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.
Yesterday afternoon I was at the Uig woodland, mostly sitting at the shore looking towards the ferry pier and Waternish Peninsula. This is a favourite spot, but this time the light was particularly beautiful, the juxtaposition of light and dark shapes, the clouds. Minimal colour when looking into the sun, but not entirely monochrome.
If I moved a little, there could be some green in the foreground.
This is the wide view you see when you emerge from trees.
A few steps further back.
Puddles and reflections can be distracting.
Where I sat to sketch, on an array of flattish stones, the grassy lump being a bit damp.
My sketching kit: watercolour box (my indulgent, big one which holds a flat and a rigger brush), pencil box (with coloured pencils, sharpener, and some acrylic inks, Payne’s grey, yellow, and red earth), watercolour paper (A3 350gsm NOT) in a plastic folder which also acts as a board, couple of clips to hold paper, water container , and a bag to carry it in.
I don’t regard any of these as successful pieces, but they do all have potential for being continued /reworked in the studio.
The first, the one on the left, has bits that work but don’t work together.; this might be resolved by overworking it with pastel or opaque paint. The middle one I stopped because I liked what the hematite watercolour was doing but suddenly thought I wanted more rocks/seaweed in the composition but would mess it up if I tried to alter it, and so started the third. That lacks contrast, but the 350g paper needed to dry totally so that subsequent layers of paint didn’t just spread around and soak in. It’s a “stopped too early” painting.
Will I rework these? Maybe, rather than probably. What my fingers are itching to do is to paint the greys and light on a large canvas, lots of texture and interesting greys.
A beginner painter just told me her first art tutor advised her to buy a basic watercolour set because she was only starting out and it wasn’t worth her while spending the money on better quality yet. It makes me want to cry with frustration, because that’s how you too easily end up hating watercolour rather than loving it and giving up before you’ve ventured very far. I was once there.
Too many watercolour paintings are wishy-washy, pale, insipid, nothingness simply because there isn’t enough pigment in each brush stroke. Better quality paints have more pigment in them. More pigment equals more intense colours, brighter colours, better results when mixed. More pigment means a little bit goes a long way.
Cheap pan watercolours are hard and you have to scrub away to get decent colour. Decent watercolours ‘dissolve’ readily, leading instantly to stronger colour. It’ll go further than you believe, and you’ll enjoy using it more.
You need only a handful of colours to start, and these will get you off to a better start than a load of cheap. Stick with pencil and paper while you save up a little more. Ask your family and friends to each get you one colour for your birthday, and build your set that way. You’re worth it.
What do I consider essential colours? A single-pigment blue, yellow, and magenta (not red). Next step would be Payne’s grey, then another blue, then another yellow.
Brands I like? Daniel Smith, Golden (aka QoR), Sennelier, Schmincke. I love the Sennelier eight-colour set (*affiliate link) as a starter set, not least because it has Payne’s grey rather than a useless white. I struggled with watercolour until I got one of these little Sennelier sets, about five years ago now, and I’ve never looked back. Suddenly it was easy to get strong colour, to get bright results. From this I ventured into Sennelier tube watercolours, putting together my own set of colours with three blues, two yellows, two greens, two reds, magenta, and Payne’s grey.
I haven’t tried Golden’s half-pan set (yet) though I do have two tube watercolour colours (quinacridone gold and quinacridone magenta) and love them for their intensity. With 12 colours, two blues, reds, and yellows, plus Payne’s grey, it looks like a great starter set too (read about it here).
Why pans rather than tubes? Because it’s one less thing to faff about. You just put brush to water to pan to paper and you’re painting.
JOIN ME FOR AN ART WORKSHOP: Sketch to Studio on Skye, Monday 17 to Thursday 20 September. Six participants only, ensuring personal attention. Plus the chance to try my watercolour set if you’d like. Details here…
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.
I was practising “clouds shapes” and mixing “cloud colours” for tomorrow’s art workshop when I took the photo below. Looking at it I registered how I tend to rest my little finger on the page if I’m using this watercolour brush in my right hand. Add that to the reasons, beyond mere dexterity, as to why I get different results with my left hand.
