How to mix colours

How colourful.

A5 watercolour: Contrast of colour and tones. Notice how colourful the dark tones are.

Why discuss how to mix colours?

It is very important. The quality of your watercolour paintings depends on how you mix your colours.

 And it may surprise you,

but most people don’t know how to mix their colours!

I can hear you say to yourself, “Surely they learnt the basics while at school. That:

  • Yellow and blue makes green,
  • Yellow and red makes orange,
  • Red and blue makes violet!”

No, they don’t even know that when then come to art classes and have to make a colour wheel!   Besides that they often ask “How do you make brown and black?

  • Brown mixture: An equal mixture of the primary colours (yellow, red and blue) make brown.
  • Black mixture: Theoretically an equal mixture of the secondary colours (orange, green and violet) make black. Note there is less yellow in this mixture. Strong intense pigments make the darkest freshest blacks, eg: translucent reds and Winsor thalo blue and green. 
Note: how colourful blacks are. More beautiful than pure black out of a tube (see illustrated watercolour painting above)

 Neither have they ever noticed the difference between cool colours and warm colours.

  • That blues and greens are cooler than reds and yellows.
  • That one red is cooler than another red, eg: alizarin red is cooler (slightly bluer) in hue than Cadmium red.
  • That there is a difference in blues too, eg: Winsor (thalo) blue is cooler than French ultramarine blue.
How to see the difference.

The difference between cool and warm pigments of the same primary or secondary colour.

First secret:  Making beautiful natural greens

Often you see people using their watercolours like they were colouring in with crayons. That is: using their colours straight from their paint box pans.

For example Winsor thalo intense green:

It looks very garish mixed only with water, especially over large areas. Greens look better when mixed with more neutral colours, for example:

  • Violet and green (makes teal green)
  • Orange and green (makes olive green)
  • Burnt sienna and sap green.
  • Raw sienna and Hooker’s green.
  • Burnt umber and thalo green or viridian green.

Note: And some artists don’t believe in mixing browns with green. But I do whatever it takes to get the effect I require as long as the quality of the painting isn’t compromised.

How to make green.

Example of green mixtures.

For more interesting greens:

  • A yellow with cerulean blue or indigo blue.
  • Indigo blue with viridian or sap green.
  • Blue-violet and chrome oxide green.
  • Sap green and French ultramarine.

Note: These last colour combinations, have the best results when the additional colours are lightly brushed in. That is: not pre-mixed in your palette plate.

 Second secret:  Keeping your colours clean and fresh.

On the other hand you get people trying mixing their colours on their painting, because they were not happy with the colour they have already there. Once started, they keep adding more colours, in the hope they can fix the problem. This is a recipe for disaster. The more colours added, turns your painting into murky `mud’. Why, because now all three primaries are involved in some form or other.

How do you prevent this?

  • First: Don’t mix your colours in the paint box pans. It’s wiser to pre-mix your colours in your palette plate reservoir wells, where you can judge intensity strength and hue against the whiteness of the palette.
  • It is wise to reduce the amount of pigments involved in your mixtures. Where possible keep it to two pigments only. Or involve only analogous colours (those sitting on one side of your colour wheel)
  • If you want to add another colour to a former wet wash, don’t fuss and stir in other colours. Rather drop-in (tip-in) another colour and watch while it spreads naturally.
  • To prevent soiling of colours, keep light colours away from dark colours in your paint box.
  • And to keep washes fresh, rinse you brush well before choosing another colour in your paint box.
  • It is easier to get your paint out of the pans quickly and cleanly, if you finely spray your paint box pans with water before you start to paint.

Third secret:  Colours affect people emotionally:

  • Paintings that consist mostly of cool colours (like blue & green) makes people feel cold. Cool coloured paintings have no impact emotionally.
  • To make your watercolour paintings exciting and more sell-able, play warm colours against cool colours. The pest results are when there are more warm colours than cool colours.
  • If all your colours are bright in your painting, they compete with one another, like they are all shouting at once. Tip: the contrast of neutrals to natural grays enhances your bright colours.

Fourth secret:  Natural greys:

Natural greys made of complementary coloured mixtures (colours opposite on the colour wheel). Natural greys are far more beautiful than pure blacks and grey pigments straight from the paint box or tubes. Black added to your mixtures will make your watercolours look dull and dead because black is non-reflective colour.

Typical natural grey mixtures:

  • Mixtures of green and red or magenta.
  • Mixtures of blue and burnt umber.

