In a multi-day workshop, I usually include some time for colour studies, exploring colour mixing with some underlying focus but mostly for the sheer joy of colour, of seeing what happens. The most common response is what fun it is and why don’t we do it more often when we’re by ourselves? I suspect the answer lies in that we get too fixated on “creating a painting” and forget it is time well spent to practice our scales.
When I sat down at my favourite picnic bench in the Uig woodland, I had intended to do a watercolour version of the sketch I’d made a few days before. But after the first tree trunk was painted, impulse led me to trying various colour combinations in search of the ‘perfect recipe’. An hour or so later, I had this:
This photo is a bit blown out. In the middle is my favourite:
lunar black + cobalt blue + serpentine green
I know what the colour are because I remembered to make notes! Not the proportions of each, just the ingredients.
The small print on the labels tells us: PR 122 and PV 19.
Looking up the numbers tells me: quinacridone magenta and quinacridone rose.
Depending where you are on your colour journey, this may or may not be useful information.
The good news is all you really need to know is that one’s a red (R) pigment, the other a violet (V) so, besides the difference in colour as you see it, they’ll do different things when mixed.
Handprint says: “Because it is warmer than a typical magenta, quinacridone rose creates clean, bright mixtures across the red to yellow span of a color wheel. Its violets are not as bright as those mixed from quinacridone magenta, but I find this creates a more natural color when the mixtures are used for shadows.”
For me the two feel like Rosa rugosa flowers (“pink-pink”) vs its rosehips (“red-pink”), which I can’t find a photo of right now.
At Patchings Art Festival last month I was very encouraged by the number of conversations where “single pigment colours” and “pigment numbers” weren’t met with blank looks.
The short answer: One.
Try black or Payne’s grey or sepia. (If you don’t believe this, then ask yourself how black-and white photography is still a thing so many years after the invention of colour photography.)
The colour theory answer: Six.
A warm and cool blue, yellow and red.
The typical answer: The primaries, white, and some earths, perhaps a green.
The Colourist’s answer:
Whatever floats your boat.
My slightly longer answer:
However many you wish, but probably not all in one painting.
Exploring colour is part of the joy of painting, getting to know the personality of each, how it behaves when it’s by itself and how well it plays with others. (I mean: the properties of a pigment and how it mixes with others.) Everyone has their preferences as to how many they want to play with, both at any particular moment and overall.
There is no magic number, it’s about personal preference and it’ll change. If you don’t enjoy colour mixing, you’ll likely use more straight-from-the-tube colour.
How many colours make a successful painting depends on how you use them. Mix them all together and you’ve a muddy mess. Have scattered colour across a composition and you’ve disjointed visual chaos. Worked together, considered and intuitively, it can be intriguing and full of discoveries for a viewer. Never let anyone insist that you limit yourself if you’re enjoying playing with your colours.
When painting with acrylics, I tend to use a subset of colours that has got slightly larger over the past few years (I now need two hands to count the colours, not only one). I do have tubes of many other colours I’ve tried, and occasionally I play with these again. But mostly I use titanium white, Prussian blue, cadmium orange and yellow, lemon yellow, magenta, and?perylene black. Phthalo blue, cobalt blue and phthalo turquoise are also regulars, cerulean blue sometimes joins in. Burnt umber is now neglected as I’ve shifted to mixing greys with orange and blue, and I still don’t like ultramarine blue much (sorry Sharron.
But when it comes to watercolours, since discovering Daniel Smith’s granulating colours, I’ve increasingly been having a ceilidh with colour. Pigments with distinctive characters, not homogenized to all behave the same way like well-socialized, good little colours. I’m not using every single colour in every single painting, and the more successful ones do have fewer colours, but I think these also work because they retain the joy of mucking about with all the colours.
When I moved to Skye 10 years ago, my watercolour set looked like this:
My current watercolour box looks like this:
It feels indulgent to have so many colours, but it’s also so joyous. Sometimes one is all you need, but how will you know which one unless you’ve tried many?
There are joys to be found in colour just for colour. Not for creating a finished painting, but for the delights of trying, exploring, feeling, seeing paint colours.
While there’s good reason to use a limited set of colours and getting to know these well, it also becomes a comfort zone. How often do you think outside the (colour) box?
