Watercolor Mixing Secrets

Watercolor Mixing Secrets

watercolor painting of chickens by John Hulsey
Afternoon Glow (detail)                         Watercolor                        J. Hulsey

   Learning to mix colors is one of the most important and least understood skills a painter must undertake, regardless of medium. However, watercolor painters have a special need to get this skill understood early on precisely because our art relies on clean, not muddy, passages of transparent color, and we cannot make corrections by overpainting.
We must get our color mixes right from the first stroke to the last. In our classes and workshops, color mixing demonstrations are the most popular and always in demand.  

Photo of John Hulsey's watercolor palette
My Watercolor Split Primary Palette

   The only true way to learn about mixing colors is to experiment and see for yourself which combinations make which colors. Reading about it or hearing someone tell you about it won’t work! But with some guidance, this can be a fun learning experience. It will help if you create your color tests in a methodical manner which relates directly to the colors on your palette. My palette is a modified "split primary" arrangement—that is, I have a warm and a cool version of each primary color, red, yellow and blue, plus some earth colors and other special colors which I can’t mix from anything else. I keep more colors in my palette than I might use in any one painting, but overall my palette remains the same year in and out. My basic colors are: primary red and alizarin crimson, cadmium yellow medium and cadmium lemon, ultramarine blue and cobalt blue arranged in my palette like a color wheel. Other colors I like to have: quinacridone rose deep (cool, for clean violets), yellow ochre (cool), indian yellow (magic), cerulean blue (skies) and prussian blue, dioxazine violet and sap green (time savers), burnt umber and burnt sienna (warm earths), horizon blue and lavender (can't mix these).

   To illustrate the application of the techniques and principles in this article, I created a watercolor painting on Arches 140 lb. cold press and also duplicated it on Yupo polyester.

watercolor color string mix in my palette, © J. Hulsey
My First Color String for the Painting

drawing of chickens © J. Hulsey    watercolor painting of chickens by John Hulsey
Arches 140 lb. with Drawing                                 My First Wash from Color String

The Color String

  A good approach for your color explorations is to start with the primaries and cross-mix warm and cool versions of each one with the others. If you are not familiar with the concept of a color string, this article illustrates how to mix those in watercolor and how to paint them on your paper. A color string is basically a graded mix from one pure color to another, often from a warm to a cool, or vice versa. In these examples, I have used the pure primaries from my split primary palette and cross-mixed each one into another primary. The resulting band of color illustrates a range of colors which can result from each of these mixes on Arches watercolor paper. I have also made complementary mixes so you can see those results as well. It is so very important to have a thorough working knowledge of these colorful grays, because most paintings will be made largely from them.

   When I am getting ready to paint, I always pre-mix my initial washes in color strings in my palette. Why? Several good reasons: I like to have a range of color from which to choose—it is so difficult to try and mix exactly the colors I think I will need, and those needs change as I paint. Having a color string which you have tested and dried on paper gives you the advantage of confidence in your selections before you paint. This helps to avoid suddenly adding a new, perhaps disharmonious color into your palette partway through the picture. This method need not ever get in the way of spontenaity in your painting. Having a firm grasp of the fundamentals actually gives us more freedom to create, not less.

   With watercolor in particular, time is always running out on washes as they dry. We must be able to put paint down quickly without stopping to remix. Too many times I have lost a painting because of the crucial seconds it took to mix up paint during a big wet passage. Mix more than you need in advance! This is no time for frugality - paint like a rich person (which you are because you are an artist!).

Light and Color Temperature

   For anyone working from life or plein air, another very important skill to master in color work is the understanding of light temperature. Everything we see is illuminated by a light source, often the sun—and the temperature, warm or cool, of that light changes from time to time, sometimes during the same day. Our choice of colors, therefore, should correspond to the temperature of the light illuminating our subject. A foggy day will have cool light, while a summer day or a sunset will contain warm light, for example. We would want to choose a primary of the same temperature from which to start our mix for that subject. Another important characteristic of light is that, generally speaking, warm light creates cool shadows, and cool light creates warm shadows. To paint convincing shadows then requires that we also choose the appropriate temperature of color from which to make those shadows. Being familiar with these combinations will give you a real leg up on the creation of a beautiful, harmonious painting.

watercolor color string mix in my palette, © J. Hulsey
My Second and Third Color Strings

watercolor painting of chickens by John Hulsey
Second Wash from Color Strings and the Test Swatches

Staining and Sedimentary

   Those watercolor painters who understand the differences between staining pigments and sedimentaries are happy painters indeed. No other paint medium I know of relies on and benefits so much from these two distinct qualities—not oils, temperas, pastels, gouaches, or encaustics. Each type of watercolor, whether stainer or sediment, behaves differently in the palette and on the paper. Sedimentaries are essentially coarser, chalkier, heavier and more opaque than stainers, which can be thought of as ink-like in their behavior, and will stain the paper to some degree. Because of that, we often lay down sedimentary washes first, followed by the more transparent stainers. Sedimentaries will also quickly “settle out” of any mix with water, and if not kept stirred as we paint, will be inconsistent from one moment to the next. Stainers are very consistent in mixes with other stainers, but will tend to separate from sediments in any mixture on the palette, and can also be made to separate some on our paper as well. This is where the real fun begins.

   Some common Stainers are: Prussian Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Indigo, Hooker's Green, Sap Green, Viridian Green, Dioxazine Violet, Quinacridone Rose, Alizarin Crimson, and Indian Yellow, to name but a few. Some common Sedimentaries are: Cadmiums, Ochres, Umbers, Cerulean Blue, Cobalt Blue, Horizon Blue, Permanent Red, Naples Yellow, Davy's Gray, Sepia, and so on.

