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Watercolor’s Best Brands!

When you begin to paint with watercolors, you might think you need to decide on just one brand of watercolor paint.  You don’t, however, need to limit yourself to one manufacturer only.  Most brands combine and work well with each other.

No one brand of paint manufacturer provides the perfect collection of paint colors.  But a number of reliable, reputable companies are doing a very good job.  I will share my favorites below.

Keep in mind that pigment name and number are more important than choosing a brand of paint or purchasing simply by color names.  The actual pigment used indicates the character of the paint color and determines how long it will last.  Certain pigments used in formulating paints are fugitive (colors will fade over time and with exposure to light) but are still used even by more reputable companies. A color pigment, which has its own specific identifying name and number, is the actual substance that produces the paint color and, along with other ingredients, the characteristics of the paint. The color name on the tube can vary by company.  For instance, Pigment Blue #15 (PB15) is Winsor Newton Winsor Blue AND Phthalo Blue from many other companies.  On the other hand, Sap Green characteristics and pigments vary wildly by manufacturer – from a dark, dull olive (which contains these pigments PG7PO49PB15:4PY150) by Grumbacher to a brighter, medium green (containing pigments PV49P67) made by Maimeri.

Common pigments NOT recommended but still in production include:

*Alizarin Crimson (produced by Daniel Smith using PR [pigment red] 83) will fade.  You could instead use Permanent Alizarin Crimson  (produced by Winsor Newton from PR 206).

*Do not use the fugitive Gamboge Genuine (produced by Winsor Newton from NY24).  Try instead Gamboge Hue (by DaVinci made with PY42PY43).

*Don’t buy Rose Madder Genuine (by Winsor Newton, made with fugitive red pigment NR9).  A better choice is Quinacridone Rose (from Daniel Smith manufactured with PV19).

*Similarly, I would not recommend Dioxazine Purple (produced by M. Graham with PV23).  Mauve (produced by DaVinci from PV19PB29) is a transparent, reliable choice.

Paint color names are often confusing and can be extremely misleading, even in the more reliable paint manufacturing companies.  Many fantastic, silly names can describe the same pigment.  For example, PB60 (Pigment Blue #60) has been recently called Delft Blue, Indanthrene Blue, Indanthrone Blue, Indian Blue, Faience Blue, Old Delft Blue, and Royal Blue by various companies. Same paint pigment, but different names!

Conversely, different pigments (which determine the character and color of a paint) may share the same color title (name).  Magenta can vary from the reliable Schminke Magenta (containing PV 42) to the fading, unsuitable Daler-Rowney Permanent Magenta (with PV23PR122 pigments).  DO NOT rely on color names!

My palette!.jpg

Now, for my recommendations:

*Several companies produce watercolor paints that I prefer.  My favorite brand, Daniel Smith, began in 1976.  This company provides more than 200 pure colors, many of which are single pigment colors and thus ideal for mixing.  Daniel Smith offers pigments that no other company has for sale.  Prices are moderate to high.

*I also like the reasonably priced watercolor paints from DaVinci.  The company was founded in 1975 in California and offers 106 mostly bright, smooth colors.

*M. Graham, begun in the 1990’s, offers 70 well-made watercolors.  The colors are intense, bright, saturated, especially creamy, and easy to mix (perhaps because of the addition of honey along with the more usual gum Arabic and glycerin in their mixtures).  M. Graham paints are more affordable than Daniel Smith or Winsor Newton watercolor paints.

*Winsor Newton began producing watercolors in 1832.  They were the first to publish a complete list of the colors they offered with details of their chemical composition and permanence.  Winsor Newton offers 96 colors that are widely available.  These paints are among the most expensive on the market.  I also find that caps on the paint tube tend to stick if not cleaned carefully before recapping.

