I am a big fan of month-long challenges. A month is just about long enough to create a lasting habit (such as creating art every day, or keeping my kitchen clean). Last year, I did a “30 Pieces in 30 days” watercolour art challenge in September, where I created 30 6×6 watercolour pieces based on natural science subjects I collected on my way to the studio, all of which were made available for sale.
This was a great challenge for me, as I wanted to practice a variety of watercolour skills and techniques, and I had a strong tendency to get caught up in details and take a very long time finishing work. Having to create a “finished”, sellable piece every single day while working a dayjob and renovating my home, I learned to speed up, and really developed my watercolour skills over the course of the month. The challenge also generated a large body of work, and specifically small, affordable pieces, which have been a big hit at studio tour events.
I’ve been eager to do another month-long challenge. Last month was a little crazy with deadlines and travel, so I decided to participate in Inktober instead this year.
Inktober was started by Jake Parker, a character designer/comic illustrator, who wanted to develop his inking skills using brushes and brush pens. Other artists have adapted the challenge to suit their own priorities, doing everything from sketching in ballpoint pen to painting in coloured inks to digital “inking”. I am drawn to the initial concept behind the challenge, but being in a very different branch of illustration from Jake Parker, I’ve come up with my own set of goals and guidelines for my Inktober entries this year:
My Inktober Goals:
Create 31 finished, sellable ink pieces by the end of the month, in addition to other scheduled illustration work
Develop a better understanding and intuition of tonal values
Develop my skills in monochromatic shading techniques such as cross-hatching, stippling and simplified shapes
Experiment with textures in ink washes
Improve my brush handling skills (useful for watercolour as well as ink) by using brush techniques with ink.
BONUS: Start bridging the gap between my detailed natural science illustration work and my interest in urban sketching, see if I can start to discern a cohesive “look” across both.
My Inktober Rules:
All pieces must incorporate some form of liquid, black ink (technical pens, brush pens, ink and brush, etc)
Pieces may be rendered on white or toned paper. White ink and white pencil may be used to develop tonal range on toned paper.
Pencil or ballpoint pen may be used for initial sketch, but the finished lines and shading should be primarily in liquid ink.
No coloured drawing media (coloured inks, watercolors, coloured pencils other than white, markers, etc)
Subjects should be drawn from life/own reference, but no limits on subject matter (natural science, architecture, life drawing, still life, etc)
I’ve done a few pieces for Inktober 2017 already and I’m pretty pleased with the results so far. I will post the complete collection on this site when I am done the challenge, and all pieces will be available for sale. If you would like to see each piece as I complete it, I will be posting them on my Instagram and Facebook Page
Apparently I just can’t let this subject go. I am becoming the crazy water hardness and watercolour clumping lady. Recently I was reminded of this problem/puzzle while planning for participating in Inktober.
In this video she demonstrates how she creates dramatic, organic-looking textural effects using Winsor & Newton Indian Ink diluted in water. When mixed with tap water the ink clumps up, and deposits in a granulating texture on the paper.
Being a water-resistant ink, this can then be worked over with transparent watercolour without destroying the granulation pattern. I thought this might be useful for some spotting effects I commonly see on dry grasses and
seed pods in winter, and stashed the tip away for possible future use.
I’ve been thinking about what to do for Inktober. I would like to try in
king with liquid ink and a brush for some of my pieces. While thinking about what to do with liquid ink, I saw some other recommendations to thin it out for grey washes. I was reminded of the Stephanie Law video, and decided to look up Winsor & Newton ink specifically.
See that yellow highlighted paragraph. Here’s what it says:
The colours can be easily diluted with water to reduce the strength of the colour or to increase it’s transparency. Distilled water must be used as tap water causes the dye to separate from the binder.
Yep, that’s right. Winsor & Newton drawing inks are watersoluble, but only in distilled water. Even small amounts of dissolved minerals in tap water cause the ink particles to clump and curdle out of solution, causing the textural effects that Stephanie Pui-Mun Law uses to such great effect in her pieces. This behaviour is similar to what I experienced in M. Graham watercolor paints.
I wonder whether there is a similarity between the binder(s) used in the Winsor & Newton inks and the M. Graham paints. Very intriguing.
After my latest post (a tour of my huge studio palette), I received several requests to post a similar “palette tour” blog entry for what I call my “Greatest Hits” palette, a collection of full pans of my 14 most commonly used colours.
The idea behind this palette was to curate a selection of paints that I could take out of the studio for travel or home use which would allow me to paint a large range of botanical and plein-air urban sketching subjects in a relatively portable way (although this palette is still relatively bulky), as well as facilitating my work in the studio and out by enabling me to load larger quantities of my frequently used colours easily.