3-Color Effect

   If we recognize that cold press and rough papers have considerable texture to them, then we can take advantage of that knowledge to create subtle visual effects with our paint mixes. When we look at a cross-section of our paper under magnification we see hills and valleys. Staining paint will flow over the paper and bite into it fairly uniformly. Sediments, however, are heavy and coarse, like gravel, and will tend to roll off the hills and settle in the valleys. What this means is that in any sediment/staining mix, the texture of the paper can cause the mixed color to separate just enough on the paper so that we can get a 3-color effect. We can see the mixed color, as well as each of the sedimentaries and stainers which made the mix! No other paint medium does this. Is this not amazing? Try it yourself and see if you can create this remarkable effect.

   Granulation refers to the coarse, grainy effect in certain washes, often as a result of using a sedimentary color in a mix. Sediments can get granular on their own, of course, especially the earth colors of burnt umber and burnt sienna. Granulation is often a desirable effect, but to look good the wash has to be laid down in one go - no repainting or scumbling.

Stainers and Sedimentaries Mixed on Palette
Staining and Sedimentary Color Strings on the Palette

watercolor stainers and sediments. © J. Hulsey
Sedimentary and Staining Colors on Arches 300 lb. Cold Press Paper
(Notice the dominance of one color over another depending on the mix from row 1 to row 2.)

3 color effect in watercolor

Three Color Effect Chart.© J. Hulsey
3 Color Effect Diagram

                   watercolor color string mix in my palette, © J. Hulsey   test swatches 
                       Color String Number 4 for Blue Chicken                                      Test Swatch

                  watercolor painting of chickens by John Hulsey     watercolor painting of chickens by John Hulsey

   Above you can see the first wash from the color string applied to the blue chicken. We can also remove paint from our watercolors to create effects and this is best done when the wash is still damp. Here I decided to remove the stripes in the chicken's feathers rather than paint around them or mask them off, which would have given them a "cut out" appearance. This is much more natural looking and reduces the detail so that my focal point will remain up in the heads of the other two chickens.
          watercolor color string mix in my palette, © J. Hulsey                                                             Color String for Duck Figure on the Palette

          watercolor painting of duck by John Hulsey     color test swatch #6, duck

   Above is my first pass at painting the duck in one go. After I washed in the colors light to dark. I was able to apply a bit of dry brush work to simulate feather textures here and there. All that is left now is a few details.

watercolor painting of chickens by John HulseyAfternoon Glow                    Watercolor                    J. Hulsey

watercolor painting of chickens by John Hulsey
Chickens in the Sun                Watercolor on Yupo               J. Hulsey

   Above you can see the two versions of this subject. The top one is on Arches 140 lb. cold press paper. The bottom one is on Yupo, a polyester material. It is easy to see that the Yupo behaves like a super hot press sheet. It absorbs no paint and all brush marks, drips, etc., are pronounced. Washes tend to dry light and stay wet a long time. One thing I've learned is to allow big pools of color to freely mix on the surface of Yupo, rather than mix everything up in the palette. A drawback is that if it gets fingerprints or any other contaminants on it, they can resist paint altogether, resulting in the skips you see here. In this case, neither eraser abrasion, nor alcohol or mineral spirits were able to remove them. On the upside, paint applied to Yupo can easily be removed at any time, so mistakes and changes can be eliminated and painted over again. I am still experimenting with it and over time I think I can learn to like it and get unique effects. We should always be open to trying new materials which get us out of our comfort zones.

Color Test Charts 

  Below are my test charts for the split primary palette, using a warm and cool of each primary. Study the beautiful grays which can be made and notice also which combinations produce duller colors than we might want. The cadmiums are generally sedimentary in nature and so are more stubborn at mixing and less vibrant in the mixes with stainers. Complementary colors can produce some wonderful grays when carefully mixed and are a valuable addition to our color knowledge base.

Reds with Warms and Cools and Complements
Permanent Red and Quinacridone Rose Mixed with Cobalt, Ultramarine, Sap Green and Viridian

Yellows with Warms and Cools and Complement
Cadmium Yellow and Cadmium Lemon Mixed with Cobalt, Ultramarine, Quin. Rose, Permanent Red and Dioxazine Violet

Cobalt and Ultra with Orange Complement
Cobalt Blue and Ultramarine Blue with Cadmium Orange Complement

  There is so much more to write about on the subject of color, but we hope that this introduction to the world of watercolor mixes will be useful to you and head you in the right direction. We plan to create a larger book on this subject one day, so stay tuned. In the meantime, you might want to get a copy of our Field Guide to Plein Air Painting in Watercolor from our store. It has lots more interesting demos and info about watercolor.

Some Facts About Yupo

  Here are some interesting things to know if you want to try Yupo - from the Yupo website:

YUPO Synthetic Paper is 100% recyclable, waterproof and tree-free.

YUPO global headquarters in Japan was founded forty years ago.
In 1996 Yupo Corporation of America (a wholly owned subsidiary of Yupo Corporation of Japan) was established in Chesapeake, VA and is a manufacturing plant.

No toxins or heavy metals are used in Yupo’s manufacturing process.

When properly incinerated, no detectable amounts of sulfur, chlorine, nitrogen or dioxin gases are produced with Yupo products.

YUPO’s durability and attributes yield products that have extremely long wear and stay out of the waste stream longer. YUPO is the recipient of the Waste and Storm Water Quality Platinum Award 5 years in a row.

YUPO Attributes:
Prints consistently and effortlessly
Holds ink with razor-sharp precision
Durable, wipes clean

Dimensionally stable
Available in super-white and translucent grades

Keep painting!
John and Ann






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