 Note: Watercolour mixtures differ from oil paints. You won’t get the same mixture blending results as you get in oil paints. Watercolour washes are more mottled and interesting.

It’s over to you what you make of this information:

Have fun experimenting with these colour combinations. You don’t know what effects they can really make until you mix your own stock of pigments.

  • For example, make swatches like my ‘green mixture’ illustration and label them to remember what pigments you used, for future use.
  • Your results will depend on how much water was involved in tinting the intensity of the colours.
  • Also you won’t get such beautiful washes of colour and special effects, if you aren’t using Artist’s Quality watercolour pigments. Cheap watercolour pigments haven’t the same constitution eminence.
  • The tine of colour and shade of black or grey depends on which primary pigment is more dominant.

Unlocking Colour Wheel Secrets

We have already confirmed how important it is to know the constitution of pigments and how the knowledge improves your watercolour skills. Now let us take it one step further:

Colour wheel secrets

A5 watercolour: Basically a yellow, green and blue analogous colour scheme, with burnt umber accents.

Unlocking colour wheel secrets:

If you use a specific combination of pigments you’ll get a particular range of hues, shades and special effects according to their constitution.

  • A combination of transparent cool intense pigments will give you beautiful fresh translucent washes of colour. Example: Rembrandt gamboge yellow and Perm Madder Lake, Winsor green and blue.
  • A combination of opaque pigments will make your painting look milky and smoky. Example: Naples yellow, cadmium red and manganese blue.
  • A combination of segmented pigments will give you dusty and grainy effects. Example: Winsor lemon yellow, Venetian or Indian red and cerulean blue.
  • A selection of earthy pigments will give you a muted range of colours. They are lovely to use when you want to tone down a colour that’s too bright perspectively. Example: Raw sienna, Light Red, burnt umber chrome oxide green and Indigo blue.
  • Subdued primaries: Raw sienna, brown madder alizarin and French ultramarine blue.
  • Delicate primaries: Aureolin yellow, rose madder Alizarin and cobalt blue.
  • Subtle energy colours: cadmium orange, cadmium red, manganese blue and Winsor yellow.

Exercise experience: If you make a simple colour wheel from each group, you will see what range of hues each of these combinations make.

Note: The example of pigments above, are only suggestions. If you had done the scrub and opaque test in the last blog chapter, you will have had some idea of which of your own pigments are transparent, opaque, segmented, etc.

How to make a basic colour wheel:

  1. It is made up of the three primary colours: yellow, red and blue, equally spaced apart.
  2. The secondary colours: orange, violet and green, are placed in between the primaries: Yellow and red make orange, yellow and blue make green, and red and blue make violet.
  3. The intermediate colours: are placed between a primary and a secondary. Example: yellow and green makes lime-green.
Colour wheel template

Cardboard colour wheel template.

It’s easy to make a colour wheel if you have a stencil template:

I made my colour wheel from a stiff piece of cardboard.

  1. I used small shirt buttons to get the size of the holes and then cut out the holes with a sharp blade.
  2. Notice the order of holes: The top hole should line up with the bottom hole (four holes in a row).
  3. I labelled the top hole yellow, like the sun high in the sky.
  4. The bottom hole will be the violet hole.
  5. Label the three primary colour holes, so you know where to begin filling in the colours. With red on the left and blue on the right.
  6. The six centre holes are filled in last (after you have filled in the primary, secondary and intermediate colours). They are for grey mixtures, made by mixing the complementary (opposite) colours together.
  7. When mixing the colours, don’t use colours straight out of tubes. Mix with a little water to an even consistency. Note some pigments are weaker intensity.
  8. To get the right hue balance, mix colours 50:50 in ratio, eg: 50% yellow to that of 50% blue to make true green.
  9. My colour wheels (see illustration) were based on Winsor and Newton’s quality control grading. AA been absolute permanent colours. S1 referring to cheapest range.
  10. Because my illustration is only a photo copy, you can’t actually see the texture quality of the pigments. That you will need to discovery for yourself, by experimenting with your own pigments.
Colour wheels

Simple colour wheel examples

Concluding remarks:

All these colour wheel exercises may seem a waste of time, but let me tell you, I thought so too years ago until I did it. Then, WOW!! I WISHED I HAD DONE IT SOONER.

I love colour. Especially the rainbow effects of colour wheels. Some pigment combinations give your painting a mellow old world appearance and some combinations give you such beautiful mottle effects. You feel you can create any mood you wish with this all-embracing knowledge!

