Simplify Your Watercolors By Focusing On Shapes!

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As an artist, you have the opportunity to improve a composition before you paint it! Don’t be tempted to merely copy what you see before you. Instead, change an ordinary scene into an extraordinary painting. If you just paint what you see, without thinking, evaluating, or redesigning, you may end up with a painting that has no “WOW!”

But how do you go about improving the subject you want to paint? How can you make your image better and design stronger? What should you do to create a painting with impact? Wouldn’t it just be a lot of work, especially if I don’t know how to improve my image? How do some artists create an exciting painting about a mundane, everyday subject? Copying is NOT enough! But, the answer may be, at least in part, to use interesting SHAPES!

While you may think that most artists begin their paintings by drawing LINES that represent objects to be painted, this is often NOT the first thing that they do to prepare for painting. Instead, an artist usually looks for or tries to compile a strong composition. One of the best ways to plan a composition is to reduce a scene to its essential or most basic components, to cut out distracting details, to simplify.

To help you simplify and reduce distractions, squint your eyes. Then look for the dominant shapes in the scene. Some artists SIMPLIFY by limiting the number of dominant shapes that they focus on to three, seven, or twelve, no more than fifteen. Evaluate and think about what shapes you could rearrange or emphasize, which shapes are important and which provide support for the other shapes. For instance, should the house in your painting be moved closer to or even overlap the barn? Should you remove that distracting tree? Are there too many cars in the image – they don’t add any helpful information?

Contour sketch Forsythia House.jpg

Forsythia House copy.jpg

The relationships of the interlocking shapes in a picture will determine balance and interest. Good painters make more interesting shapes!

Contour sketch Primroses.jpg

Primroses small.jpg

 

Try to see the world around you as made of shapes, and you will find it easier to become an arranger of shapes. Make an effort to avoid focusing on drawing or painting ‘a tree’, ‘a boat’, ‘a dog’, ‘a car’, or ‘a streetlight’. Paint what you ’see’, not what you think you see. (Check out my related blogs “Avoid Painting Lollipop Trees – Part I, II, and III”, published March 13, March 19, and March 26, 2019.) Beginning painters can get so preoccupied with NAMING details (“Is this a tail?”, “Are the feet crossed?”, or “I can’t tell what this is!”) that they forget to look at shapes and their relationships to each other. You need to paint SHAPES!

Contour sketch Dog.jpg

Dog small.jpg

One way to define shapes is to think about their geometric form. Are they circles, squares, rectangles, triangles? These are simple shapes, but very static and dull. They should be improved and made more dynamic by varying their size and shape contour, connecting two or more shapes together, overlapping shapes, avoiding symmetry. A building is much more interesting when viewed from an angle, as opposed to looking at it straight-on. Don’t forget that skies, shadows and reflections are also shapes. Interesting and unusual shapes are better than regular or precise shapes!

Contour sketch sunset River.jpg

Nashua River Glow.jpg

Once you have selected your scene to paint, simplified, rearranged and refined the dominant shapes, then choose one shape to be more important than the others. This shape will be your center of interest, what you want your viewers to notice. There can only be one center of interest in a painting. Plan how you will arrange your values (lights/darks) to highlight the most important shape for more emotional impact. More impact can also be created by the skillful use of color. White paper, for instance, can be a luminous and striking unpainted shape!

Contour sketch Floating Xmas tree.jpg

Floating Xmas tree small.jpg

Then, finally, having completed your planning for the best composition, by simplifying shapes and perhaps sketching out a couple of different arrangements of shapes in a black & white thumbnail sketch, it is time to carefully draw your shapes (not merely the outlines of specific objects) onto watercolor paper in preparation for painting.

