Be the Master of Colour

09 December, 2013 0 comments Leave a comment

Many painters who are just starting out think they have to purchase a wide selection of pigments to create believable paintings. I understand this impulse, as any art supply store is like a candy shop to me, too. This practice, however, is unnecessary, expensive, and actually leads to confusion and frustration when mixing colours.

Use three primary pigments.

I encourage all my students to start with just three primary paints (red, yellow, blue) and learn how to mix a huge array of colours from them. These primaries combine to make secondary colours (orange, green, purple) and neutral colours (black, grey, tan). It is a very useful skill to master, and all my paintings are created using this strategy.

You don’t have to use the same primary pigments for every painting, so if you own many tubes of paint already, don’t despair. Try out different combinations and you will discover lots of interesting permutations.

Use complementary colours to dull, darken, or neutralize a colour mixture.

When starting to learn about colour mixing, I find it helpful to create a six-section colour wheel, containing three primary (P) and three secondary (S) colours (see photo below). A secondary colour is created by mixing equal parts of the two adjacent primary colours.

The colours opposite each other on the wheel are called complementary colours. I have restated them in the chart below the colour wheel, listing complementary pairs: red/green, yellow/purple, and blue/orange.

The power of these complements is that you can mix them to create innumerable variations of the initial six colours on the wheel.

For example, if a yellow mixture is too intense, you can dull it by adding a small amount of complementary purple.

If a green mixture is too light, you can darken it by adding the complement, which is red.

When a mixture gets too brown (think of this as ‘dirty’ orange), you can neutralize it by adding the complement (blue), to produce a greyer mixture.

If you want to mix dark grey or black, use equal strengths of any complementary pair and very little water.

As with any valuable skill, it takes practice to become comfortable with colour mixing from primaries. There is no shortcut to ‘putting miles on your brush.’ Eventually, which pigments to choose when moderating a mixture will become instinctive.

Make a colour test swatch prior to painting.

I always do colour tests before I start a new painting. I select the three primaries I think will work, mix tiny amounts of the actual colours I need for a given subject, and try them out on scraps of watercolour paper. If I have trouble mixing a certain colour, I substitute another primary colour and do the tests again until all the mixtures work. Then I create a permanent record (shown below) of the pigments I will use on the painting.

Each square of the chart above lists the subject of a painting, the three or four pigments used, and small swatches of the actual colour mixtures I developed for the painting. This is a valuable reference to keep, in the event your painting process is interrupted for a few weeks or more, or if you want to recreate a specific colour scheme years later.

Learn the characteristics of your paints.

Watercolour paints have useful properties in addition to their colour.

Granular pigments, such as French Ultramarine or Burnt Sienna, produce dull, speckled washes that are perfect for paintings of barn board or rusty metal.

Many pigments are staining (meaning the colour cannot be removed once it is dry), but if you mix them with a non-staining pigment, such as Cobalt Blue, the resulting mixture is removable.

Combining opaque and transparent pigments can produce duller mixtures, so stick to one type or the other if you want brilliant mixtures.

Some traditional pigments, such as Alizarin Crimson, are prone to fading, so you should use Permanent Alizarin Crimson instead.

As you experiment with new paints and learn their unique characteristics, this knowledge increases your repertoire of colour mixing skills. Keep a written record of the combinations that excite you. Experiment and have fun.

This excerpt from Watercolour Toolbox: Essentials for Painting Success is reprinted with permission of the publisher. For more details visit
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