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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.

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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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Dropping In And Lifting Out…

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DROPPING IN paint is introducing another color to a still-wet wash.  The second color will soften into the first color, subtly blending on its own.  This painting technique can create the illusion of shape in a curved object (for example, a tree trunk, flagpole, fencepost, chair leg, or arm) and can also help suggest depth in a painting.

To drop in, put down some color on paper, not too wet.  Then mix a second color, a little darker than the first.  Drop the second color into the wet first wash along one side with a light touch.  Put a little color in at first, adding more (while everything is still wet) only if necessary.

Dropping In.jpg

Many painters almost unconsciously LIFT OUT paint to adjust tones and colors while they are painting.  You can deliberately draw out color from “too dark” areas, when the paint is still wet, by using a slightly damp brush (as you would a sponge) to lift off or soak up pigment.

Be careful, however, if you paint with a staining color, because lifting out paint will be much more difficult (if not impossible).  If you want to lift out paint from a dark area, make sure you use non-staining colors.  Try to lift out paint soon after the paint has dried, because then you won’t need to put in as much effort as you would when the paint has set and dried for several days.

Lifting Out.jpg

If you want to lift color from a large area, wet the area, allow the water to settle in to the paper and moisten the pigment, then work the brush over it (tickle the area) to start moving the pigment.  As the pigment softens and becomes moistened, lift out with a slightly damp (not dripping wet) brush.  The brush needs to be drier than the paint, or it cannot absorb and lift out the wet pigment.  If your brush becomes wet and full of paint while you are lifting, you will need to rinse and slightly dry the brush again (and perhaps repeat the process several times).  Tissues and paper towels can also blot up unwanted color.  Use a clean paper towel, for instance, and blot straight up; do not rub.

If you wish to lift paint from a smaller area, moisten just the area you want to lighten.  Only moistened paint will lift.  An erasing shield (or a piece of paper or cardboard or even #810 clear Scotch tape) and a small stiff brush will make it easier to lift along a straight, sharp line or small specific area.

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Drama In the Skies!

In a landscape painting, the sky affects the tone, mood, and atmosphere of the whole painting.  As painters, we strive for an interesting, perhaps a dramatic sky whether or not that is what we see in front of us.  Clear blue skies can appear bland and less than inspiring.  In a painting the artist hopes to design a sky that helps create the most effective mood for the subject.  Ask yourself, “What does this subject need to make it work well?”

If a landscape or seascape is busy, with lots of details or information, a simple sky treatment might be a good choice. 

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On the other hand, a moody, vibrant, or striking sky would complement a composition with a low horizon line, as in a stark, brooding moor or a bold sunset. 

Sky after Mucillo painting.jpg

As another example, a roof in the rain could take on a gleam of silver as the sky reflects off it.

Rainy sky painting.jpg

It is essential to decide what sort of sky is involved in a landscape painting BEFORE starting the painting.  This statement is true even if a sky will not actually be seen in your picture, because the appearance of the light depends entirely on the sky.  A landscape can be creatively transformed by altering the light or weather conditions in a painting.  Light and shadow, color and mood should be consistent throughout your composition, so skies must be part of your initial planning.

Hikers painting.jpg

Wilfred Ball, in Weather in Watercolour (1986), describes the “creative transformation” of planning a composition by altering sky and weather details.  “Buildings, walls, gates, fields and mountains tend to be relatively formal features of the landscape, but the effect on them of such variables as the light, seasons and weather is capricious and magical” (p. 9).  And changes in the sky and weather are “merely an extension of the creative process that goes on whenever we paint.  Almost without thinking we strengthen this, weaken that, miss out a tree here, heighten the colour of an autumn tree to focus attention on it.  These devices are all ways of recomposing the subject to increase its impact.  Indeed it is this kind of alteration, that we make to the subject matter as we saw it, that is the creative process in what would otherwise be a straightforward copying procedure.  Using the weather creatively is one of the most effective of all the transformation devices a painter can use” (p. 11).

Thus, you should not be afraid to use a bit of imagination when creating a sky.  Think about the colors you will use in your painting, and have them mixed and ready to go.  Mix up large, juicy puddles of the sky colors you will use.  Mix lots more than you think you will need to insure that you won’t run out or have to skimp while painting!

Have your plan thought out before wetting your paper.  Skies are often painted wet-in-wet, though other techniques (wet on dry, for instance) can also be used.  To begin, wet the sky area with clean water.  As soon as the shine goes from the paper (and when it appears to have a more matte finish), DROP in your colors by floating the pigment across the paper.  Try NOT TO PUSH the colors around, instead letting the colors mix together on their own.  Do not overwork or touch the paint while it is drying.  During drying time, the sky continues to develop ON ITS OWN with a subtle blending of colors.  Timing is all-important.  Don’t paint back into your sky; be assured, and paint with confidence.

To increase the feeling of distance in your sky, lighten the sky toward the horizon.  Colors can be warmer and darker higher in the sky.  Don’t view the sky as separate from the rest of your painting.  Remember: it affects your entire landscape.  You can achieve the needed harmony by echoing the sky colors in the rest of the picture.  For example, include warm sunlight on the side of a building or reflections of a sunset on water or snow.

VT farmhouse painting.jpg

Rainy field painting cropped.jpg

What colors should you use?  Sometimes you may want to add yellow highlights to a blue sky.  Have you ever laid down a sky with blue and yellow and had it start to turn green where the two colors met?  The effect has something to do with color bias and color mixing.  Certain blues have a red bias (they contain some red pigment), while others lean toward green, and whichever blue you use will react with other colors according to its bias.  If you are unsure how your colors will interact, try several combinations of blue and yellow on test paper.  Alternatively, lay down your pale yellow wash, and let it dry before adding blue.  This way, you will have less chance of creating green, even though you will also lose some of the soft mingling of color that occurs with the wet-in-wet technique.

To avoid surprising or unpleasant color mixes when combining colors in the sky, try arranging your color sequence like a rainbow.  In a naturally occurring rainbow, the colors appear in a sequence similar to (but not precisely the same as) the following; so from the top of the sky to bottom (horizon), you could use:

*Ultramarine (which has a red bias)

*Cobalt (no real bias)

*Cerulean (yellow-green bias)

*Raw Sienna (red-orange bias)

*Permanent Alizarin Crimson (or Perylene Maroon or Permanent Rose) mixed with  Ultramarine Blue. (Be sure not to use too much red.)

Put your colors in bands in this order, just overlapping the edges so the colors soften.  Keep in mind that you needn’t use every one of the above colors in your sky, but use at least two.  Your choices of colors will affect how each color blends with its neighbor when they touch.  Test your colors and technique on a test sheet before applying paint to your picture.  Make sure you understand the affect of your color choices so you can avoid unpleasant surprises.

A sky affects the tone and mood of the whole painting.  Plan ahead for a dramatic, interesting sky that integrates well with the rest of your picture.  The sky will suggest proper placement for shadows and even some of the colors you should use throughout your painting.  For example, strong Mediterranean sunlight will create harder lines and sharper contrast than a misty morning in the Scottish Highlands.  Don’t be afraid to use your imagination when creating a sky.  Don’t paint back into your sky, don’t fiddle, and don’t be impatient.  Instead, try to apply your colors confidently, with a large brush, and let the colors mix together on their own.

Great wass island painting.jpg

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.