In summary, everything has a shape! We tend to want to paint shapes just as they are, without changing them or making them more interesting. This can, however, lead to busy and confusing, static, or just perhaps even dull and boring paintings. It’s important to be able to conceptualize flat shapes for your flat watercolor paper, rather than just to think about three-dimensional objects (such as “mountain” or “boat”). When you can focus on shapes, it becomes easier to change shapes to suit your painting, move shapes to improve your composition, and remove clutter (get rid of boring or poor shapes), and add different colors to highlight certain shapes. So, strive to create simple but exciting paintings by making dynamic shape combinations.

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The Color Wheel, Color Bias, and Color Mixing in Watercolor.

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Artists often concentrate far too much on replicating the exact colors they see. You don’t have to use the same color specified in a lesson or on a mixing chart. Usually you can mix a very similar color using a paint from your palette with a similar ‘color bias.’ (Or even pick a color of your own choosing.) Substitute one cool red (with a blue bias) for another. For instance, use Permanent Rose or Quinacridone Rose for Permanent Alizarin Crimson. Try not to worry about exact colors or matching particular brands. Good tonal (light/dark) value is far more important than finding the perfect color match!

Apple Blossoms.jpg

The basic color wheel contains the three ‘primary’ colors (red, yellow, and blue) and various intermediate colors which can be mixed from the primaries. ‘Warm’ colors (yellow-green through red to red-violet) are on one side of the color wheel, while ‘cool’ colors (yellow-green through blue to red-violet) are on the other side.

The color wheel enables painters to  recognize ‘complementary’ colors, direct opposites on the color wheel, more easily. Such complements are red and green, orange and blue, yellow-green and red-violet. If you add a bit of a color’s complement (e.g., a bit of red to a green wash), the color will be grayed and start to lose its intensity. When mixed together, complementary colors produce grays and browns. The three primaries mixed together will also create grays.

By placing complementary colors next to each other in a painting, artists can achieve maximum color contrast. Complements sometimes create a kind of color vibration, or dancing, that tends to attract the viewer’s eye.  A color will make its complement appear more intense.  Therefore, this maximum color contrast can be quite effective around the center of interest in a painting.

Nashua River Glow.jpg

However, almost all paint colors are ‘biased’ in that they lean toward (or contain some of) another primary color. Few paint colors can be described as a pure, neutral color. This is ‘color bias’ – that is, most paint pigments are not perfect spectrum hues or colors, but contain some amount of another color. A warm red contains some yellow – it ‘leans’ toward and is biased toward yellow, whereas a cooler red would have more blue and would lean toward blue, or have a blue bias. In general, all (grayed) dulled COOL colors are warmer than their original hue, and dulled WARM colors are cooler than their original hue. For example, a grayed Blue-green (as described by Bruce MacEvoy on the “Color Theory: Color Temperature” (c. 2015) page of the handprint.com website) is warmer than a saturated Blue-green, because  some Red-orange has been mixed in with the Blue-green in order to gray it. Also, Burnt Sienna is cooler than Cadmium Scarlet, because it is less saturated (closer to gray). Similarly, Ultramarine Blue becomes grayer (and warmer) when Burnt Sienna is added, while Burnt Sienna is made cooler by adding some Cobalt Blue.   

               

Each ‘color’ of paint, then, will have a warmer and a cooler version. (See my related blog published here 12/11/2018, entitled “Adjust Your Color Thermostat.”)

Examples of relative warm and cool colors follow.

COOL COLOR:                                            WARM COLOR:

Quinacridone Red (PR209)       vs.         Napthol Scarlet (PR188)

Hansa Yellow Light (PY3)         vs.          Hansa Yellow Deep (PY65)

Viridian (PG 18)                          vs.         Chromium Oxide (PG 17)

Cobalt Teal Blue (PB 50)            vs.         Cobalt Blue (PB 29)

Ultramarine Violet (PV 15)       vs.         Cobalt Violet (PV 14)

Why does color bias matter in painting? Color bias affects how a pigment mixes with other paint colors!!!

