because it allows me to create interrelating puddles of the colors I have selected from the wells (which are filled with more colors than I will use for any one particular painting). It also limits how often I will be tempted to dip into one of the wells with a brush containing a different color, thereby compromising the purity of that well. (When deeply involved in painting, it’s easy to forget to rinse existing color out of the brush before dipping into the “home” well of another color.)

I try to limit my initial colors to only three or four, laying out unadulterated puddles of those few colors and mixing from those puddles any variations that might be needed. This practice both maintains color harmony within the painting and conserves space in the mixing area.

When I lay out puddles of my selected colors (chosen directly from the home wells) into a mixing area, I try to leave plenty of space between the primary hues to allow room to mix adjacent colors in varying proportions, which creates varying degrees of temperature bias. This is difficult to do if mixing space is very limited. (Though since watercolor, by its very nature, runs and mingles while water evaporates from the mixing tray, overlapping and value changes are bound to occur. So if you want to keep your sanity, precision and strict control of hue probably should not top your priority list.)

As an example, when I select a red and blue (primaries) for my palette, I may also choose a purple/violet (a secondary). Or I may leave that space empty, in which to mix the red and blue primaries together to create my own violet secondary hue between. As I blend my own violet mixture, I may add a bit more red on one side of that purple puddle, and a bit more blue on the other side of the purple puddle to create the tertiaries. The reddish violet could be considered both a “warm purple” and a “cool red”; the bluish violet is a “cool purple” and a “warm blue.” And each of these tertiaries may be slanted even more toward the adjacent primary (red or blue) or toward the secondary violet. Because of the flowing nature of watercolor, the visual temperatures within this extended violet puddle will vary and may interact and blend even beyond my initial intention. There’s no point in fighting it—it’s the nature of the beast. If precise color is critical, keep your blended puddles separate from any “parent” puddles.

If a large quantity of a color is needed for an extensive wash, I may mix it in a separate, deeper container to ensure that the color remains as consistent as possible and that (because of the more limited surface area) water evaporation (and therefore value change) occurs more slowly.

I always try to make note, either with replaceable labels or on a list, both the specific colors used (and brands if they vary) and their relative position in the palette. Particularly when a palette is new or revised with the addition of a new color, this technique makes it easier to differentiate similar colors and to know which color is needed to replenish any given well.

Next time I’ll discuss several different types of watercolor palettes I use, the pros and cons of each, and some of the adaptations I’ve made to simplify my work.

Fine art as conversation

January 15th, 2020

I recently read an enlightening little book called “How to Make Conversation,” by Daniel Wendler. Most of us learn how to talk when we are quite young. But many of us have never properly learned to converse in a give-and-take manner, both permitting and actively encouraging all parties to participate.

Some people love to talk and seem to do it nonstop, never inviting the listener to respond or contribute additional ideas beyond expecting an occasional head nod to assure the speaker that they are still present (even if not actually listening anymore). Others are reticent about speaking up or offering unsolicited comments, so can be difficult to draw into an beneficial exchange of ideas.

It made me begin to think about art in a similar way.  As artists, are we encouraging a conversation with our viewers, or are we merely making a flat statement and expecting unquestioning agreement, with no room for viewer input?  Are we either “sermonizing” or “theorizing,” or are we encouraging an enlightening discussion through our work?

If a painting’s concept is either so mundane that no one cares, or so esoteric that few can understand it, the potential power of interaction is lost and, like listeners who continue to nod as their minds wander from a speaker’s endless rambling, viewers may stop thinking about our art and turn away.

A conversation is not unilateral but an exchange of ideas, thoughts, reflections, and insights.

We might think of illustrative art as lectures—a visual retelling of established “fact” in the form, perhaps, of a written story. Decorative art “tickles the eye” just as flattery and platitudes “tickle the ear” without requiring or stimulating deeper thought.  There is nothing wrong with either of these art forms, and I certainly don’t mean to denigrate either, as both are valid and have their own uses. But whether they can be considered “fine art” is open for debate.

Fine art more closely resembles a discussion or conversation among two or more participants, the artist and any viewers.