*Two other companies offer some good choices of watercolor paints.  Holbein, based in Japan, began in 1900.  They offer 106 colors, which mix easily.  Some fugitive colors are offered; other colors have deceptive or confusing names, or unusual color mixes.  Maimeri, an Italian company, was founded in 1923.  They sell 72 colors at a reasonable price.  Buyers should check light fastness, however, before purchasing their paints.

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Let’s simplify!  You don’t need to start out painting with a lot of colors.  Perfect starter colors include both warm and cool primaries.  In other words, start with seven colors:

*Cadmium Yellow (warm) and either Azo Yellow or Hansa Yellow Light (cool);

*Cadmium Red (warm) and Quinacridone Red or Permanent Alizarin Crimson (cool);

*Ultramarine Blue (warm) and Phthalo Blue or Winsor Blue (cool);

*And add a convenience earth color like Burnt Sienna, for fun.

You can buy tubes individually; try jerrysartarama.com, dickblick.com, or cheapjoes.com.  On the other hand, if you like, you can purchase Daniel Smith’s excellent Essentials Kit of six 5 ml. tubes.  This kit is available from dickblick.com ($34.76) and amazon.com ($34.74).  Colors included are Hansa Yellow Light, New Gamboge, Quinacridone Rose, Pyrrol Scarlet, Phthalo Blue, and French Ultramarine Blue.

I’d also recommend the DaVinci Scratchmade Eighteen-Color Pan Set available from davincipaints.com ($79.00).

Bibliography:

The Wilcox Guide to the Best Watercolor Paints (2001-2001 Edition) by Michael Wilcox.

Those Troublesome Greens!

Green is one of those colors, along with gray and brown, that create problems for painters, which may be one reason that beginners seek out ready-mixed colors.  After all, color mixing can be confusing and unpredictable.  While the ready-mixed greens sold in tubes are convenient, the colors available for sale are generally NOT the greens found in nature.  And even if you can find some greens that look reasonably convincing, who can afford to buy even a dozen tubes of different convenience greens?

Foliage varies greatly in color and value, with each plant producing its own variation of green.  Color and value also change with distance, weather, time of day, and season.  In reality, the greens of nature show infinite variety.  Therefore, realistic, natural greens require the painter to be able to mix many suitable variations of green from a limited number of paints.  But where do you start?

The color green is made of blue plus yellow plus a small amount of red to tone the color down and naturalize it.  Take every yellow on your palette, and combine each with every blue.  Note that mixing a cool yellow with a COOL blue creates a bright and vibrant green (for example, Hansa Yellow Light with Winsor or Phthalo Blue).  By mixing a WARM and a COOL or two WARM colors, you get a duller, less intense green – because both the warm yellow and blue have some red in their pigment.

green from Ultramarine Blue, Phthalo Blue, Cerulean, Cobalt.jpg

green from Payne's Gray, Manganese Blue, Blue Apatite.jpg

Greens Mixed With Various Combinations of Blue and Yellow.

Another way to create natural greens is to use ready-mixed tube green as a starting point but then to add other pigments to it.  DaVinci Sap Green, for instance, can be the principal ingredient in a whole range of mixtures.

greens from Sap.jpg

green from Viridian, Chrome Oxide Green, Green Gold..jpg

green from Phthalo Green.jpg

Greens Mixed With Pre-mixed Tube Greens.

You can create even more mixtures by changing proportions of each color in the mix.  Catherine Gill in Powerful Watercolor Landscapes (2011) describes a very effective technique for mixing numerous related colors by changing proportions in a mixture.  She makes a “mixing trail” (p. 122), using two colors on her palette.  Instead of mixing two colors together in the beginning, she puts the two colors on her palette, leaving a space between them.  She suggests you take a little of the first color and mix it with the second.  Then, take successive amounts of the second color, and mix with the first until you have several distinct hues.  The space between the two colors is the area where you make the “trail.”  The colors will all be close in value because you haven’t picked up any water.