You can’t pick any yellow to mix with any blue and expect to get a desired green. A cool yellow (with a blue bias) will behave very differently in a color mix than a warm (red bias) yellow. Mix Hansa Yellow Light (or Winsor Yellow) with Phthalo Blue (or Winsor Blue) to create a bright, spring green. Or combine Quinacridone Yellow with Ultramarine Blue to achieve a warm, olive green. (Also see my related blog published 11/27/2018, entitled “Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter Palettes.”) Another hint to help you create a brighter mixed color is to use two colors biased TOWARD each other on the color wheel (e.g., a yellow situated closer to the blues mixed with a blue situated closer to the yellows) to avoid adding any of the third (red) primary color (which would gray the mixture).

Luna On Bark.jpg

The most important information for the person mixing color to know is the actual paint pigment used in the manufacture of the paint that is to be used for mixing (NOT the name of the color on the paint tube). Each pigment has been assigned its own letter and number to distinguish it from other pigments. (See my related blog published on 8/28/2018, entitled “The Paint Colors and Brands On My Watercolor Palette.”) For example, Cadmium Red is made from PR108 (Pigment Red #108), while Pyrrol Red and Winsor Red are made from PR254 (Pigment Red #254). Each paint pigment has an individual personality and IS NOT interchangeable with or an exact match to other similar-looking pigments. Since each paint is unique, different mixtures will vary in their characteristics, even though they are mixed to represent a ‘certain’ color. Color appearance is affected by pigment used, as well as by the quantity of pigment and added filler, and by how the pigment was milled. Further, pigment used will also determine whether the paint is lightfast or permanent, whether it is transparent or opaque, and whether the paint is staining or not.

Depending on the specific choices of paint, a whole range of possibilities exist for creating color. Change one ingredient in a mixture to achieve different results. Knowing the color wheel doesn’t necessarily allow you to predict what each paint or mixture will do. You will need to experiment and learn from experience!

While understanding how the color wheel works can certainly help you with the mixing of paint colors, color mixing is not an exact science. In fact, to complicate color mixing further, you need to understand that color is a function of human perception. Color is in the mind and can vary depending as much on the individual viewing the color as on the specific pigments used in mixing. Further, perception of color is affected by the amount and direction of light on the color. Viewers always make a judgement about the color seen based on their expectations and understanding of the world around them. And, your eyes can play tricks on you! Thus, ‘color’ is an interpretation by each individual.

Forsythia House.jpg

If you are looking for possible paint color substitutions to try because you don’t have a paint color recommended by someone for a color mix, the following chart might be a place to start searching. Just remember, however, that there are NO exact matches! Each color pigment has different characteristics, AND paints will vary by manufacturer even if the pigments used suggest they are similar. However, feel free to experiment with the warm/cool colors that you have on your palette now. Use what you have! There is often no need to rush out and buy a tube of a suggested color, unless, of course, you think it might be fun.

APPENDIX A: WATERCOLOR PAINTS GROUPED BY COLOR BIAS/TEMPERATURE

COOL (Blue Bias) REDS: Quinacridone Red (PR 209)

Perylene Maroon (PR 179)

Permanent Alizarin Crimson (PR 206)

Quinacridone Rose (PV 19)

Quinacridone Pink  (PV 42)

Permanent Rose (PV 19)

Red Rose Deep (PV 19)

Quinacridone Magenta (PR 122 or 202)

Carmine (use Daniel Smith only – PR 176)

Crimson Lake or Scarlet Lake

Pyrrol Crimson (Use Daniel Smith – PR 264)

Opera Rose (PR 122)

Potter’s Pink (Winsor Newton – PR 233)

 

WARM (Yellow Bias REDS: Cadmium Red (PR 108)

Pyrrol Red, Winsor Red, or DaVinci Red (PR254)

Permanent Red (PR 254)

Venetian Red or Indian Red (PR 101)

Light Red (PR 102)

Vermillion (Holbein or Schmincke – PR 108 or PR 255)

English Oxide Red (PR 101)

