Why Does It Matter If My Paint Is Transparent Or Opaque…As Long As I Like The Color?

Knowing a paint’s attributes puts you a step ahead as an artist. By being familiar with whether a pigment is transparent or opaque, staining or non-staining, saturated or unsaturated, for instance, you will begin to be able to predict how the paint will behave. Understanding your pigments is an important step in getting the results you want and in being successful as a painter.

TRANSPARENT VS. OPAQUE:

A TRANSPARENT color maintains its luminosity or brightness because it allows the white of the watercolor paper to reflect back through the paint to the viewer’s eye. Since a transparent color lets light through, it is possible to create the illusion of a ‘glow’ of light in a painting.

 

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Apple Blossoms – You can see the first layers of color through the transparent pigments.

In contrast, an OPAQUE watercolor pigment blocks the light and prevents luminosity. While thinning an opaque color can make it somewhat more transparent, it will then lose intensity (strength). In general, you cannot see the white of the paper through an opaque paint. The more opaque a color is, the more it blocks the white of the paper, particularly if it is layered.

STAINING VS. NON-STAINING TRANSPARENTS:

If you plan to glaze one color on top of another color to create optical color mixing, use transparent colors. If you want to create the effects of light and produce a ‘glow’, use a paled, transparent color.

Be aware that there are both STAINING and NON-STAINING transparent colors.

STAINING TRANSPARENT pigments, such as Indian yellow, Phthalo/Winsor Blue, Phthalo/Winsor Green, Prussian Blue/AntwerpBlue, Phthalo Violet, are bold and intense. They are NOT easily lifted. Because they are transparent, they will NOT produce mud IF mixed with other transparent  colors. Mixed full strength, they create rich darks.

NON-STAINING TRANSPARENT pigments, such as Permanent Rose, Aureolin Yellow, Viridian, or Cobalt Blue, on the other hand, are delicate and can be lifted easily. They are ideal for glazing, layering, or mixing a transparent gray from primary colors.

Still other pigments, like Lemon Yellow, Gamboge, Quinacridone Rose, Cobalt Violet, Sap Green, or Ultramarine Blue, are LOW-STAINING and transparent to semi-transparent. Intensity of these colors is average, and they can be partially lifted.

If you wish to lift one color of a mixture and reveal a second color underneath (e.g. by blotting out clouds or scraping paint back to create rock texture or a tree trunk), then combine a staining pigment with a non-staining pigment.

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Stormy Hills – Opaque pigments do not allow earlier color layers to show through.

OPAQUE colors tend to be less bright, although semi-opaque pigments, such as Cadmium Red, Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Yellow, or Cadmium Lemon, can be somewhat luminous when thinned or diluted. The opaque earth colors, like Indian Red, Light Red, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Umber, Sepia, Indigo, or Cerulean Blue, are often LOW-STAINING and UNSATURATED (not a vivid bright). Burnt Sienna and Raw Sienna, earth colors, are a bit unusual in that they can be transparent. Remember that adding an opaque color to a paint mixture or layering with an opaque pigment will make creating ‘muddy’ color more likely. Further, if you begin a painting with opaque color, you’ll probably lose the effect of light.

CREATE A COLOR CHART TO DETERMINE TRANSPARENCY:

Transparency and opaqueness of paint pigments can vary quite a bit by manufacturer. For example, Raw Sienna ranges from yellow to orange to brown depending on the company that formulates it. So, get to know the specific paints YOU have on your palette by creating a color chart. First, draw a line with a black permanent marker (or waterproof India ink). Allow to dry. Paint swatches of medium dark paint over the black line. Transparent colors won’t cover the black line. Opaque colors will. Staining colors will look dark.

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Two Color Chart examples.

IN SUMMARY:

Most organic or synthetic paints are transparent, while earth colors tend to be semi-opaque or opaque. The transparent pigments are the most versatile type of watercolor. They remain transparent when mixed with other transparent colors. Opaque colors, on the other hand, DO NOT mix well with other opaques. Try to combine opaque paints only with a transparent color or colors, if possible, to avoid mixing muddy colors. Or, best of all, use an opaque pigment by itself to show off its best attributes.

Get to know the paints on your palette. As Jean Dobie states in Making Color Sing, “To paint glowing, vibrant watercolors, you must become familiar with your pigments’ personalities.”

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Glaze To Mix Luminous Watercolors!