I’ve been delaying writing this post for a few weeks, because although I have been using this palette regularly for several months, as both a travel palette and in the studio, over time I’ve come up with several changes I intended to make to it as I used up the paints currently inside it. I couldn’t decide whether I should profile the palette as I’ve been using it, or my current (and ever-evolving) lineup of “ideal” colours.
However, last week I decided to order an all-new full-pan palette from Ebay. The new palette is thinner and more compact than the current palette, yet holds up to 24 full pans. The picture below shows the half-pan version of the same palette, which I ordered to use as a studio palette in my home studio.
The practical upshot is that sometime in the next few months, my “greatest hits” palette in it’s current format will cease to exist, being replaced with a much larger selection of paints. However, I still think it is useful to keep track of my paints in terms of smaller curated collections.
Therefore, I will give you a tour of what is currently in my “greatest hits” 14-colour palette, and discuss what I would change, or which paints I could eliminate in even smaller palettes.
The image below is the swatch sheet I made of the colours in my current “Greatest Hits” Palette. The template I used was designed by the amazing Sade of “Sadie Saves the Day”, who sells the templates as digital downloads in her shop :
In the listings below, I’ve included (affiliate) links to my favourite paints. As always, I’m trying to find the best prices for most of my viewers. American brands have Dick Blick/Utrecht links, European brands are listed with Jackson’s links. All have reasonable shipping fees around the world. However, if you are in Canada, the Daniel Smith/M.Graham paints are available more affordably at Deserres and Curry’s, respectively. The colours contained in this palette are:
PY150 – Nickel Azo Yellow – M. Graham: My favourite yellow, hands down. Truly transparent, no milkiness and a beautiful middle yellow in tints. Mixes beautiful greens and subtle oranges. Lovely in glazes. Forever in my faves.
PO49 – Quinacridone Gold – Daniel Smith: Recently discontinued by Daniel Smith, the last remaining manufacturer, this is a good transparent alternative to Raw Sienna or Yellow Ochre, and works beautifully as a glazing colour. I have a few backup tubes stockpiled, but a good convenience mix is available from most brands (usually made with PY150 and PO48, the two neighbouring pans). In a smaller set, or if I run out of the single pigment, I would simply mix PY150 and PO48
PO71- Translucent Orange – Schmincke:A beautiful, transparent fiery orange. I like this paint a lot, but I like the QOR version of the same pigment slightly more, I think. It has less of a drying shift, which also makes it a more vibrant orange. It will be replaced when I run out.
PB60 – Indanthrone Blue – Daniel Smith: Darker and moodier than the more common ultramarine, this is my choice for a red-biased blue. Mixes vibrant purples with PR122, neutral greys with PO48, and interesting greens with PY150 and PO49
PB27 – Prussian Blue – M. Graham:Another dark and moody blue with great mixing properties, this one slightly on the green biased side. Has a challenging drying shift but is very useful nonetheless.
N/A – Amazonite Genuine – Daniel Smith:A slightly more turquoisey version of Phthalo Green or Viridian, not as aggressively staining or pigmented as the former, much easier to rewet than the latter. I originally thought this was a silly vanity purchase, but I find this paint finds it’s way into nearly every painting.
N/A – Serpentine Genuine-Daniel Smith: An interesting sap green colour with tiny, nearly imperceptible purplish/brown flecks ground from natural serpentine. Kinda goofy convenience colour which could be left out of a smaller palette. I love it and get a lot of use out of it rendering foliage and lichen. I have the stick format, which is much better value for money than the tubes.
PG7 + PV19 – Neutral Tint – M. Graham:Another otherwise great M. Graham colour that curdles unexpectedly with my water/climate. This is a genius convenience mix. Nearly black and slightly purplish in masstone, it mixes beautifully with rose and red colours to make deep plummy shadows, works as a complimentary shadow colour for yellows, and deepens greens well too. I’m working on mixing my own dupe with non-curdling colours.
PBr7 – Raw Umber – Daniel Smith: This is my go-to dark earth colour. Nice granulation, plays nicely in mixes and glazes to make all kinds of earth, stone and treebark colours/textures.
PBr7 – Burnt Sienna – M. GrahamChosen for it’s granulation and because so many artists seem to favour this pigment. It’s nice, but I don’t consider it essential with PO48 and Raw Umber in the palette. Would likely replace it with PW6 Titanium Buff, which seems like an oddball choice but I find really useful for mixing glaucous/hazy textures on leaves, fruit and lichen, particularly with Amazonite. Or leave it out altogether, in a smaller palette.