Perylene Red (PR 149 or 178)

Pyrrol Scarlet (PR 255)

Transparent Pyrrol Orange (PO 71)

Cadmium Scarlet (PR 108)

 

COOL (Blue Bias) YELLOWS: Hansa Yellow Light (PY 3)

Winsor or DaVinci Yellow (PY 154)

Nickel Azo Yellow (Daniel Smith – PY 150)

Cadmium Yellow Pale (PY 35)

Cadmium Yellow Lemon (PY 35)

Benzimida Yellow (PY 154)

Lemon Yellow (PY 3)

Aureolin (PY 40)

Primary Yellow (Maimeri – PY 97)

Flanders Yellow (L&B – PY 3)

Transparent Yellow (Winsor Newton – PY 97)

Hansa Yellow Medium or Deep (PY 97)

 

WARM (Red Bias) YELLOWS: Gamboge Hue (PY 153/PY 3)

Cadmium Yellow Medium or Deep (PY 35)

Indian Yellow (PY 153)

Permanent Yellow (DalerRowney – PY 138)

Mars Yellow (Daniel Smith – PY 42)

Nickel Dioxine Yellow

Golden Yellow (Grumbacher – PY 3/PY 65)

Yellow Lake (Sennelier – PO 49/PY 153)

Brilliant Yellow (Schmincke – PW 6/PY 3)

Quinacridone Gold (Daniel Smith – PO 49)

Naples Yellow (PBr 24/PW 6)

New Gamboge or Gamboge (PY 150/PR 209)

 

WARM (Red Bias) BLUES: Ultramarine Blue (PB 29)

Cobalt Blue (PB 28)

Indigo (Daniel Smith – PB 60/PBk 6)

Verditer (Holbein – PB 28/PW 6)

Mountain Blue (Schmincke – PW 5/PB 29/PG 7)

Permanent Blue (PB 29)

Indanthrene or Indanthrone (PB 60)

Cobalt Teal Blue (Daniel Smith – PG 50)

Cyanine (Winsor Newton – PB 28/PB 27)

 

COOL (Yellow Bias) BLUES:Phthalo or Winsor Blue (PB 15)

Monestial Blue (Daler Rowney – PB 15)

Prussian Blue (PB 27)

Antwerp Blue (PB 27)

Compose Blue (Holbein – PB 6/PB 15)

Cerulean (PB 35)

Intense Blue (Winsor Newton – PB 15)

Paris Blue (Lukas – PB 27)

Peacock Blue (Holbein – PB 17)

Touareg Blue (L&B – PG 7/PB 15)

Cobalt Turquoise (DaVinci – PB 36)

Manganese Blue Hue (Daler Rowney – PB 15:3/PW 5)

 

ORANGES: Burnt Sienna (PBr 7)

Light Red (Winsor Newton – PR 102)

Quinacridone Burnt Orange (Daniel Smith – PO 48)

Burnt Umber (DaVinci or Daniel Smith – PBr 7)

Quinacridone Brown Madder (PV 19/PR 101)

Permanent or Benzimida Brown (Daniel Smith – PBr 25)

Transparent Red Oxide (PR 101)

Quinacridone Orange (PO 48)

Brilliant Orange (Holbein – PO 62/PO 73)

Brown Madder (Schmincke – PR 206)

 

COOL GREENS: Phthalo or Winsor Green (PG 7)

Viridian (PG 18)

Shadow or Perylene Green (PBk 31)

 

WARM GREENS: Sap Green (DaVinci- PG 7/PY 42)

Green Gold (Winsor Newton – PY 129)

Rich Green Gold (Daniel Smith – PY 129)

Copper Azo Green (PY 129)

Olive Green (varies)

 

PURPLES: Mineral Violet (PV 15)

Mauve (DaVinci – PV 19/PB 29)

Quinacridone Violet (PV 19)

Permanent Mauve (Winsor Newton – PV 16)

Permanent Violet (Daniel Smith – PR 88)

Ultramarine Violet (PV 15)

 

YELLOW EARTH COLORS: Monte Amiata Natural Sienna (Daniel Smith – PBr 7)

Raw Sienna (PBr 7)

Yellow Ochre (PY 43)

Gold Ochre (PY 42)

Transparent Yellow Oxide (PY 42)

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How Wet Is Too Wet? The Secrets To Controlling Water And Paint.