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Watercolor painters learn many different ways to combine and paint color to produce varied effects. While color can be mixed ON THE PALETTE, single colors can also be added to and partially blended ON THE PAPER (as in wet-in-wet, or charging). Adding single colors to paper tends to create lively and vibrant color mixes with lots of variety. (See my recent blog post titled “Charge Ahead and Mingle: Blending Colors on Watercolor Paper,” https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/06/04/charge-ahead-and-mingle-blending-color-on-watercolor-paper/, published June 4, 2019, to learn more about ways to mix color on the paper.)

Glazing is a somewhat more advanced variation of altering color ON THE PAPER. Colors are NOT mixed! A glaze is a transparent wash of color over another (thoroughly dried) layer of color. This stacking or glazing of pigment modifies the underlying color to create a full range of interesting values and colors. (A simple example would be a glaze of pink painted over a layer of yellow to create an orange or peach color.) Glazing can be done on large wash areas or on smaller parts of a painting. Often the light-value colors are applied first, but reversing the order of color application can affect the final appearance in interesting ways. Under most conditions, a painting also progresses from large general areas of light washes to small specific areas of darker washes. When you glaze over only part of your work, try to avoid hard edges left from the glaze by softening or fading out the edges with a clean, damp brush. (See my blog post titled “Softening an Edge or Fading Out”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/23/softening-an-edge-or-fading-out/, published October 23, 2018, for more information on softening an edge.)

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Ford and Footbridge (Glazed water).

Strive to use only fairly pale mixes of color in glazing. If a glaze color is too intense, the underlying layer will have difficulty showing through. By properly applying a glaze, in pale transparent layers, an artist can achieve a “glow” of light as the white of the paper and the colors of lower layers show through later layers of color. Stop adding layers when you have arrived at your desired visual color, because painting too many layers will eventually cut down the amount of light reflecting back from the paper and will deaden any glow. Be careful about using more than three or four glaze layers.

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The End of the Day (Glazed sky,  buildings, and snow).

What specific pigments work best for glazing? Most often, the best artists use the three primary colors and make sure their pigments are transparent. Specifically, you might use non-staining Aureolin or Hansa Yellow Light, Permanent Rose Quinacridone or Permanent Rose, and Cobalt Blue. If possible, avoid using transparent, staining pigments such as Indian Yellow or Gamboge Hue, Winsor Red or Permanent Alizarin Crimson, and Winsor Blue, which tend to dye the under layers and start to dull or destroy glow or translucence. If you must use staining colors, make sure they are quite diluted (unless, of course, your intention is to revive a dull dark).

Glazes are most effective when the colors used contrast with each other — e.g., warm over cool, blue over orange, etc. The farther away from each other the chosen colors are on the color wheel, the more dramatic their glazing impact on each other. A beautiful, luminous gray can be created by layering yellow, then red, then blue.

A soft brush (often a large flat) will give the best results as it disturbs previous layers of paint less. Layer each wash gently in a smooth, even application over a dried surface, and DO NOT scrub. (If the first layers of color are still wet, the colors can blend and not stay in the separate layers that you are aiming for — you will not be glazing.)

Remember that if the colors you use in glazing are transparent (NOT opaque), the colors beneath will continue to glow through glazes laid on top. Colors will appear to be mixed even though each is in a separate layer. These layers are more luminous than colors mixed on the palette because light passes through each separate layer and takes on each color’s characteristics. (NOT all watercolors are transparent! Cerulean Blue, Indian Red, Cadmium Red, Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Orange, Payne’s Gray, and Yellow Ochre are some of the opaque watercolors in common use.)

 

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Mating Season (Glazed background).

With glazing, you have to think ahead and in layers of color. As you draw your picture on watercolor paper, plan the white areas to be saved. Further, also determine where you DON”T want your first glaze to be painted. (Often the first glaze is yellow, which is relatively light and does not readily cover other pigments.) If you planned a cool section for your painting, you might not want to cover that area with your warm yellow glaze. (You needn’t apply glazes over your whole paper.) Once you have applied your yellow glaze, evaluate whether it is too light, too dark, or just right. Adjust color intensity NOW, before adding a second color, by lifting lightly with clear water to lighten or by darkening with a second yellow layer.

While waiting for the yellow glaze to dry, plan ahead and consider what areas you want to cover with the pink (red) glaze. Will you paint some of the white areas with pink as you work to a final lavender color? Will you leave a snowy area untouched by this pink glaze? Will you still preserve some white paper to ‘pop’ in the final image? Paint a layer of pink, saving all areas as planned.