So that’s it – a useful mixing collection of 14 colours. I know I have some unusual picks in there, but they work well for me. What are your favourite mixing colours? Favourite unusual pigments?
THIS POST CONTAINS AFFILIATE LINKS. LEE ANGOLD IS A PARTICIPANT IN THE AMAZON SERVICES LLC ASSOCIATES PROGRAM, UTRECHT ART AFFILIATE PROGRAM, DICK BLICK AFFILIATE PROGRAM AND THE JACKSON’S ART AFFILIATE NETWORK. THESE ARE AFFILIATE ADVERTISING PROGRAMS DESIGNED TO PROVIDE A MEANS FOR SITES TO EARN ADVERTISING FEES BY LINKING TO PRODUCT LISTINGS.
It’s been a while since I shared what’s in my watercolour palette
A few months ago, I purchased a Meeden 48 Half Pan Watercolour Palette and Pans to house my evergrowing collection of watercolour paints. I recommend buying one of these tins if you want an empty standard tin like the ones sold by WN, Schmincke, etc at a lower cost. They are available in a variety of sizes, with or without pans included.
Like in most similar boxes, it is usually possible to fit one extra pan per row (for a total of 52). Actually, the Meeden half-pans are a little thicker than other ones so you won’t be able to fit the extra pan if you only use Meeden pans, but as I have some pans from other brands, I was able to squeeze them in.
Like most of the lightweight tins, the large Meeden palette has two fold out mixing areas (the inside of the lid, and one on the opposite side. As well, there is a centre tray that holds the pans which can be lifted out as well, and the inside of the tin underneath can also be used for mixing. I generally prefer to use a ceramic plate for mixing, and I am actually considering removing the second flap so the box will take up less space when open.
Here is a painted out colour swatch sheet of the colours I keep in this box with labels. This swatch sheet is kept in a sketchbook for reference.
If you spend any time with watercolourists, you’ll very soon start hearing some artists who insist that you should only use single pigment colours. At the same time, others will swear by common mixed paints such as Payne’s Grey or Neutral Tint, or rave about wacky special effect mixes such as Daniel Smith’s Imperial Purple. What’s the deal?
In my opinion, there are lots of good reasons to stick with single pigment colours when you first start exploring watercolors, and a few great reasons why you may want to include a few mixed pigments in your collection.
Good reasons to use single-pigment paints:
Optimize your budget: Most of us can only afford a limited number of paints when we are starting out. With a limited selection of paints, it doesn’t make sense to buy paints that you can mix from other paints you already own. So for example, if you’ve got Phthalo Green (PG7) and Azo Yellow (PY151) then you can mix Schmincke’s lovely May Green (made from PG7 and PY151) from other pigments in your palette, and it may not be the most effective purchase.
That being said, if you can afford it, and May Green makes your heart flutter like it does mine, by all means feel free to buy it. I did. I even made you an affiliate link. For that matter, if it’s the massive full set of 96 Winsor Newton watercolours that sets your heart aflutter, it exists, it’s almost as pretty as it is expensive, and I have a link for that too.
Single Pigments (often) mix more reliably: Individual pigments each have their own characteristics. Some are transparent and staining, others are opaque and granulating. Black pigments tend to dull mixes, and white pigments will haze over in washes. Some mixed pigment paints are created out of two pigments with similar behaviours (for example, many brands sell a mixed-pigment Phthalo Turquoise made from Pthalo Blue and Phthalo Green, with all the same transparent, staining, easily mixing properties). However, many mixed pigment paints are mixes of granulating/opaque pigments with transparent ones, or they are a pastel shade formulated with white, or they have black added in to darken. When these paints are added to mixes or layered, their behaviour is harder to predict than single pigment paints. They may act in unexpected ways, or separate into their components.
It is easier to learn colour mixing and paint behaviour with fewer, brighter colours: Do as I say, not as I do. Although I am now overflowing my 52-pan main palette (including 49 distinct single pigment paints),
I strongly believe that great colour mixing skills come with being very intimately familiar with the behaviours of your paints and learning how to match colours from a limited palette. Choosing only a few pigments to learn with makes this way easier, and the brightest and clearest mixing paints for a limited palette are mostly single pigments. Trying to learn and keep track of the properties and mixes between a giant and evolving selection of paints has been a lot of work. I buy paints because I love testing and collecting all the pretty colours, but I long ago passed the point where getting new paints was helping me make better art.