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If you have ever tried to paint with watercolors, you know how difficult it can be to estimate amounts of water accurately. Some beginners may use too much water and lose control of their painting or paint overly pale colors. Other beginners are inclined to use rather dry, stiff color in their work creating uneven, streaky, or possibly even muddy passages. How wet is too wet?

While many people feel watercolor is difficult and uncontrollable, once you understand how using the right amount of water can give you control, you’ll begin to have more fun painting.

Footbridge and ford over water.jpg

BASIC RULE.

A basic (and unbreakable ) rule of watercolor is that the wettest area of paint (or water) ALWAYS flows into a less wet (damp) area, whether you are placing paint next to other paint on the watercolor paper or touching a wet or paint-filled brush to paint already on the paper.

Further, there are different degrees of wetness, and these differences affect the success of the techniques a painter uses. Whether a technique works or not will depend on your ability to observe and control the amount of wetness involved.

Crashing waves.jpg

THE SECRETS.

The secrets to controlling the application of your watercolor paint are 1.) TIMING, and 2.) LEARNING TO JUDGE THE CORRECT AMOUNT OF WETNESS for the job you want to do. The moisture comes from several sources, including the mixed puddles of paint, the degree of dampness of the watercolor paper, and the amount of water/paint in the brush.

When you want controlled, clearly defined brushstrokes and a hard edge, paint on a dry paper (wet-on-dry). On dry paper, paint will only go where you put it. Keep in mind that after you have put paint down, you have created a wet area into which you can charge other colors or paint wet-in-wet. (See one of my related blogs, “Charge Ahead and Mingle: Blending Color on Watercolor Paper”, published June 4, 2019).

It can be difficult to paint large, complicated areas wet-on-dry because some sections of paint may dry too much before you can finish painting the area. This can create problems such as ‘cauliflowers’, ‘blossoms’, or ‘backwashes’ as you place wetter paint next to a less wet (damp, starting to dry) wash. (Remember that wetter ALWAYS flows into less wet!) Try to paint leaving a ‘bead’ of wet paint on the edge of your painted area (i.e. keep your paint edge wet) while you pause to reload your brush with color, to avoid having a drying edge of paint. If you have trouble maintaining a ‘bead’, you might want to pre-wet the area to be painted.

Ocean rocks.jpg

Make sure you mix a large enough puddle of paint so that you don’t need to skimp on paint or run out of mixed color partway through a wash. Also use a large enough brush to get paint down quickly, before it starts to dry and creates unwanted brush marks or ‘cauliflowers’.

One important point to remember is that watercolor fades as it dries and color that looks just right when it’s wet, can often look weak and unconvincing when dry. Try to mix your colors darker than you think you need. Getting the color right the first time looks fresher (and often less muddy) than trying to adjust color with a second layer over the first. If possible, try to avoid unnecessary over-painting.

Golden seagull.jpg

THE PAINT ITSELF.

Only experimentation will tell you what your paints will do, which is why you hear so much about the need to practice painting and to get to know the colors on your own palette. Paint behaviors depend on the type of pigment used in manufacture (organic, mineral, chemical, dye), how finely the pigment is ground (how it is milled), and also whether or not paint contains fillers (as many student grade paints do). Different brands may use different ingredients in different proportions. Generally, experts say that the more transparent a pigment, the better its flow on a wet surface.

PAPER AND TIMING.