While waiting for this layer to dry, plan for the next glaze. Decide which areas of the painting will be covered by the blue glaze. Glaze some of the white with a layer of blue —  for example, in a snowy area or a shadowed  space. Avoid painting the blue glaze in a sunlit spot, ending the blue glaze and then softening with clear water into a sunny field or sunlit side of a building.

Finish your painting when the blue glaze is dry (or drying) by adding mid-tones and darks. Strive to preserve a good deal of your glazed area, however, to maintain the luminous, clean color mixes created by glazing.

Paintings with problem areas can often be rescued by using glazes. You can adjust and improve a painting that may lack mood, unity, or focus. Painting a thin, pale wash can add mood to a foggy scene. A single layer of color over the whole painting (or some parts) can add unity by giving all the colors a similar flavor. Further, darkening a section of a painting with a glaze can urge the eye to focus on more important and lighter areas. In the painting below, all of the background was glazed with Ultramarine Blue to tone down and bring more unity to disparate colors as well as help the background fade away and frame the center of interest (i.e. the blossoms).

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Apple Blossoms (Glazed background and shadowed buds/blossoms).

Glazing can also help you avoid muddy, opaque, or dull shadows. Bring a dull dark back to life with a glaze! To create a luminous shadow, first paint the subject (through BOTH the light and shadow side of the object) with the same local color. (In the above apple blossom picture, the buds and blossoms were painted with varying amounts of pink.) Then, when the first layer has dried, glaze a shadow color over the portion of the image in shadow. The first (local) color will show through the transparent shadow glaze (mixed in this case from yellow, red, and blue to create a transparent gray).

Transparent glazes applied separately change the colors under them. Color is built up optically on the paper by layering instead of mixing color on the palette  prior to painting. Learn to overlap your glazes to produce satisfying colors. Develop your glazes from transparent watercolors, preferably non-staining. Begin with your lightest pigment, usually a yellow. Keep your washes diluted and pale. Remember to dry the previous layer before painting a new glaze. Always use the three primaries — don’t eliminate a layer! Instead, control the final appearance of color by strengthening one or two of the three primary colors. To create interesting, vibrant color, avoid making all three layers equal in intensity (which  instead would produce a dull neutral).

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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.

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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.

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

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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).

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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.

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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!

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Let It Snow!!!

Painting snow can be tricky.  Most people think snow is white, but if you look closely, snow is full of color.  Many factors can affect how snow appears, including time of day, temperature, atmosphere, the quality of light, and perspective.  Is the day sunny and bright or overcast?  Is the snow freshly fallen and fluffy or heavy, wet, and dirty?  Do snow shadows appear blue, gray, or purple?

Check out the following hints for painting snow from several experienced artists:

John Pike has painted many amazing watercolors of snow scenes during his lifetime.  He says that the “tendency in painting snow scenes is to make the shadows too blue.”  Pike creates snow that glows subtly with color by pre-wetting the entire white snow area.  While that area is still wet, he drops in small spots of the three primaries (red, yellow, and blue), then softly blends the whole together “to gain a subtle spectral quality” and ”to kill the deadness of pure white paper.”  He creates soft upper edges of snow shadows by “applying clear water in just that area” and painting shadow color “upward to the water.”

Frank LaLumia believes that snow is “like a laboratory for studying light.”  He says, “In my opinion, using only white paper to depict snow is inadequate.  Light is color.” (www.lalumia.com)

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Gordon MacKenzie has said that painting a winter scene offers many opportunities to play with color temperature and purity.  The snow is “a mirror for the subtle atmospheres that surround it, from the pure warm and cool colors of a bright sunny day to the dulled subtlety of a snowstorm.”  He describes two techniques to create the snow shadows that define the contours of the land they fall across.  The first method is a quickly laid-down wash wet-on-damp for the first layer and then wet-on-dry for the final layer.  MacKenzie suggests mixing a large enough batch of paint that you will have enough of the same color for both layers.  The second method of painting snow shadows involves painting the entire snow area with a non-staining blue-gray (cobalt blue or ultramarine blue plus burnt sienna).  Once the surface is dry, you can remove bright sun spots by scrubbing them off with lots of water and blotting away the paint.  (www.gordonmackenziewatercolours.com)