Learning about pigments will help you be an informed shopper: Many brands have cute names for their paints (such as Marine Blue, or Geranium Red). Different brands will offer the same pigment but use different names. or use the same name to describe different pigments. If your paints are mostly single-pigment, and you know their pigment numbers, you won’t fall into the trap of buying a cool-looking colour it turns out you already have from a different brand. You’ll also be able to watch for sales, and mix and match your brands knowing which pigments you are looking for.
Great Reasons to add mixed-pigment paints
Your absolute favourite colour is just not available as a single pigment: Each of us has some colours that just make us happy. If you’re lucky, there’s a pigment just for you. However, not all colours have a corresponding pigment. For example, the May Green above is one of my favourite colours with special meaning to me. There is no single pigment that colour, but it makes me happy having it on my palette.
There are two colours you find yourself mixing all the time, and you’d like a shortcut: Do you always mix Ultramarine Blue (PB29) and Burnt Sienna (PBr7) to make neutrals? It might make sense to have a pan of that mix to reach for. Or maybe you’re a floral painter and would like a violet made from PR122 and PB60. Whatever the reason, if having a mixed pigment shortcut on your palette makes your life easier, add one. You can even mix your own in empty pans.
You paint in a very graphic/bold/pastel style and don’t care about mixing: If you like making art that has flat even areas of pastel mint and lilac, by all means get some Holbein pastel shades of watercolor. If you paint in moody neutrals, reach for that Payne’s grey. If you paint everything in block colours and don’t like mixing, get a nice big set of whatever and don’t worry about pigments. These paints exist because they are useful to some artists.
An alternative to a colour you’ll only use for mixing: As discussed in point 1, I love insanely bright, springy greens. Sure, I could mix them, but generally that requires a very cool shade of yellow. I don’t like cool yellows, generally, and I especially don’t like how opaque most of the pigments are. I don’t use a cool yellow for anything else. I’ve decided to simply not have a cool yellow on my palette, and keep 1-2 mixed-pigment bright yellow-greens on my palette instead. Unconventional, but it works for me.
Special effect Paints: Many artists love special effect paints like Daniel Smith’s Imperial Purple and Cascade Green, mixes of pigments that are intentionally made to separate and granulate on the page, creating interesting texture in juicy sky or landscape washes. They’re not really designed for mixing, but they are stunning on their own. These can be easily mixed from common pigments, but that can be a bit of a hassle if you will be doing so frequently. If you love granulating effects paint, it may be worth it to have a couple on your palette.
I think that seeking out single pigment paints is a great strategy for beginners in watercolour to get familiar with their paints and the medium on a budget. With such a dazzling array pigments available to the modern artist, it is usually not limiting to stick with single pigments.
Once you are more familiar with the medium, however, and are attracted to specific multi-pigment mixes, there are good reasons to not be a purist. Practice responsible pigment mixing!
This post contains affiliate links. Lee Angold is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and the Jackson’s Art Affiliate Network. These are affiliate advertising programs designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by linking to product listings.
As some of you already know, I have decided to take the plunge and develop my illustration career full-time. I am ridiculously lucky and privileged to have this opportunity.
Up until February of this year, I was building my art career around a day job at a local tech company, which enabled me put the initial investment into starting the KW Artists Co-op, and helped Jordan and I buy and renovate our home. I did not expect I would be able to give up that income and stability nearly so soon.
I am so thankful to Jordan for working hard and making sacrifices to support my dreams. I am determined to make the most of this opportunity and work hard to build my artistic career.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve watched my shared art studio, the KW Artists Co-op, develop from an idea and a desperate gamble into a thriving, self-sustaining artistic community and vibrant, inspiring workspace I am excited to visit every day. I am excited to bring the same drive and dedication to my art and illustrations. I have already seen so much improvement, and had the chance to experience some really interesting projects in the short time since I started, I can’t wait to find out what the future will bring.
Here’s how you can get involved:
Commission an illustration for your business or event: I specialize in botanical, natural science and food illustrations. Do you own or work for a farm, cafe, bed and breakfast, space exploration company?
I would be delighted to illustrate your product packaging design, menu, advertisements, etc. Do you have a big event coming up, such as a wedding, graduation or milestone birthday? Contact me about commissioning custom stationery.
Buy or commission an art piece for yourself or a loved one: I would love for you to have a piece of my art to call your own. You can view a selection of my pieces on my Portfolio page, visit one of my current exhibitions, or contact me for a personal tour. I also have small original art, prints and cards available through my Etsy shop. Do you have an idea for the perfect, meaningful piece you’d like me to create? I am currently taking private commissions, and would love to work with you to make your vision a reality 🙂
Signal Boost: I am currently active on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter as well as this blog. Follow me to get updates on new projects, a peek into my artistic process and studios, geeking out over pigments and science. See something you like, or reminds you of a friend? Like and share the posts that interest you, it really helps me reach a wider audience.