The wetness of the watercolor paper itself also is a factor in how paint behaves. When water is first applied to paper it can be described as FLOODED with a sheet of water. After a short time, a WET sheet of paper becomes evident, as water starts to soak into the paper. On wet paper, you see a shine but the texture of the paper can be observed. As time goes on, water continues to soak into and evaporate from the paper. On DAMP paper the shine becomes dull and the watercolor paper is ready for the artist to put paint to paper. Here is where TIMING becomes so important! If the shine disappears from the MOIST paper, it can be a problematic time to paint. The paper may not be wet enough for paint to move smoothly or may be drying unevenly, which can create unexpected streaks or bleeds. (Note that the time it takes for these processes to occur can vary quite a bit depending on weather conditions, such as humidity, and even the type of watercolor paper in use.)

 

THE BRUSH.

Similarly, through practice, you should learn how to control the amount of water on your brush. Small brushes don’t hold a lot of water or paint, especially synthetic brushes, so it is difficult to overload them. But they also cover a limited area when painting, making it very unlikely that you will be able to paint a smooth wash with them. Large brushes will quickly cover the paper and keep your painting looking spontaneous, however, they can sometimes hold more water and paint than you want. “How much water should I use?” Not too much.

A SOPPING brush, which goes directly from the water container to the paper, is only okay when you are pre-wetting your paper! You will probably NOT want to paint with a dripping, sopping brush because too much paint will flow onto your paper and you will have little control. Instead, a WET brush is wiped once or twice on the edge of the water container or tapped lightly on a paper towel to make it more manageable, and can be dipped into the paint and used for painting. Before applying the paint, check your brush again to see if it is dripping with paint, and, if so, gently squeeze a small amount off on the edge of the palette or on a paper towel, as before. A DAMP brush is wiped on the edge of the water container and excess moisture is squeezed or blotted away. A damp brush can still moisten your paper and would be ideal for ‘softening an edge’. When softening a just painted edge, the painted edge should still be wet AND the brush MUST be less wet than the painted area. (See my related blog “Softening An Edge or Fading Out”, dated October 23, 2018.) Finally, a MOIST brush has only enough moisture to hold the brush in shape and would be perfect to use for lifting color.

Reflections.jpg

TO SUMMARIZE.

While nothing is simple in learning to paint, attention to detail and practice WILL lead to your success. Everyone can learn how to paint. Keep in mind the basic rule of hydrodynamics in watercolor – that the wettest area of paint (or water) ALWAYS flows into a less wet (damp) area. And also try to remember, the secrets to controlling the application of your watercolor paint are 1.) TIMING, and 2.) LEARNING TO JUDGE THE CORRECT AMOUNT OF WETNESS for the job you want to do. The moisture comes from several sources, including the mixed puddles of paint, the degree of dampness of the watercolor paper, and the amount of water/paint in the brush. Enjoy!

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Charge Ahead And Mingle: Blending Color on Watercolor Paper

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Most students of watercolor painting have heard the term wet-in-wet. It simply means painting color on a moistened (or prewet) paper. Wet-in-wet painting often involves painting with more than one color. The dampness on the paper allows pigments to relax and produce softly blended edges where the colors meet. The degree of wetness of the paper is important to the movement of the pigment.

There are numerous variations of wet-in-wet color blending in watercolor painting that you can use to create interesting textural and mixing effects. One of the most common ways to paint wet-in-wet involves dropping color onto wet paper and letting it flow and mingle freely on the wet surface, as when painting a sky. The aim is NOT to push color around on the paper after it is applied, but to allow the color to move and soften on its own, thus preserving spontaneity and freshness.

Further, you could drop water into damp paint to create light spots or streaks. The water drops push aside the paint to form the spots or streaks. Also, you might drop wet color into already applied (but still damp) color. If the paint you drop in is wetter than the first color, similar spots and streaks can be created. If, however, the pigment you add to wet paint is slightly thicker (less runny) than the first layer, the colors will blend slightly and soften smoothly.