At the weekend as a friend and I were doodling with the colours in my big watercolour set (one I put together from all the tubes of watercolour paint I have) she described them as “very much my colours”. I was taken aback as I thought there are lots of colours in there that aren’t my usual. But then she went on to list the colours she regards as staples that were missing, including Naples yellow, viridian, not to mention the lack of any kind of red (only magentas), and I realised that the colours were indeed subsets of my usuals, that there weren’t so much unexpected colours but more variations on favourites.
So yesterday I sat down with my Daniel Smith watercolour dot chart and tried with every single colour. Today I’m going to have another look at it and see where I might step further away from the box. Then I’m going to make a shopping list for July when I’m at Patchings Art Festival. Then I’m going to shorten the list.
One of the (many) joys of painting is exploring the properties of all the different pigments we have to use. Each has its own personality, and some we’ll like more than others. A few will become best friends, some drift in and out of our lives, and some forever kept at arm’s length.
For yesterday’s workshop I took along a dozen or so different blues from my stash. We started by creating a colour chart with all the blues, making notes of what pigments were in a colour and a opacity/transparency line on the edge.
We discussed what was meant by hue, specifically Prussian blue hue, and compared different versions which have different pigment combinations in them. Consensus was that Schmincke’s version, which has black in it, was suitably moody for a Skye winter. We also talked about how many blues you really need, and why I have so many.
We had some debate whether turquoise was a green or a blue, or a bit of both. The ultimate question was: if you were sorting tubes of paint out into boxes labelled “green” and “blue”, which one would you put “turquoise” into? I’d put it in blue.
In the afternoon we looked at working in layers, focusing on shapes of colour (rather than “it must look like XYZ” or “I’m painting an XYZ”) and patterns. An approach where no one single mark or layer makes or breaks a painting.
There were two layers of in pencil/coloured pencil before the first paint layer. It’s an activity that also gives a feel for glazing — transparent layers of paint over one another — vs blocking bits or breaking shapes using opaque colours.
A great day all round!
If you’d like to join me on a workshop, the dates for scheduled workshops on Skye and for when I’m at Higham Hall in the Lake District can be found here. (Last I heard there were four spots left for my April workshop at Higham.)
A misunderstanding I regularly encounter in workshops is what is meant by “transparent” in a paint colour. It seems to come from conflating “see-through” and “colourless” into “transparent”.
We can see through some things that have colour. Think of stained glass or coloured cellophane or sunglasses. You see through it, though it adds colour to what’s behind it, changes the colours of things seen through it. Normal window glass is colourless; stained glass is transparent (to varying degrees, but that’s a digression).
If you’ve done a workshop with me, you’ve probably seen this “visual aid”. One day I’ll create a neater, textbook version!
At the bottom right of that sheet is a black line with opaque, semi-opaque, and transparent colours painted over it.
How opaque or transparent a pigment is depends on the inherent properties of a pigment, but also how thickly you use it. Red iron oxide is one of the most opaque pigments there is, even more than titanium white. It obliterates whatever’s beneath it.
Figuring out which colours are which is best done by creating a chart of your own. Yes, many tube labels give an indication, but you can’t beat trying it for yourself, straight from the tube and thinned somewhat, as well as adding white to transparent pigments to shift their opacity.
It’s an excuse to get out every tube of paint you’ve got and say hello to it. Neatly in a grid or not, that’s a potential procrastination. Just put brush into paint onto paper and save neatly for another day.
“Really? Who doesn’t use Ultramarine Blue! I never knew anyone who doesn’t consider it a staple. Intrigued! Is there a reason?” — S.B.* (*In response to my previous blog post in which I said, right at the end, that I almost never use ultramarine.)
Well, you do now. <cue: smile>
I really, truly, genuinely, rarely use ultramarine. I definitely don’t consider it a staple. As to the reason why: I simply don’t like it enough.
If used unmixed, it’s instantly recognisable; you look at a painting and tick the mental “that’s ultramarine” box. It’s a learning-towards-brash bright, brilliant blue. It’s not a sea blue. It’s not a sky blue. It’s not a river blue. It’s not deep-dark shadows blue. It’s the blue of fabric, of Virgin Mary’s dresses, not landscape.