The fine artist poses a concept—a topic—depicting it according to a personal point of view, but then invites viewers to attach their own reflections and understanding to what is presented. Viewers consider the information given or suggested, interprets it in light of their own understanding, background, and point of view, and creates some kind of explanatory narrative to continue the visual interaction. Such visual conversations often become verbal conversations when viewers voice their ideas to one another or directly with the artist.

The more the artist invites viewer participation in considering a work, the more extensive and fruitful the conversations (both visual and verbal) may become, drawing viewers back repeatedly to reconsider and perhaps rewrite their perceived narratives. The conversation continues and stimulates even more extensive revelations.

Is your art:

– a “gabble-monger,” with extensive, indiscriminate detail but leaving nothing open for discussion?

– a “snap-shot,” depicting the subject without revealing the artist’s personal response to it?

– a “conversation starter,” introducing the topic and inviting viewer participation?

Me? I hope to become more conversational with my art this year.

Making the most of what we’re given

January 1st, 2020

In mid-December, while on a cruise in the Caribbean, my husband and I found ourselves in the custom-designed cruise port of Costa Maya, Mexico. This port, far distant from any major town, was designed specifically for cruise lines to use as a jump-off point for tours to the sites of several Mayan ruins. But for those of us who had already taken such tours or who didn’t look forward to spending several uncomfortable hours driving back and forth on a tour bus, our alternative options for ways to spend our day were to stay on shipboard or to browse among the gift-shops and bars in search of something revealing a bit of the Mexican “flavor” we’d presumably come to experience. We chose to wander.

Living in Florida, an easy drive away from Port Everglade, cruises and land tours are no longer a novelty to my husband and me, so my goal on this trip was to paint, or at least to make sketches of some of what we would see. In Costa Maya, the Mexican ambiance is as carefully designed and manufactured as in a theme park to entice tourists to “buy local.” This approach is not one that stimulates my creative imagination or inspires great artistic concepts. So I narrowed my focus, looking for individual features that might catch my eye—a heavily laden coconut palm, perhaps, or …

1912---Costa-Maya-FlamingoI had never had the opportunity, before, to really study a live flamingo. So when I saw a small flock of birds (no doubt with wings clipped to ensure their continued presence in their picturesquely designed setting), I took the opportunity to sketch one—or more accurately, an amalgamation of several, since they kept repositioning themselves.  I also took a number of photos for future reference in regard to overall proportion, various angles, attitudes, coloration, and neck and leg convolutions.

1912---Costa-Maya-Coconut-CSimilarly, a cartload of coconuts had been positioned outside a shop in a consciously staged arrangement. It was indeed picturesque, and I liked the variety of colors represented.  Fresh green nuts filled the cart, many with the “wild hair” of the inflorescence, like umbilical cords, still attached. Older, more dried nuts lay stacked on the ground.

But as I sat on a nearby bench to set to work, a continuous stream of cruisers meandered by, often blocking my view. So I simplified the scene, studied it sporadically when the human parade occasionally split to permit a clearer view, and freely edited the literal scene to establish a credible impression of it in my sketchbook.

I began each study with a light, exploratory pencil sketch. In the case of the coconut cart, I then restated it with pen, adding some hatching to mark shaded areas in case impending rain moved in before I could add any color. A few quick strokes of color with a waterbrush captured my basic color impressions.

Only after I was well into the second sketch did I realize that I’d been holding my sketchbook up-side down for both studies! Ha!

Ah well. The sketches still serve their purposes, reminding me of the experience and supplementing my written journal of the voyage, as well as providing plein-air (on site) reference material for future paintings I may make in the studio.

Through this coming year, I wish you, too, a fresh outlook when prospects may at first appear dim, insights into “old news” that enliven and enrich your outlook, and the ability to laugh at and find hope and enjoyment in your circumstances even when everything seems topsy-turvy!

Comparing similar colors – part 3

December 15th, 2019

How can you choose which red paint will work best on your palette?  What qualities should you look for in the paint that’s right for your purposes?

In this final blog of the year I hope help you find answers to these questions, once again using two of my favorite brandsWinsor Newton Professional Watercolors and Golden’s QoR Modern Watercolorsas examples.  I’ll be looking at several popular reds to try to illustrate some of the differences among them.

