Colour Mixing in Watercolour

4209408242?profile=RESIZE_710xYou probably know this - colour mixing in watercolour is vastly different from other mediums.

There are several reasons for this, including the fluidity of the medium - water; the watercolour paper; sizing; the pigments; and, the white of the paper. 

To explore colour mixing with water further, water is used to lighten and deepen values and saturates. The more used, the lighter the value; The opposite is also true, the less water used, the stronger the colour, saturation and value. Although there are many ways to paint a watercolour, a process for the beginner watercolour painter to live by is to start your paintings with more water and less pigment, subsequent washes should have less water and more pigment until your final marks are virtually paint straight from the tube!

In addition to using water, the colour we have that's not a colour is the white of the paper. In transparent washes, light travels through the paint to the paper and bounces back and helps to optically lighten values, this is also the reason we use a white palette and not a coloured palette. 

Professional grade watercolour paper is not actually paper at all; Exhibition quality 'paper' is made from cotton rag, versus student papers which are made from wood pulp. Exhibition papers are archival meaning they are acid free and, providing they are kept thoughtfully (not under the bed), in a dry, cool environment, away from direct sunlight they will be perfect for a LONG time!! Framed paintings should be hung away from direct sunlight just like any other artwork in any other medium.

I have to admit I am not an expert on watercolour paper sizing (i'm not much into the science - I just want to paint, so I'm not going to pretend), what I do know is that the sizing helps to keep the paint on the surface of the paper thereby helping to retain your painting's brilliance, lustre and transparency. A good quality paper will be sized to it's core not just on the surface. This means that, from a colour
mixing perspective, different papers work differently and will allow the pigment and water to work
differently. 4209439735?profile=RESIZE_710x​​
Although black and white pigments are manufactured, typically, we do not use a black for dark value washes, nor a white to lighten. My reasons for not using black as a wash is because I find it exceedingly boring. For me watercolour is about poetry, there is no poetry in black!!  Watercolour painting is about creating beauty and light and life, as Delacroix said 'Colour is the fruit of life'. I encourage you to step outside and find a dark area and observe the light bouncing around and colours reflecting, treat watercolor as an adventure. I prefer to make my own darks, creating areas of light and dark, warm and cool, opaque and transparent - so much more interesting!! If you are desperate, paint a black painting and get it out of your system! Apart from that, most blacks are created using a kiln firing process and seem to be very sooty, my eyeliner is the only black near me!! I have to admit I LOVE white gouache, I slap it in to darks (with restraint, sometimes not!) just for the fun of it. I also love white marks in a watercolor painting, however, white watercolour and gouache is not so pretty when used as a wash (and unnecessary!) proceed with caution.

There is vast range of watercolour pigments available falling into 4 main categories: transparent, opaque, earth and staining. Many of the pigments are made from natural minerals and due to these natural qualities, react and bounce off each other, quite fun to watch and experiment with.

To give yourself the best shot at painting watercolour, be kind to yourself and buy a set of transparent primaries in a professional grade of paints, however I recommend you seek advice from a specialist watercolour artist before purchasing. 

For a beginner watercolour painter, I recommend just four pigments - get used to them and understand how they work together - do resist the urge to splurge - you will have more fun with a limited palette!! The pigments I suggest are artist quality tube paints, Permanent Alizarin crimson, phthalo blue (or french ultramarine), Indian yellow (or new gamboge) and burnt sienna. The most useful tool you can make for yourself is a colour wheel made from your own pigments. Just choose any yellow, blue and red then mix a purple, orange and green - complimentaries - yellow is opposite purple, green is opposite red and orange is opposite blue.

This is important because the colour wheel, for example, will show you the complementary colour to neutralise a bright/saturate pigment eg neutralise or dull a yellow by adding a touch of purple or it will help you decide which colours to charge into a luscious apple's shadow and which colour to choose to make one colour stand out from another. From these pigments you make a gorgeous silvery (or warm) greys, a luscious rich lively black and a myriad of other colours just with 4 pigments!! You can progress this by mixing a light value colour wheel and then a dark value wheel just by altering the amount of water on your brush.

Colour charging is exciting and frightening all at the same time - while the paper is damp, and without washing your brush, load up another colour and simply 'charge', ( ie slop, slap or drop) this new colour into or next to, the original colour. With watercolour, fewer brush strokes are definitely more, this also works for colour mixing on your paper. When charging in colour use ONE brush stroke - every additional brush stroke is another step toward opaque, 'dead' colour and lost luminosity.

Due to its transparency (even opaque pigments are quite transparent) glazing can be used to modify a value or temperature or simply mix colours. Glazing is washing over a previously painted area, use a soft bristled brush to ensure previous layers are not disturbed. For example, if there was an orange car in the distance but it's too bright and taking over, you could knock it back to the distance by glazing a wash of a blue (or purply-blue) over the orange, its not necessary to be neat just wash over everything that's intended to be in the distance, soften off an edge here or there and you're done! 

Colours can also be mixed onto dry paper with wet brush/paint (aka wet into dry). Place colours beside each other and catch the bead from the previous mark, the secret is not to touch the same mark again, just keep catching the bead of the previous mark until you get where you're going.

Watercolour is the oldest known painting medium - the sistine chapel fresco is a type of watercolour! Think of painting watercolour with a feather - that's all it needs - a gentle touch!!

happy painting miei cari amici xx


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  • Here's my new colour wheel, think that's better.

  • 4288504565?profile=RESIZE_930x

  • Hi Amanda, disregard my message. I'll do my colourwheel again. It's not right. Too heavy handed 🐘🐘🐘🤯

    • no need for a critique - excellent colour wheels and I love that you did 2 versions, a light value, so you know how light you can paint and how much water you need to do this. And also a more saturate version with less water and more paint!!

      can you change out one of the colours and create another version?

    • Ooh yes I could, I'll probably run out of paint 😩 before we 'come out' so would need to. It's a worthy exercise. I never thought to make my own... a bought one isn't that helpful. 😘

  • 4287766643?profile=RESIZE_930xHi Amanda, just completed my colour wheel. Would you critique please. The green and yellow orange I mixed on the pallette- the others on the paper. Some of my colours not looking quite right. Anyway, great exercise and I learnt loads from how a limited pallette works.. gee is that how you spell pallette, or is it a pile of wood nailed together 🤣🤗🤣.,

  • There is an abundance of great information here. I'm going to try and print it. Will give the limited colours a shot too. I'm anxious to produce something good to start with, then overworking is not far around the corner. I need someone with a long ruler to rap my knuckles every time I go back in. Impatience too. Yes I'm a high achiever in that area too. Off to the printer. Thankyou Amanda. 

    • i'll bring out my yard stick!! wonder if I can get a virtual one with the sound?? 

    • I sure need it!

    • are you putting too much pressure on yourself to perform?

      maybe another approach to try would be "I'm just going to play with this and see what happens?"

      if i say to myself "today I will paint a masterpiece" i can assure the watercolour Gods will point their fickle finger of fate at me!!

      take it easy and think about playing!! love ya honey xx

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