Other variations on creating color changes on the watercolor paper are possible. For instance, several artists describe how they ‘mingle’ colors (or ‘put color next to color’). The area in which you do your mingling could be dry, wet, or partially wet; each creates a different effect. Use a spray bottle (with a coarse spray not a fine mist), spatter or dry brush with clean water to create a partially wet surface in preparation to adding paint. If you were to drop in color quickly, then you could add a second color (or more) right alongside (not on top of the first color), one color at a time. Do NOT mix the colors together after they are applied. Try to make sure that some of each of the original color remains visible. It’s okay for a few of your strokes to overlap slightly, as this is where blending occurs. You will have a wet multi-colored wash. Do not go back in to correct colors; leave the wash alone to allow the colors time to meld and soften on their own.

3 laughing boys.jpg

Wet-in-wet Background.

Most often, mingling or putting color next to color is done on dry paper. Transparent color is more successfully mingled, as opaque pigments can easily create mud. Mix separate, juicy puddles of all the colors you intend to mingle together. Load a brush with the first color and apply to dry paper. Clean your brush, remove excess water from the brush by blotting, and load your brush with the second color. Paint this next to and just touching the edge of the first color. You can add more colors in the same way (before any of the previous colors dry) to create even more interest. Variations in color temperature, from warm to cool, might be quite effective. Just remember to rinse and blot your brush with each color change to keep your colors bright and clean.

Spring pasture tree line.jpg

Mingled color in distant tree line.

I recently discovered yet another variation of wet-in-wet color blending on the paper that could be called ‘saving lights or whites with water’ (rather than using masking fluid). Using clean water only in some spots gives very soft edges, whether you are painting backgrounds or preserving highlights on an object. The first step in saving lights (or whites) with water is to carefully wet just the shapes you intend to keep light. When the paper has absorbed some of the wetness, add or mingle a number of colors on the dry paper, working the paint toward the dampened area. You will paint right up to the edge of the prewet areas. Do not add paint to the wet shapes, only to the dry paper. It is possible to further darken some areas if you wish (before the previous colors dry), but make sure to use thicker paint when adding to your damp colors. And remember to clean your brush  between colors (to keep them bright) and remove any extra water on your brush by touching it to a paper towel or rag.

Forsythia saving white with water.jpg

Saving whites with water in background, behind unfinished vases.

‘Charging’ is described in various ways by different artists. Whether charging is done on wet or dry paper, it describes the action of adding one color to another color on the watercolor paper (not the mixing of colors on the palette). Charging can be done by adding pigment to a wet passage and watching the colors blend on their own. For example, touch a wet shape with a brush loaded with paint (of the same value and thickness) of a different color. Or, paint your first color on dry paper and charge a second color next to the first. These colors soften into each other, because the paints are wet, yet the colors stay more or less where you put them.

Glazing is a slightly different way of varying color on the paper. Color is altered by adding a pale, transparent layer of of color over a dried wash. (Look for a later blog post which will describe the technique of glazing in more detail.)

It doesn’t matter what you call it – whether you paint wet-in-wet, charge, mingle, saving light with water, glaze, or put color next to color – these techniques of blending colors ON the watercolor paper (NOT on the palette) create lively and vibrant colors rather than flat, uninteresting areas which lack interest.

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Why Should I Bother To Use A Gray Scale?

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TONAL VALUES (tones) refer to how light or dark something is. Tones have nothing to do with color, although each color does have a tonal value. For an artist, value is seemingly the most important aspect of color. Color and value usually work together to give each picture its impact.

Colors (hues) themselves each have their own tonal value. Yellow, for instance, has a relatively light tonal value, whereas red has a darker tonal value. Some blues appear almost black, having a very dark value.

Gray scale--.jpg

The VALUE RANGE of colors refers to the number of values an artist can mix between a color’s darkest value (straight from the tube) and lightest value (When mixed with water in watercolor). Yellow, which has a light value, has a short value range. That is, not as many variations of tone are possible as with some other colors. In contrast, red has a long value range, with many variations of light and dark red possible.