Catherine Gill also describes a “mixing hub” (p. 123), which is a collection of mixing trails laid like spokes around a central pigment.  The hub allows you to create a variety of related colors.  The hub pigment is in all the mixes of the hub, ensuring color harmony.  And again, since you add no water as you create the mixes, values remain constant.

To simplify mixing greens somewhat, you can think of five basic green mixtures, as suggested by Bruce MacEvoy (on handprint.com).  A BRIGHT green could combine Phthalo Green Yellow Shade (PG 36) and Hansa Yellow (PY 97).  A COOL green could combine Prussian Blue (PB 27) and Phthalo Green Yellow Shade (PG 36).  Combining Prussian Blue (PB 27) and Hansa Yellow (PY 97) produces a LIGHT green.  WARM green comes from combining Phthalo Green Yellow Shade (PY 36) and Burnt Sienna (PBr 7).  Finally, put together a DULL, DARK green with Phthalo Green Yellow Shade (PG 36) and Quinacridone Rose (PV 19).

Five Basic Green Mixtures.jpg

Five Basic Green Mixtures.

With experimentation, you will find many mixtures that work for you.  Make a chart, for handy reference, of your favorite mixtures.

Condensed Chart of Favorite Green Mixes.jpg

Condensed Chart of Favorite Green Mixes.

Finally, the way you apply your pigments to paper can alter the appearance of your greens and foliage.  The first option you have is to mix your color ON THE PALETTE before you apply it to paper.  A second option is to apply separate colors TO YOUR PAPER, allowing them to mingle on your paper.  This technique creates a more varied, dynamic color mix.  Third, you could GLAZE one color over a DRY wash of another color.  Glazing and layering are similar processes.  They both change value.  Glazing uses a very thin, transparent wash of one color over another color.  When warm colors lie below a cool glaze, the resulting color mix is luminous, vibrant, and glowing.  Starting with a cool color and putting the warm color on top gives a heavier, denser glaze.

Finding a variety of natural greens to paint convincing foliage can be confusing and frustrating.  As painters, we know that ready-mixed greens are not sufficient.  Therefore, you should take some time to experiment with all the yellows, blues, and greens on your palette, adding touches of red to some of your mixtures.  Make a chart of your favorite blends for handy reference.  Experiment, and have some fun!

Avoid Painting Lollipop Trees! (Part III.)

Tree color is dependent on several factors.  Never depict trees in your paintings as all the same color – a strong, unvaried green – because you “know” what color trees are.  Tree color varies with the type of tree (species), the season, and the distance from the viewer. You should look for blue/greens, yellow/greens, and red/greens.  Your work will be far more interesting if you include and even exaggerate these variations in color, paying special attention to the cooler, darker hues of the shadowed areas which appear on the side of the tree away from the source of light and on the undersides of the branches.

Spring trees display fresh, bright foliage.  Make the foliage translucent by mixing your colors with plenty of water, and try to keep your shapes well defined.  Leave lots of white paper showing between foliage shapes to suggest sparse, new growth.  Lemon yellow or Hansa yellow light with sap green would work well for creating bright greens and yellows.  Remember to paint foliage in at least two layers (light and dark).  For spring trees in the distance, strive for cooler greens by adding blue to your mixtures; the blue will complement the warm, bright colors of nearer trees.  A good reference for seasonal paint colors is my blog of 11/27/2018, entitled “Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter Palettes.”

Summer trees look more solid and richer in color than spring trees.  The foliage is fuller.  Build up the summer tree in two or three layers, starting with the outline of the canopy.  DaVinci Sap Green and Ultramarine Blue work well for summer foliage, with perhaps Payne’s Gray added for the darkest parts.  Remember to leave a gap or two for sky holes.

 

 

Autumn trees have somewhat less foliage than summer trees, and as the season progresses, the trees will, of course, drop more and more leaves, and foliage will become sparse.  Autumn colors are rich and warm:  siennas, reds, and yellows develop, and a few greens linger.  More branches are visible.  In bright sunlight, your autumn tree will appear somewhat paler than you might expect.  Try to mix your colors on the paper, dropping in several colors next to each other and allowing them to blend softly into each other on their own.  Trees are seldom a single color.  A variegated wash of Cadmium Yellow and Light Red with a touch of DaVinci Sap Green could be used to make a range of fall colors.