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Robert O’Brien uses both warm and cool colors when painting snow.  He will wash in a very pale cadmium yellow light where sunlight highlights fall, but for other sunlit areas, he tones down the white of the paper with a very light wash of brilliant orange mixed with quinacridone rose.  For a cooler, more-shaded area, O’Brien uses a light wash of French ultramarine.  He notes that the color of snow shadows will vary based on sky conditions.  On a clear, sunny day, O’Brien likes to use French ultramarine mixed with a small amount of cobalt for snow shadows, sometimes mixed with brilliant orange to tone down the color a bit.  An overcast sky tends to bring about grayer snow and shadows.  Mixing quinacridone violet and new gamboge with blue creates his desired gray.  O’Brien’s snow shadows can have soft or hard edges, or both.  To paint softer shadows, he may rewet an area of snow, let the water soak in, and paint a shadow when the paper is damp but not shiny.  For harder snow shadows, he may wait longer or let the paper dry completely before he tackles a snow shadow.  He also softens hard edges in appropriate place.  (www.robertobrien.com)

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Cecy Turner imagines “key words” that will describe her snow scenes and then tries to use painting techniques to illustrate those ideas.  She likes to use glazing – layers of transparent colors (letting each layer dry before adding another layer) – to “create more interesting colors and nuances.”  The blues that Turner prefers are French ultramarine, cobalt, Antwerp, and cerulean.  She uses a No. 8 Cheap Joe’s Fritch scrubber to soften edges on snow shadows, particularly as the shadows progress farther away from the objects casting the shadows.  (www.cecyturner.com)

Jack Reid uses transparent watercolors to make snow translucent and capture its subtle variations.  He likes to mix a soft gray with cobalt and burnt sienna.  If he wants a pure, luminous, warm gray, he adds more burnt sienna.  He varies this color by adding more cobalt for a cooler gray.  Reid’s palette is permanent alizarin crimson, aureolin yellow, cobalt blue, viridian green, raw sienna, burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, and the staining Antwerp blue and quinacridone yellow.  He prefers to use Winsor-Newton paints except for Holbein viridian.  For painting the illusion of falling snow and the suggestion of trees disappearing in drifting snow, Reid lifts color from the bases of trees with a tissue while the paint is still wet.  He also uses a lot of graded washes on damp paper to create roundness on a mound of snow.  Color lightens and softens (in the graded wash) as it progresses from deep snow shadow up into the light.

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Debi Watson spatters masking fluid to create the effect of falling snow.  She paints her light values wet on wet, explaining that “most great snow paintings have hints of color in their whites.”  These initial washes are painted with soft, transparent red, yellow, and blue.  Watson moves on to dark areas, then to medium values once the lights and darks have been established.  She states that snow shadows can be kept soft by working on damp paper.  (www.debiwatson.com)

Cathy Johnson paints snow full of color.  If it’s tightly packed in a drift, she says it “may look almost blue; if it’s fluffy and freshly fallen, it can appear blue-gray or lavender.  Old snow on city streets is gray with soot; while in the country, snowy roads may become streaked with brown.  You can achieve either of these street effects by painting wet-into-wet with gray or brown, as appropriate, then adding spatter to suggest splashes.  When the sun is shining on snow, you may see the glitter of light on a billion tiny reflective surfaces.  To recreate this look, try combining all three primaries – red, yellow, and blue – in your underwash.  Wet the paper first with clean water, then drop in pure colors such as cadmium yellow pale, [permanent] alizarin crimson and phthalo blue.  Let the colors mix a bit on the paper – I stir them with the tip of my brush, or by tilting the paper.  These colors shouldn’t be too saturated or they’ll look garish – the goal is to create a light-filled look.  While the initial layer is still wet, add some shadow colors.”  Johnson reserves warmer blues (for example, ultramarine, cobalt, and so on) to suggest the shadow shapes on snow.  “Once the first washes have dried, glaze over them with your blue or lavender snow color” to shape and form the snow.  “To further enhance the prismatic effect of snow, you can also spatter on a bit of each of the three primary colors . . . make sure that your primary spatters aren’t too juicy.  This ensures that the paint spatters remain tiny,” whether into a wet wash or onto dry paper.  (www.cathyjohnson.info)