Value range.jpg

Value is important in painting because changes in value are used to describe an object’s shape and form, as well as suggesting space and depth, thus creating the illusion of three dimensions on the paper. It is the contrast between light, medium and dark values which creates the illusion of light falling on an object.

Every object has a RELATIVE VALUE; its value is compared to its surroundings. In nature, as light falls on different objects it affects their relative value. A light colored object in deep shadow may appear darker (in color and value) than it actually is. On the other hand, a dark object in bright sunlight may appear lighter (in color and value) than it is in reality. In this way, tone/value describes the relative amount of light an object is receiving. A light value suggests something is lit, while a dark value shows an object in shadow.

As painters, we strive to have a convincing balance of light, dark and mid tones in a painting. But, sometimes our eyes can fool us. We’ve all been deceived by optical illusions. We know that sometimes we shouldn’t believe our eyes.

How, as artists, do we judge these light and dark values as we attempt to accurately capture details in a scene? A GRAY SCALE (or value scale) can help to measure and replicate lights and darks. The absolute value of objects needn’t always be measured and reproduced exactly, but the relative value is extremely important to approximate correctly! By comparing the values in our paintings with values on the gray scale, we can insure consistent value relationships within in our pictures.

The gray scale (or value scale) is most often comprised of five to ten sections of even, gradual gradations of gray, progressing from white (value 1) to black (value 10, in a ten section scale).

                Rankin's value scale.jpg

Without color, that is, using just variations of black and white, it is easier to see and focus on value.

Color often distracts the less experienced painter from the importance of value/tone. By using the gray scale, you can determine the values of colors (or colored objects). To use a gray scale, you generally look at your colors while squinting your eyes. Squinting makes the hue less dominant and value more obvious. As the hues of the color diminish, you gain the information you need about value. The highlights and darks are still visible, while ares of similar value unite and non-essential details fade. With practice, discerning the value of each color without being distracted by the color itself becomes easier.

Rankin's values of colors.jpg

(Above) Location of some palette colors arranged along a gray scale.

Since value is relative, rather than absolute, we try to think in terms of ‘lighter than’ and ‘darker than’. In a painting, the lightest tone may not be white and the darkest value may not be black. Therefore, use the gray scale (value scale) to determine the strength of one value in relation to another and in relation to the whole.

Another way to evaluate light and dark values is to use a black and white photocopy. Print out a copy of your reference template in black and white, and compare its values to the values in your own painting. You could also photocopy your own painting in black and white to help you judge how well it approximates the desired values. Or use a sheet of red acetate (which sometimes is included in value finder kits such as Don Rankin’s Magic Value and View Finder, available at cheapjoes.com or at Lee Muir-Haman Watercolors, 30 Main Street, Ayer, MA, 01432, 978-772-2001). Hold the red plastic over a scene and look through it. The red color will eliminate other colors, leaving visible a range of values.

Jan Kunz explains that the shadow side of objects is a full 40% darker than the sunlit side (Painting Watercolor Florals That Glow (1993), p. 68, Watercolor Basics (1999), p. 30, and Watercolor Techniques (1994), p. 3, and cast shadows are somewhat darker still. Even the shadow side of clouds is 40% darker than the cloud areas in sunlight.

If our gray scale (value scale) has ten sections, we count up or down four values (on a gray scale with 10 sections) to arrive at the 40% difference in desired values. When local color (the actual, true color of an object) is darker, the shadow color will also be darker, yet the 40% difference in value will still be accurate. So, to paint the illusion of sunlight, first determine the value of your subject in sunlight. Kunz suggests counting four values down to get the value of the same object in shadow. Then, simply match the value of your colors to the gray scale and you will have a reasonably accurate illusion of sunlight and shadow. Since values are relative to their surroundings, you can relate all values in your painting to each other in a similar way.

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