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, their comparative chroma (how “pure” or muted each color appears), and whether they have a warm or cool bias in comparison to other similar reds.

Reds:

Comparative chart - redsPermanent alizarin crimson is a more recent replacement for the cool, traditional but fugitive alizarin crimson (PR83).   Permanent rose also has a cool bias and is good for mixing purples. Like most quinacridones, quin red is very transparent, excellent for glazing.  The warm-biased Scarlet lake, cadmium red, pyrrole red, and permanent scarlet have very similar chroma, but slightly differing transparency and staining power. The brown madder/quin burnt orange (same quinacridone pigment) reds are transparent and have a lower chroma.  Although Indian red is based on the same pigment, PR101, as two of the transparent browns (see part 1),  this paint is extremely opaque. 

As you may have seen in part 1 (on browns and yellows) and part 2 (on blues), the same pigment may be used for a variety of colors, dependent on the processing method used.  Different manufacturers frequently use different names for the same color, or the same name for very different colors, so rely more on the pigments used than on the name, although the name may offer some clues.  As a general rule (obviously with exceptions) although the coloration may vary, other characteristics of the pigment will generally tend to be pretty consistent.  Many traditionally used pigments, such as the plant-based madders (PR83), tend to be fugitive, while the more modern pigments have been developed to replicate them while remaining 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, but have included one here among the reds.  Several manufacturers, including Winsor Newton, have recently introduced some cadmium-free formulations as alternatives to their traditional cadmium colors.  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.

The paints compared in this series of blogs 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 through the coming year.

Comparing similar colors – part 2

December 1st, 2019

With all the similar blue watercolor colors available, which ones should you choose?  What qualities should you look for in the paint that’s right for you?

Last time, in part 1, I compared both several yellow paints and the most common brown paints.  In part 2 of this series, I’ll be comparing the colors and qualities of several popular blue watercolor paints, again using two of my favorite brandsWinsor Newton Professional Watercolors and Golden’s QoR Modern Watercolorsas examples.

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, their comparative chroma (how “pure” or muted each color appears), and whether they have a warm or cool bias in comparison to other similar blues.

Blues:

Comparative chart - blues“French” ultramarine sometimes indicates that the color is slightly redder than other ultramarine alternatives in the same line.  It may also be designated as RS as opposed to slightly greener (GS) versions.  I find that ultramarine is difficult to photograph because the high-chroma pigment is so vibrant.  For this reason I tend to prefer the slightly lower chroma of the similarly warm-biased indanthrene/indanthrone (different brands spell it differently).  Cobalt blue tends to be the most evenly balanced between warm and cool so is a good choice for mixing.  Phthalo-based Winsor blue is available in two versions, a warmer (red shade—RS), and a cooler (green shade—GS).  The phthalo colors are excellent for mixing, but have strong staining power.

(Similarly, the phthalo-based Winsor greens—BS, blue shade, PG7 and YS, yellow shade, PG36—are so strong that they can easily get out of hand.  A much weaker cool green, viridian, PG18, is more muted and easier for inexperienced painters to control.  Don’t be fooled by a “viridian” made from PG7, a phthalo pigment!  Unfortunately, almost all green pigments are very difficult to lift.) I have not included greens extensively in this color-comparison series because they can be mixed from the other colors discussed here.  For more on greens, see my August 15, 2019 blog.

As you can see here, the same pigment is often used for several variations of color, 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 rely more on the pigments used than on the name, although the name may offer some clues.  As a general rule (with some notable exceptions) although the coloration may vary, other characteristics of the pigment will generally tend to be pretty consistent.  Many traditionally used pigments tend to be fugitive, while the more modern pigments have been developed to replicate them while remaining more permanent.

Such reformulated colors are often (though not always) referred to on the label as “hues.”  (Other “hues” have been formulated to replicate colors that traditionally relied on pigments that are either very expensive or are no longer available.)  Terms such as “permanent” or “new,” used within the name, usually indicate that this formulation replaces a similar but more fugitive color, which may or may not still be on the market.

Remember that these are just a few 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.

You are the best one to 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 3, I will be comparing a variety of reds.