I have a general basic palette that I use, but when doing a commission, I select and make up a personal colour wheel for each of my clients, to make sure I get the right range of hues and shades to suit their desired décor colour scheme and mood to suit their particular vision, portrait skin tones, etc.

Have fun experimenting with your colour wheels.

Pigment Consitution Secret Revelled

Constitution secrets

A5: Watercolour of autumn trees. Used drop-in method of adding colours.

Still having troubles with watercolours?

There is one more important secret fact:  pigment constitution:

Watercolour paintings can be corrected and manipulated if you know the quality and constitution of your pigments.

How do you find out the constitution of watercolour pigments?”

There are two basic experiments you can do that will give you the secret to manipulating watercolour paintings:

Experiment number one:

Constitution secret

Scrub test

         Making colour swatches:

Gather your tubes of watercolour paints together. Then basically line them up according to their primary colours. That is, all the yellows together, all the reds together and all the blues together, from lightest to darkest, etc, so you can judge one colour against another. Make sure you are doing this experiment under good daylight conditions. Then:

  • Paint 6-8cm horizontal swatches of each of your pigments, one below the other down an A4 page of 200+gsm watercolour paper. Leave a small gap between each swatch, so that the colours don’t merge.
  • Don’t paint too many swatches at a time. You need to control the drying time situation. That is, if they are too dry it is hard to judge their adherence qualities.
  • While the swatches of paint are partly dry, still a little damp, scrub with a (fresh clean) wet hog hair brush, down the centre of the swatches. Don’t scrub too hard and destroy the surface of the paper.
  • Then next to each swatch of colour, label the pigments with their names and the results, ie your impression of what happened. I symbolized my results by putting dark round spots next to pigments that stained somewhat. Empty squares suggested pigments that were easier to remove. See illustration.
  • Results depend on the quality and character of the pigments.

Generally speaking:

  • The strong strainer pigments won’t budge. You can paint freely over them when they are dry. They are usually translucent dyes.
  • The grainy or segmented pigments are easily dissolved and the gains dislodged, even when dry. So paint carefully over washes that contain segmented pigments. They are generally earthy pigments.
  • Also note that some pigments are grainier than other manufacture’s products, or have more gum in their constitutions.

Experiment number two:

Constitution secret

Opaque test

          The opaque test:

Some pigments are opaque and some transparent.

  • Transparent pigments make lovely fresh translucent washes of colour. This allows the white of the paper to radiate up through the wash.
  • Opaque paints aren’t translucent. They are called ‘body colours’. Why, because they are so dense, they are sometimes used to cover and hide previous washes. Correcting mistakes by covering them with `body colours’ isn’t advisable.
  • Watercolour societies don’t like accepting paintings for competitions that have opaque colours added. Why, because opaque pigments make paintings look milky and dull. It is obvious when opaque paint is added, they compete with the sheen of the more transparent washes, thus making the painting look spotty and overworked.

How to determine the opaque status of each of your pigments:

  • Take an A4, 200+gsm sheet of watercolour paper and with black Indian ink paint two 8-10mm columns.
  • When the Indian ink is dry, paint small swatch strips across the ink columns, one pigment at a time, slightly apart, and careful watch what happens.
  • Notice how the opaque paint when it starts to dry, particles in the paint float and cover the ink.
  • Whereas the transparent pigments part and allow the ink to shine through.
  • As in the previous experiment, label each swatch with the name of the pigment used and the manufactures quality control status. And added to that, in your opinion, each pigments opaque or transparent status. I used symbolic terms, eg: 000 (very opaque), S0 (slightly opaque), T (transparent), ST (slightly transparent).
  • If you check with my illustration, you will see I also added symbols to state how some pigments go hard in their tubes or if the pigment intensity is so week that you have to scrub long and hard to get enough colour out of a pan.

These two tests are not a waste of time or effect:

What they revel is an eye opener, a great learning curve. The knowledge you gain from this experience will take you to a much higher level of expertise. A secret to success you’ll find so exciting. Just to think of the possibilities and what you can do with this knowledge!! Take for instance the following things you can do with this knowledge:

Corrections:

Knowing which pigments are easy to dissolve and which are stainers, makes it easier to make corrections.

  • Segmented pigments: If you make a mistake all you have to do is wet the area and blot* And repeat if necessary to get the desired effect.
  • Strong stainers: But if the paint is a stainer, you may have to wet the area, wait a little before gently scrubbing and blotting it. If it’s really stubborn, don’t rub hard, or you’ll damage the paper.
  • When paper is damaged the paint is more easily absorbed there, and you land up with dark marks that you can’t remove.
  • To prevent dark marks: Smooth the damaged paper with the back of a spoon. Wait for the paper to dry properly before painting over the damaged area again.
  • Never paint over the area if the paper is too damaged.
  • Never use complementary colours when painting over previous washes. If you do, you’ll get grey dull results.