It’s not that I don’t have any, or haven’t tried it. I have it, and occasionally try it again because I know so many people love it. But as you can see, I’ve not used much.
Cennino Cennini, the 15th century Italian artist who wrote on the techniques of the great masters in The Craftsman’s Handbook, describes ultramarine as ?illustrious, beautiful, and most perfect, beyond all other colours?. [He was writing about genuine ultramarine, of course, created from lapis lazuli, not French ultramarine, a pigment invented in 1828 by the colourmaker Jean-Baptiste Guime (no prizes for guessing what country he lived in).]
What blue is my favourite then? It used to be Prussian blue, but phthalo turquoise may well have moved into that spot. Prussian is still my go-to dark blue and stormy-sky blue. I also use phthalo blue (I love its staining quality), cerulean blue, cobalt teal. In some seascapes I use every blue I’ve got, and that includes ultramarine. But it’s rarely a starting point blue.
Could I live without ultramarine? Most likely. Though it feels almost sacrilegious saying so down: my least-favourite blue is ultramarine. And now I have I’m feeling guilty for not loving it enough, and might just have to try painting and mixing with it once again to see if I can’t love it a little more.
What’s your favourite and least favourite blue? Post a comment below and let me know.
White cat, white wall, white clouds (and white words). Are any truly straight-from-the-tube white?
Is the bit of wall which is painted “exterior pure white” (but not the bit with a shadow falling on it) or is the glare from the sun behind a cloud (but might that not simply be camera glare/burnout and really sunlight is yellowish)?
What we so readily call “white” isn’t generally the same single white. As with all colours, there are variations, in tone (light/dark) and saturation (intensity). Reflected colours in the white, form shadow colour, cast shadow colour.
We easily learn to add white to a colour to lighten it — a lighter yellow, a lighter blue. But it’s harder somehow to switch my mind to start with white as the colour and add another to darken (relatively speaking) it — a vaguely yellowish white, a subtly blueish white.
Which leads to questions of when is it still a white and when is it a grey or pink or light yellow? Does it really matter?
Monet’s whites remain the benchmark for me. What’s yours?
Sitting in the sun yesterday with my view filled by the rose hedge (that rambling greenery behind the small sheep painting in the photo below), I found myself thinking about the quote attributed to Picasso about “they’ll sell you thousands of greens, but never that particular green”, and the quote about the secret of Constable’s greens being small bits of different green (full quote here).
Staring at just one bit of rose, you really see it’s a multitude of shades of green, depending on the age of the leaves, the light, the shadows, the angle a leaf is growing. I was rather relieved I had only a pencil with my sketchbook so didn’t have to be up to the colour challenge and instead could focus on line. “Lazing with line in the sunshine” … sounds like the title for a painting, or perhaps a song. (The resultant drawings aren’t up to much, which is why there aren’t any photos.)
Later in the afternoon, when I was back painting in my studio again, one of the things I did was to add a glaze of lemon yellow to two small wildflower verge paintings-in-progress, to give the greens more oomph. This photo shows the result; the one of the left has the extra yellow layer and looked like the one on the right before I added it. The application was deliberately a little uneven, rather than uniform, to enhance the variations in the green.
You know those beautifully laid out palettes with a rainbow of colours arranged equidistant from each other around the edges and a mixing area in the middle? Well, mine doesn’t look like that at all, because:
(a) I’m not using a stay-wet palette with acrylics so too much of such squeezed-out paint would dry before I’d used it all.
(b) I don’t decide on all the colours in advance (though I do have regulars).
(b) I don’t use all my regular colours in every painting.
(d) I work with one colour at a time (single or mixed), applying it across the whole composition before moving onto the next, working with the fast-drying of acrylics, not against. Any leftover gets used to build up coloured grounds on a small canvas, so it’s not wasted.
(e) I like colour-mixing through layering and glazing.
(f) I often squeeze paint (and medium) directly onto a canvas, particularly in the initial layers of a painting.
(g) There’s less wet paint for studio cat to jump onto.
My palette is a small mixing area that reflects the last colour I used, in the photo it looks like “sheep black” over Prussian blue over cobalt teal. I wipe the space if the next colour doesn’t want any traces of the last in it. It’s not a pretty, photogenic palette, but it works for me.