I was thinking about ways for getting white in clouds besides leaving the paper white, and have ended up with a contender in the “most useless how-to photo” competition. Top to bottom there’s masking fluid (blue so you can see where you’ve applied it), white oil pastel, and white gouache. Why did I take a photo? Well, I had to do something while it dried.
It looked at little more, urm, interesting after I’d added some watercolour. Though the gouache hadn’t quite all dried (not helped by being it cold and humid, or that’s my excuse for impatience and I’m sticking to it) so the cloud shadow colours mixed in with it. Looks more like a flying saucer. than a cloud. Back to the drawing, I mean painting, board.
If you’ve any cloud-painting tips — besides being more patient and waiting for paint to truly dry — do let me know!
If you’re wanting to paint neatly up to an edge, say the side of a vase or tree trunk, painting away from that edge or imaginary line rather than towards it is easier. You position the brush at the exactly the right point when you start, then move the brush away from the edge. If you’re painting towards it, you have to decide when it’s time to stop. Lift the brush too early and there’s a gap; leave it too late and you go over the edge.
This short video demo was done with a flat brush and watercolour, but it applies to all brush shapes:
Mention painting wet into wet with watercolour, and many a person seems to have a vision of a wildly spreading chaos like this: (video link)
Whereas wet-into-wet can be a tightly controlled technique. It all depends on how you wet the paper and how you apply the paint.
If you’re on totally dry paper, carefully wet a specific shape, and then apply paint within this area only, it won’t spread out into the dry paper. As I’m doing here with a shape that’s excessively wet to illustrate the point: (video link)
(My apologies, do not adjust your glasses, the focus does get a little fuzzy at one point in the video.)
It also shows how a good flat brush gives you a very sharp edge or line and control. Note too how I’m using my little finger to steady my hand on occasion; it’s not something I consciously do, though I know I do it only if I’m painting sitting down.
Spent an inspiring day with an artist from Australia, focused on information gathering on location — aka sketching, but with the focus on looking, creating visual me and making visual notes rather than on creating beautifully finished sketches.
We started at Staffin Beach, then onto the ‘other’ side of Trotternish at that favourite spot of mine, the trees and river in the Uig woodland. The leaves are starting to turn autumnal colours and dropping. There’s a sprinkling of yellow leaves stuck to rocks in the river, little specks of glowing yellow in the shadows, and puddles of them jammed up against rocks in the stream.
The colour of the water was an interesting challenge: how to make it read as water when it’s mostly deep greens and browns, dark in the shadows and crystal clear where it’s still. I think the answer lies in some of the light greys of the overcast sky reflected in the ripples, and texture paste.
If painting in monochrome seems a strange thing to do given all the paint colours available to us, think for a moment about how beautiful and powerful black-and-white or sepia photographs can be. Likewise paintings done with black ink only. We don’t feel a lack of colour when we look at these, yet when thinking about painting with only one colour our instinct is often to feel that we’re missing out somehow.
Here are my seven reasons to painting in monochrome (do add your own thoughts in the comments section below):
Only one colour to deal with, so you really get to know its characteristics and what it does (opacity, transparency, tinting strength).
Helps you focus on tone without the distraction of colour. Reminds you that less is often more: tone is often the solution to a problematic painting rather than colour.
Encourages patience and persistence (because you can’t distract the viewer with colour and have to fix things).
No wasted paint from colour-mixing mistakes.
You’ve only one brush to wash (unless you’ve used various sizes).
You can add the art term “Grisaille” into your vocabulary.
Gives you the chance to pretend you’re Rembrandt, working in dark moody browns.
Monochrome doesn’t mean it has to be a tube colour, you can mix a colour.
Consider using a coloured ground (in a light tone) rather than working on white.
Transparent pigments are more versatile than opaque for this.
Using the white of the canvas/paper gives a different result than adding white paint.
Zinc white is more transparent than titanium white (which is a very opaque pigment).
Discovering how much can be achieved with only one colour is a step on the journey to discovering the joys of working with a limited palette. Using fewer colours but ones that you know intimately will produce better paintings than using lots of colours. It adds a cohesion as the colours work with one another across the whole composition.