 

Golden Beech copy.jpg

Conifers have a somewhat different structure and shape than deciduous trees.  To paint conifers convincingly, you must take notice of their structure.  You don’t want to paint Christmas trees!  Conifers develop around a single central trunk.  Look closely to get the angle of the branches correct.  In general, limbs grow up and out.  More specifically, branches at the top of a conifer head upward, those in the midsection go outward, then head upward, and those near the bottom head downward, then upward.  Remember: all the branches are heading for sunlight.  Coniferous branches tend to be shorter and most branch out flatter than deciduous branches.  Try to leave space between many of the branches.

mt.top 8:11 # 69.jpg

White paper birches are tall, thin trees found in the Northeastern United States, growing singly or in clusters.  The trunks tend to be thinner than those of many large trees, with only a few large limbs but many smaller horizontal branches and flexible twigs.  The bark of the birch tree is paper-like and chalky white, sometimes peeling, broken with irregular horizontal textures and dark scars.  Larger branches are white, but the smallest branches appear black.  When you are painting birch trunks, brush strokes, shadows, and bark texture should follow circumferential lines, using blacks and grays (mixed by combining Ultramarine Blue with Burnt Sienna) and a brownish orange (made from Burnt Sienna).

Pheasant in Fog.jpg

You should paint distant trees as simple masses of shapes with minimal detail.  Squint your eyes to observe shapes and groupings of light and dark areas.  The farther away the trees, the paler and less detailed they become.  Distant trees also have a cooler (bluer) color.  As you move from the horizon to the middle ground, you can very gradually warm up your colors by putting more yellow and less water in them.  However, you still need to reserve your richest greens and strong contrasts for foreground trees.

Dynamic skies - summer river 2.jpg

Many of the previously mentioned details about trees may seem obvious or overly simplistic, but a lot of beginning painters do not paint with these many small details in mind.  Attention to such details helps you paint convincingly and accurately.  Details are important!

Avoid Painting Lollipop Trees! (Part II.)

When you practice painting trees, begin by studying the bare outlines of winter trees (deciduous), because you can better see their whole structure and their proportions.  In general, the proportions of a tree can be divided into thirds: one third trunk, one third branches, one third twigs.  This principle may not always apply, but it gives you a helpful place to start.  Observe whether the tree exhibits a single vertical trunk or multiple trunks; a twisted and contorted trunk, possibly weeping branches, or angular or smooth-flowing branches.  Very few trees are symmetrical.

Use a round brush to paint the main trunk and thicker branches, then a rigger to paint thinner branches or twigs.  (A palette knife or liner can also be useful for painting small twigs.)  Alternatively and more simply, you can scumble in the smallest branches of a winter tree with a light tone to suggest the smallest growth.  For a winter tree, work from the bottom upwards.  Establish the trunk and main branches boldly; then begin to “suggest” a few smaller branches before rendering a light tone (by scumbling or dry brushing) for the fuzzy tiny twigs.

Maple winter.jpg

Maple summer.jpg

Maple autumn.jpg

The complicated outlines of trees in leaf can be overwhelming without simplification.  It is important to remember that the same basic structure as is there in winter still lies beneath the cloak of foliage.  You should paint the foliage as several large masses, varying them in size and making the shapes interesting, while also leaving rough edges; nevertheless, each should have three dimensions.  Some masses should overlap others, but leave gaps between some to form important sky holes.  Paint branches and twigs in these sky holes, NOT on top of the foliage shapes.  You should not paint individual leaves.  Definitely do not paint detail you cannot see from a distance.