 *There are several ways of blotting:

  • I blot with toilet paper when controlling a small spot, but you can blot with a clean dry paper-towel.
  • I also use a dryish brush to pick up the wet paint. I either then squeeze the paint out of the brush with my fingers or pass the brush over an old towel lying across my knees, using whichever situation warrants it. I repeat the process until I get just the right effect.
  • You can flick your brush, but having to do demonstrations at galleries for years, I resorted to using my fingers and towel. You can’t flick paint on people watching you or spoil a good carpet.
  • Be aware that toilet paper becomes soggy with big pools of water and adheres to your painting. In that case it is best to use a clean lint-free dry cloth for bigger situations.

 Clouds and sky:

Some artists like to paint their skies blue and then blot-in their white clouds, or soften and blot the paint along the bottom edges to soften the underbelly of the clouds.

  • Painting the sky with segmented pigments makes it easier to blot the sky area.
  • Segmented colours create a gentle mottled effect, the interplay of warm and colour blues gives you skies atmospheric depth.
  • On the other hand if you fiddle too much with segmented colours, your painting will look tired and overworked.
  • Transparent pigments make clear fresh skies. Segmented washes create moody skies.

 Working with segmented pigments:

Basically two ways of applying segmented pigments:

 Pre-mixed washes:

Using segmented pigments in your palette mixtures, makes lovely grainy hazy atmospheric conditions, eg:

  • Skies: Mixtures of French ultramarine blue and Light Red.
  • Mist: Mixtures of French ultramarine blue and burnt sienna or burnt umber.
  • Dust storm: mixtures of raw sienna, burnt sienna and a touch of French ultramarine blue.
  • Grainy shadows: Mixtures of Winsor violet and burnt sienna or burnt umber. The tint of colour depends on the ratio of pigments involved. That is how warm or cool you want the colour of the sand, walls, rocks, etc.

Dropping-in method:

Constitution secret

Dropping-in effects. Note how earthy pigments tone done some of the colours.

When dropping-in segmented pigments into fresh transparent washes, watch carefully how they interact and mingle with their host wash.

  • Cool effect on warm painted areas: Drop-in cerulean blue into a still semi-wet warm coloured previous wash and see how refreshing the effect looks.
  • Toning down an over-bright spot: When you have a bright red roof of a house in the distance, you don’t want it to standout of place perspectively. What you do to tone it down, is to drop-in an earthy brown pigment, like burnt sienna or burnt umber in the previous damp red paint of the roof.
  • Shadows: A shadow isn’t black. Shadows are colourful. Shadows are a darker colour and possibly a complementary hint, of the surrounding sunny breached areas. For example: If you want a cool shadow on a hot day you will drop-in a blue tinge into the shadow areas. And if it’s a cool day, drop-in a warm colour, eg magenta, in the shadow areas.

`Cabbage’ effects:

Constitution secret

`Cabbage’ effects.

The ‘cabbage’ effect was applicably named and coned years ago by artists. It occurs when you drop-in a colour into a previous damp wash, and your brush has too much liquid on it. The excess water and paint spreads quickly out of control and floods your painting, causing ugly lacy patches in your painting. This occurs when you are impatient or not concentrating on what you are actually doing.

Sometimes you can use the cabbage effect purposely to your advantage:

If you watch carefully what happens after dropping-in a fresh colour, you will see how the different washes meet and re-act with each other.

Depending on what each wash consists of, the second wash will push the first damp wash ahead of it, creating a ridge darker than the first wash. This can make lovely silver-lining cloud effects if your imprimatura wash is still damp!

And depending on how wet, some of the grains of paint rebound back creating a cabbage leaf effect. See illustration. And if the previous wash included a segmented earth pigment the cabbage effect will be crusty.

You can use the cabbage technique for:

  • Painting fruit or delicate edged flower petals, like the artist Paul Riley does.
  • I once saw a watercolour painting of actual cabbages in rows, in a vegetable garden scene, using the cabbage technique!
  • Sometimes I use the cabbage effect to portray leaves and buds between flowers, eg: a painting of flowers in a vase.
  • If your brush isn’t too wet you can make lovely starry-edged effects. For example: stars in a dark night sky. Just blot the wet tiny spots to ensure `whiter’ shiner stars.
  • Some artists actually wet and blot semi-wet areas to create special effects. One artist who did this was John Blockley. He actually poured tap water over his paintings, and where the paint hadn’t yet dried it was washed away, leaving the dried paint areas exposed.