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In his article “A Wintry Mood” (Watercolor Artist, February 2018, p. 82), Geoff Kersey has pointed out that “Just because it’s a snow scene doesn’t mean it has to feel bleak and make the  viewer shiver.” When painting snow, Kersey tries to include bright light and warm color.  He has developed several palettes in various color schemes to alter the feel of an image and suggest different moods.  His COLD PALETTE creates wintry grays and darks.  He mixes a cool gray with phthalo blue and just a touch of burnt umber, a dark brown with ultramarine blue and burnt umber, and a dark green from phthalo blue and burnt umber.  The LIMITED PALETTE includes cobalt blue, neutral tint, burnt sienna, and raw sienna to produce a simple, harmonious feeling.  A WARM PALETTE employs the warm glow of raw sienna and cadmium red, grays mixed from cobalt blue and vermillion, and dark greens made with ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, and viridian.  Kersey echoes the sky colors throughout his thin snowscapes to contrast with the rich winter darks he finds in trees and hedgerows.  He also uses the hard and soft shapes in a landscape to create contrast in his many snowy landscape watercolors.  (www.geoffkersey.co.uk)

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Don’t be afraid to use color in a winter snow scene, both warm colors and cool colors.  The light and sky conditions will determine the colors with which you choose to paint.  In snowy conditions skies often require deeper tones than usual in order to make the snow appear lighter by contrast.  On clear, sunny days, snow shadows are bluer to echo the blue sky.  Grayer snow and snow shadows reflect an overcast sky.  As you evaluate your snow scene, look for opportunities to add color and exaggerate color if doing so will improve your painting.  Use snow shadows on the ground to describe the shape of the land under the snow.  Rough ground may need shadow shapes that are bumpy and uneven.  Rocks, twigs, and tufts of grass may stick up through the snow.  Reflected light can be everywhere, sometimes creating glitter and sparkles.  Often snow shadows repeat the sky color, just as a reflection in a body of water can reflect sky colors and the surrounding landscape.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Campbell Smith, Ray.  Developing Style in Watercolour (1992).

Kersey, Geoff.  “A Wintry Mood.”  Watercolor Artist (February 2018).

Kersey, Geoff.  Geoff’s Top Tips for Watercolour Artists (2010).

Kersey, Geoff.  Painting Successful Watercolours from Photographs (2015).

Hendershot, Ray.  Texture Techniques for Winnign Watercolors (1999).

MacKenzie, Gordon.  The Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook: Keep Painting! (2017).

MacKenzie, Gordon.  The Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook: Landscapes (2006).

Metzger, Phil.  Watercolor Basics: Perspective Secrets (1999).

O’Brien, Robert J.  “Winter Whiteout.”  Watercolor Artist (February 2015).

Pike, John.  John Pike Paints Watercolors (1978).

Pike, John.  John Pike Watercolor (1973).

Ranson, Ron.  Watercolor Painting from Photographs (1998).

Reid, Jack.  Watercolor Basics: Let’s Get Started (1998).

Reid, Jack.  Watercolor Basics: Painting Snow and Water (2000).

Reid, Jack.  “The Snow Scene.”  Watercolor Magic (Winter 2002).

Ryder, Brian.  Painting Watercolor Landscapes with Confidence (2005).

Strickley, Sarah A.  “A Revolution of Snow.”  Watercolor Artist (February 2010) .

Szabo, Zoltan.  Zoltan Szabo, Artist at Work (1979).

Szabo, Zoltan.  Zoltan Szabo’s 70 Favorite Watercolor Techniques (1995).

Watson, Debi.  “It’s Snow Time.”  Watercolor Artist (December 2010).

Dusk, Evening, and Moonlight… Oh, My!

Paintings set at nighttime might seem very different from the usual watercolor scenes.  Dusk, evening, or even dawn pictures have a predominance of dark values.  The mood of a nighttime or twilight picture can often be somber, gloomy, quiet, or perhaps even threatening.  There may be fewer details seen than in a well-lit picture.  However, a nighttime painting can also be effective, appealing, and  powerful.  How would you paint a dark evening image?

The amount and quality of light available determines what we visually perceive in any situation.  Under clear, bright conditions, colors are pure, and edges and some details are sharp.  Values are extreme.  Lots of color is visible in shadowed areas.  A painting with lots of light values is called a HIGH KEY picture.  As the light becomes less strong (for example, on a foggy day, during a blizzard, at dusk), the level of detail, the sharpness, and the value contrast are reduced.  Colors become duller and more subtle, creating a LOW KEY picture.  Nevertheless, even in the dark, you want to see some details.  A nighttime painting will have a source of light or two or three, and before you begin to paint, you must decide on those light sources in your picture, as well as on the strength and direction of the light and on what it will illuminate.  Your picture needs some contrast in value (light and dark), especially near the point of interest, to be effective.