In general, when painting foliage, prepare a wash for the lighter areas and another, stronger wash for the darker spots.  (You have the option of using even more color layers to increase color and tone variations.)  If you apply the first light wash in a series of quick strokes with the side of your brush, the resulting shape will tend to look more spontaneous than overworked.  Then, before the first layer of color dries, drop in some of the darker wash to correspond to the darker, shaded areas you have observed.  You must remember to leave random sky holes.  For trees in leaf, begin your painting with the foliage; then add trunks and branches.  Tops of trees  (facing the light) will usually be the lightest areas.

 

To be continued…

Avoid Painting Lollipop Trees! (Part I.)

Artists new to watercolor find painting trees an endless source of frustration and difficulty.  They may have been told to look closely and study their subjects carefully before attempting to paint, but the more they look, the more details they see, and the more confused they become!

If you want to become an effective and talented painter, you have to make up your mind to simplify and see your subject in terms that watercolor can accommodate.  This simplification is especially necessary when you are trying to paint trees and foliage.  Try to look at the trees through squinted eyes: look for shapes, and disregard many of the details.  Observe groups of trees, and pick out areas of light and dark.  In other words, focus on creating the shape and character, the color and texture of trees, not on producing botanically correct or precise illustrations.

river shoes copy.jpg

Individual trees are often irregular, but you can describe most of the individuals by their general shapes.  If the shape is wrong, the tree will be a confusing blob that detracts from your picture.  Countless varieties of trees exist, each type with its own characteristics.  You need to exercise thought and care when considering how to paint your trees.  They often have a more complicated shape than other elements in a painting.  Nevertheless, you can simplify a tree (or group of trees) and suggest the shape as round-topped, thin and tall, conical (conifer), or even flat-topped.

Part of the difficulty with painting trees is each person’s tendency to take visual information and categorize it to fit with prior experiences.  The conscious mind likes to generalize, identify, and name, then move on; thus, you end up painting what you THINK a tree looks like, the generality.  Instead, to be a good artist, you need to rely on your unconscious, visual brain to actually observe and register what is before you.  You can train yourself to gather the information that is normally unconscious and to then make it conscious.  “Paint what you see, not what you think you see.”  That is, paint what you observe, not a generalized idea of what your mind tells you a tree ought to look like.  Don’t let your intellect take over the painting process if you want to avoid lollipop trees.  A young child may paint a tree as a simple green circle atop a stick, but capturing a convincing image of real trees requires a bit more sophistication.  (See my 12/18/2018 blog, “Painting Begins with Looking and Seeing.”)

Once you have noted the overall silhouette of the subject, look at the angle of the limbs (if the tree is close enough) and the character of the foliage.  Making trees look believable has a lot to do with understanding that the primary function of the trunk and limbs is to reach up and out far enough to hold their leaves in sunlight.  Each species does so in its own way, but trunk, branches, and twigs graduate in size as they get farther from the base.

Observe that the trunk grows out of the ground usually in one piece and is therefore the thickest part of the tree.  It also looks more solid and stable if you curve it out at the base.  From the trunk grow the limbs, which are thinner than the trunk but still need to be substantial since they bear the main weight of the tree.  Try to avoid making them leave the trunk directly opposite one another.  The trunk itself keeps the same thickness until a limb comes off it, whereupon it becomes less thick.  The same thing happens as each limb leaves the trunk, until finally the trunk itself splits into the last two limbs.  Limbs themselves split into branches, and the same reducing process goes on until branches split into twigs, which run out from the branch ends.

Meadow road tree.jpg

This tapering and meandering of the trunk branches is a little different in each species of tree, but most branches are not straight lines.  Young trees tend to have smoother bark surfaces, while older trees have bark that is more textured.  Try to avoid lollipop fans by painting trees with volume.  Branches should spread out in all directions and grow toward (and away from) the viewer.  Give branches coming toward the viewer stronger tone, tighter drawing, sharper marks, and foreshortened outlines to create more convincing trees.

To be continued…