This is part of my Watercolor Lessons series of posts, where I share personal experiences that I feel have not been sufficiently or succinctly covered elsewhere. If you’re interested only in the lessons and not my normal blog posts, you can easily select them in the categories box on the right. ”
Paint Supply - A Grain of Salt with which to be Taken
I’m going to talk to you very, very briefly about your paint.
“Why,” one might ask, “when it is probably one of the most important part of the supplies, are you going to cover paint only briefly, Craig?”
“Well, One,” I would reply, “there are a number of reasons.”
First, I don’t think it’s really that important. Second, there are absolutely no shortage of discussions about this topic on the internet. Often opinions vary depending on the author, and I’d just be one more argument one way or the other. There are really only a few things you need to know.
- Like with paper, buy the good paint as soon as you can. Some of the student grade paints look great, but you aren’t going to want to use them forever, so it’s better to just become accustomed to the good stuff from the beginning.
- Some colors are considered fugitive. Avoid these as they fade quickly. Most paint manufacturers will tell you if a paint has a short or long life, and the big brands are pretty reliable in their ratings. They know honesty is the best policy. Some paints that aren’t necessarily fugitive still have a fairly short life. Research this when you’re building your palette.
- It’s a lifelong experiment, and that’s half the fun of art. You’re going to find out what paints you like and what you don’t, but the only way to really do this is to experiment. Stop reading and just paint.
When I first started, I did some research and bought almost entirely Winsor & Newton paints. Now, due to my geographic location (Japan), I quickly found that buying and importing these paints was very, very expensive. I then switched to Holbein, which is a very high quality paint manufactured about half an hour from where I live and is extremely reasonable (here). This was fortuitous for me because the two paints handle quite differently and I find that I prefer working with and get better results from the Holbein colors.
This is where I’m going to leave you to do most of your own research and experimentation, though I’ve put a rough list of what I currently use.
- Blues: Cerrulean, Cobalt, and French Ultramarine. These give you three shades from light to dark. Blues will darken any color you mix them with, so using these three gives you a nice variety of shades.
- Earth: Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre, Raw Umber, and maybe Sepia and Brown Madder.
- Warm: Cadmium Red, Cadmium Scarlet, Winsor Yellow. It would probably help to get a cooler yellow in here, too.
- Winsor Violet is a lovely color that may not have the best lifespan. I use it because it’s so vibrant, but I keep this in mind.
- Perylene Maroon or Alizarin Crimson. I use the former, but the two are very similar.
- Quinacridone Magenta and Permanent Rose: I don’t use these often. I tend to only reach for them when I’m painting flowers.
- Daniel Smith Titanium White: I don’t use white often in my work, but this stuff is amazing for painting smoke or haze. None of the other brands come close to it.
- Payne’s Gray: I love this color when used in moderation. It mixes well with both cool and dark colors.
- Greens: Greens are tough and the bane of many watercolorists. I use Viridian for cools, and try to mix my other greens as best as possible. I try to avoid straight green whenever I can, mixing in browns and reds to give it more variation in tone and color.
- Black: Lots of instructors will tell you to stay away from black and instead mix your darks. I do have black in my palette, but honestly, I almost never go to it. Mixing and using colors is almost always a better option, and will give your darks more vibrancy.
Try a small tube of (convenience colors):
- Indigo: Indigo is a nice color and lots of people use it, but I find that if I use it to make my darks, things tend to go flat. It’s worth checking out, though.
- Neutral tint: I used to use neutral tint to dull down colors that were to vibrant without making things muddy. Recently, I hardly use it though, instead opting for a hint of Payne’s Gray, or a touch of the complimentary of the color.
- Holbein Lavender: This is a very opaque color. I only use it in very tiny amounts to add a little glow to shadow areas, where it can be very effective when used in moderation.
Limit Your Palette as Much as Possible
Look, you don’t need to buy every color paint you think you might need. In fact, it’s best you don’t. Learn to create and make the colors that you need. Of course, there are some you will find you love, and others you’ll find you just don’t use much. Experiment, keep your palette trim, and add or subtract as needed. As you can see above, I have far more colors on my palette than I need, simply because I’m not so good at following my own advice. And I’m lazy. There are colors there I haven’t used for months. When I get rid of them, I’ll likely double up on some of my more used colors such as the blues, maroon, and burnt sienna.
Get to Know Your Colors
When first starting out, I highly recommend doing two things. First, get a nice, small group of colors that allow you to create the greatest range. The one’s I’ve mentioned above are a good start, then season to your taste.
Second, and this is the most boring but I can’t stress it enough. Do swatches. Just sit down with a blank page and some relaxing music and start mixing paint. See what works together and what doesn’t. Pay attention and remember, watercolor is about letting the paint do the work. Put two or three colors next to each other, and gently push them together. You don’t want to mix and make a pile of mud.
And third (out of the two things) is JUST PAINT. It doesn’t matter if it looks good or right. You will learn with time and experience what colors work well together and what combinations to avoid. The same thing goes for your water mixture. It’s sometimes hard for an inexperienced artist to know just how much water to use. Experience is the best education, and swatches are one tool in your experience toolbox.
Last but not least, a very brief note on palette maintenance. Here’s what works really well for me. I paint almost every day, but even if I miss a few days, doing the following keeps my paints nice and fresh. By the way, I bought this palette from Jackson’s Art. There are other tin palettes around, but I found this to be the most reasonable in terms of price. You can order from them directly or through Amazon if that’s more comfortable. I recommend avoiding the plastic palettes. More on that in another lesson.
1. When you finish painting, fold a kitchen towel in half, spray it with water, and lay it inside your palette as shown above. I’ll use a towel for a few days or a week, and then switch it out with a new one. You could use a sponge, too, but the towel has the added benefit of being useful for cleanup if you need it.
2. Slip your palette in a plastic bag and wrap it up. I use a washed bread bag and a couple of hair bands I
stole borrowed from my daughter.
3. When you’re ready to paint the next time, your paints should already be fairly moist. I generally spray with a mist of water a few minutes before I start just to make sure.
Note: If you’re not planning on painting for a while, it’s best to let your paints dry before closing up your palette to avoid mold. I’ve never had a problem myself, but I know some people have.
Now stop surfing the internet and go paint something already. Geesh.