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To produce a painting full of drama and power, you need to create dominance, whether in value, color, or shape.  All you need to do to create VALUE DOMINANCE is to present the light, middle, and dark values in unequal amounts.  A nighttime painting will be a low key picture, which will have dark value dominance.  It will have more dark values than either light or middle tones.  However, your dark picture still will need the contrast of some light and middle tones if it is to pop.  The function of the dark colors is to complement the light tones and help your picture emit a glow.  If you actually use complementary colors for your dark and light colors, you will immediately create a reaction that transforms the light tones into radiant light.  Any warm and cool colors will create color contrast while vibrating against each other.

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Farmhouse At Dusk, partially finished, illustrating the glow of complements orange and blue.

Darks can be luminous and colorful IF you mix them yourself from pure, translucent pigments.  Using transparent colors allows light to reflect off the paper and up through the color to create a luminous effect.  Opaque colors (such as ivory black Payne’s gray, Davy’s gray, indigo, sepia, neutral tint) do not allow any light to reflect back to the viewer and therefore appear flat and dull.  Instead of using opaque colors, mix your own colorful darks from some of these transparent pigments: permanent alizarin crimson, Winsor (phthalo) blue, Winsor (phthalo) green, and perhaps ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, quinacridone gold, or quinacridone violet.  Always design your darks to heighten your light pattern without overpowering it.  Also, try to include nuances and variations in your darks.  Do not use a dark mixture indiscriminately: large areas of unrelieved darks are not interesting.  Ideally, you will build up your dark areas so that subtle shapes in each layer are there for the viewer to find.  If you mix together all the colors that you plan to use for dark areas and apply this mixture in a single dark layer, the result will lack the transparency and interest of a dark created by GLAZING with separate layers of the same medium dark colors.

Transparency can also be enhanced if you strive for variations by NOT applying all the darks as one value. To add variety and vary the tones or values of your dark colors, paint some areas as ‘half-dark’.  By painting part of the dark area a bit lighter, you create variation and an illusion of depth into what otherwise might be dull and monotonous (that is, of all one tone).  Try to apply your layers of darks one at a time, each in one go, in one layer and as richly as possible.  By mixing your darks with lots of pigment to create a rich color the first time, you can avoid having to add a similar layer (of the same color) over the same area; such an added layer can deaden the dark area and create a pasted-on appearance with hard edges.

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Your pattern of dark shapes should ideally interlock or relate to your medium and lighter shapes.  Hopefully, the forms transition into and set each other off rather than float in space separately.  Neither light nor dark is as striking without the close proximity of other.

In summary:  Begin your nighttime paintings by establishing the light sources in your picture, perhaps using masking fluid to save some.  You may create other light areas during the painting process or by scrubbing and lifting later.  Do NOT lose your light values!  Glazing later can also subdue certain areas while allowing other areas to be left brighter.  Choose muted or subdued, NOT bright, colors for your twilight or evening image.

To actually mix a darker and more intense color, use less water.  Don’t repeatedly dip your brush in water when you try to pick up pigment with that brush.  Instead, go from color to color without cleaning (rinsing) your brush in between.  The only way to create the rich, dark colors is with less water!

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Cityscape In Winter, partially finished, illustrating reflected light and bright halo around lights.

In a low key, dark painting, begin applying paint in a medium or mid-tone dark.  Try to leave a lot of light around light source and subdue the rest of your painting.  (You can use a warm yellow-white for incandescent lights.)  If you want to create a halo of glowing light, start with a circle of clear water over the light, then float a dark wash all around the clear water areas, just touching it.  This dark color will tend to diffuse.  If the dark strays too close to your light source, absorb a little fo the dark color with a clean, damp (not wet) brush used like a sponge.  After this area dries, you can apply a soft wash of warm yellow over the clear halo, leaving the brightest light as the white of the paper.

Don’t forget that light illuminates but also reflects off a subject.  A streetlight may reflect light off buildings, and a brightly lit window may reflect onto the ground outside.  However, these light areas need to be surrounded by darks.  The farther away from the light sources, the darker your colors.  Details almost disappear in the darkness as it increases.

After mid-tones or middle-dark tones dry, you can begin to layer in your next, darker tones.  As you build up to your darkest colors, you create depth, interest, and subdued variation.

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Snowy City at Night complete.