Make a Bold Colour Statement

16 December, 2013 0 comments Leave a comment


Many painters experience difficulty mixing rich, luscious colours in the early stages of their watercolour journey. I have noticed several common factors that result in weak colour mixtures. Here are some easy, and perhaps overlooked, strategies you can employ to avoid the problem.

Use artist quality paint.

If you limit your palette to primary colours, as I do, you only need to buy three tubes of paint to start. This makes the higher-priced, artist quality paint very affordable, and the resulting mixtures are much more vibrant than those made with cheaper paints.

Once you have practised with those three tubes, you can add to your palette gradually, trying out different versions of primary colours one by one.

Use a palette with deep paint wells and keep your pigments wet.

Many of my students come to class with a portable palette, which usually has very small, shallow paint wells. My palette has larger paint wells that allow me to squirt water over the dried paint. This softens the paint and allows me to pick up more colour with my mixing brush. More colour produces richer mixtures.

Use less water and more paint in your mixtures.

This sounds so simple yet can be difficult to achieve. If your palette has a lump of dried paint under the added water in the colour well, try pressing harder on your brush when picking up paint. Swirl your brush over the lump of pigment a few times, to increase the ratio of paint to water in your brush-load.

If you need an even higher proportion of pigment in your mix, add some fresh paint straight from the tube.

Keep in mind that watercolour mixtures should have the consistency of ink, rather than toothpaste. If your mixtures get too thick, they will appear opaque and dull, rather than transparent and vibrant.

Learn to see the colour values in your reference material and recreate them in your painting.

The ‘value’ is the lightness or darkness of an object, where the darkest value possible is black and the lightest value possible is white. All the values in between correspond to various greys. In other words, a medium-value red has the same perceived level of darkness as a medium-value grey.

If you are working from a colour photograph, you see the value pattern more easily if you print the photo in black and white or sepia. If you are working from life, squint at the object or scene to see the basic pattern of highlights, mid-tones, and shadows. This is the value pattern.

Many students ask me what technique I recommend they use in order to paint a certain subject in a realistic style. The answer often includes this advice: Closely observe the value shapes of the subject, mix your paint to recreate the values, and place them on your paper in the proper shapes.

Getting the value patterns right, in a realistic painting, is even more important than mixing the colours accurately.

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