The secret is that you have the power to do as you please with this knowledge. Experiment for yourself, to find your power over watercolours. If you want some exercise to experiment with try those in the free download “Watercolour Doodle” book on page ‘Free art books

Like to hear from you, as to what you have gained from the “Watercolour Secrets” catalog series.

Handling Watercolour Fluidity with Ease

A5 watercolour

This watercolour has several fluid techniques involved.

Fallacies and reality:

A lot of people think watercolours are unpredictable. Why do people have this negative attitude towards watercolours?

  • People generally think artists are so talented that they just have to splash paint on effortlessly and masterpieces materialize. So they try splashing paint on and land up working willy-nilly in the hope a miracle will occur. The fact is successful artists plan procedures before starting to paint.
  • Also people think watercolour paintings are created in just a few minutes. Not so, it takes more than a few minutes to paint a watercolour. Anything from an hour to three hours, depending on the size of the painting, considering drying time procedures and what effects you wish to create. Knowing at what stage you can take a break, when to leave off and continue the next day or even a year later!
  • Also, most people have problems because they impatiently apply another coat of paint before previous coats of paint has dried. So it isn’t surprising that the paint runs amok.
The fact is: liquids naturally flow where it’s wet. Example liquid paint flows freely in water or in wet paint.  ….All it takes to control the situation: is to observe the state of the paper and how wet, semi-wet or dry the previous wash of colour is, before adding more paint. That means, judging and timing the right moment.

It’s all a matter of cause and effect:

  • Where the paper is wet and shiny, the paint will run and blur there.
  • When the paper is dull and dry, the paint won’t run where it’s dry.
  • When there is too much water, the paper becomes soggy. Thin, over wet paper puckers (cockles) easily and pools of water form in the valleys. A recipe for disaster! Mop it up quickly.
  • If there is too much liquid on your brush and the previous wash hasn’t dried yet, you will get ugly watery ‘cabbage’ effects. Mop it up quickly, or if you want the lacy look, leave it to do its thing.

Mingling of colours:

Beginners are shocked when their brush touches a previous patch of wet paint and the colour from the brush is quickly zapped and mingles with the previous wash. Gosh, that wasn’t what they expected. What now, what should they do!!

Mingling of colours isn’t necessary a bad thing. Sometimes lovely unexpected ambiance effects are created this way. In fact artists often use this as a technique, to make special atmospheric effects! The result will depend on how much liquid is involved and what the constitutions of the pigments are.

Time artists spend on planning:

You have to ask yourself a few questions when planning your painting:

  • What do I want to achieve? What effects do I want?
  • What type of undercoats? Do I use an overall imprimatura wash or start within designated areas?
  • Since watercolours generally start out with light washes of colour, what under-colour do I need? How will the topcoats relate to this undercoat?
  • Consider the composition format. What is important? What can I leave out? How much detail do I need?
  • What should stay blurred?
  • What type of contour edges and textures do I want?

If your watercolour is a soggy mess:

  • It’s because you used too much water.
  • And kept adding and stirring in more paint.
  • And possibly three equal amounts of the primary colours (yellow, red and blue) were added to the ‘melting pot’.

Taking advantage of ‘tip and runs’:

If your brush has tipped another wet area where the paint is still wet, naturally it will run and spread out into the nearest wet area. To some people this may cause them drama. But artists use this as a trick to create distant trees along a mountain range’s contour edge.

Remember: the amount of water controls the consequences.

Spreading test:

Some watercolour pigments run faster than others in wet areas. To test the pigments you have:

  • Dab fresh clean water on your paper (like in the illustration below).
  • Then tip one side of the dab of water with paint and watch what happens. How quick or slow each pigment takes.
  • To make the test plausible: Make sure there is enough water in each dab, so that the paint can run easier.
  • Watercolours don’t run as quickly or spread so easily in damp or on semi-dry paper.

Note: If you tilt the paper, the paint will run and spread even farther into the wet area. Thus ensures you have some control where you want the colour to be.

Spreading of watercolour

Spreading test.

So you see dramas can be turned to your advantage! Artists learn to go with the flow of what’s happening as their painting evolves, if you don’t mind the pun!

If you want to learn more about watercolour secrets, start at the beginning of the ‘watercolour secrets’ category – listing in the left bar column.