Tell me about your wacky ideas and opportunities: Some of the most interesting work I’ve been offered are things I would never have expected.
Did you know that cakes can be painted using food dye and vodka like watercolour? Neither did I, until I was asked to run a cake painting workshop (by the way, if any of you are bakers, holla at me, I would LOVE to do cake-painting again). I am happy to teach, try different media, participate in collaborative or residency projects, etc. If you have an idea for a project that could use an artist or illustrator, saw something cool on the internet, or would just like to bounce ideas off me, get in touch.
Support another artist: No doubt some of you really love the concept of supporting me or artists in general, but don’t find my art interesting or appealing. That’s absolutely fine! Art is super personal.
If I could ask one favour, please attend a local art fair, festival, get in touch with artist friends, and support another artist. If you’d like some pointers, I would be happy to suggest some artists you might enjoy more. Let me know if you’ve found a great artist or art piece, I would be happy to share your find and help promote them as well 🙂
I’ve recently started making a very conscious effort to restrict my colour palette (in individual pieces and sketch kits, my overall watercolour studio palette is still a 50+ pigment smorgasbord, my coloured pencil collection is even larger, and I love it).
The goal is both to practice more conscious colour mixing, and to train myself to make more deliberate and informed choices about colour and light interaction. These are more broadly described with the term colour harmony and cohesion, but like many abstract concepts in art, have a strong scientific basis.
Colour harmony is one of these “fuzzy” subjective topics in art that I really didn’t “get” for a long time. Many artists extole the virtues of a limited palette for creating a “cohesive” look within their paintings, but each artist had different and conflicting suggestions for essential pigments. In addition, doesn’t the real world contain all of the visible colours? In a world with all the colours, what is a “cohesive” look anyway? Wouldn’t it be better to have every colour at your disposal?
Reality is quite a bit more complex. The colours we actually see are affected by the colour of light, as well as reflected colour from surrounding objects.
Our eyes play tricks on us – for instance, we know a ripe banana is a bright, middle yellow, but in a dark room, in a fruit bowl surrounded by dark red fruit, the “correct” colour to paint a ripe banana for realism might be a neutralised orange, such as an ochre or Quinacridone Burnt Orange. It took me a while to understand is that in this case, it wouldn’t just be “cohesion” or “harmony” that would be disrupted by painting a bright yellow banana, it would actually not be a realistic depiction of the banana.
Our eyes are actually even tricksier than this – humans actually only have “good” colour accuity in a very narrow cone. We do have a fair bit of peripheral vision outside this cone. Our brain fills in the edges of our vision with colours to match what we see in front of us, then edits our memories to correct any inconsistencies as we look around. Part of the reason a painting with a very bright pop of colour all the way to one side, which doesn’t appear elsewhere, is considered a “bad” or “uncohesive” composition is because this is not how we actually ever see the world.
In a way, choosing a very constrained colour palette is an effective way to mimic real lighting/environmental conditions as we might see them. Take, for example, the limited colour palette above, where I chose a magenta (PR122) and two greens – a cool almost-turquoise PG7 (Winsor Green BS) and a warmer PY129 (Azo Green, or Green Gold). This palette produces a surprising gamut of slightly neutralized warm colours from reds to rusty oranges and plums, as well as some eye-poppingly bright greens. It might be a great colour palette for rendering berries or tomatoes shades by sunlit leaves – in fact, I am planning to paint these very pieces using primarily these colours.
And then, of course, there is the matter of using colour selection to draw attention to a specific element within a composition, or to evoke a mood within a collection or body of work. I’ve recently started taking online courses with the School of Visual Storytelling (SVSLearn), and was struck by the strong focus on manipulating colour and light to help with storytelling.
An illustrator who I think has a really stellar grasp of limited palettes for communicating mood and lighting is Ira Sluyterman van Langerweyde (Iraville). Her studio palette rivals or exceeds mine, but she regularly uses a very limited, and fairly consistent subset to create a cohesive, whimsical, warm and natural-looking collection of playful illustrations.
In the field of botanical and scientific illustration, we are somewhat shielded from all of these concerns. Botanical illustrators draw close-up, isolated subjects under bright, white light, specifically in order to communicate details of the individual subject without influence and distraction from surrounding scenery. We don’t have to worry about the colour of ambient light, because we choose white light. We don’t have to worry as much about competing colours with limited subjects, and can manipulate our composition without worrying about impacts on surrounding elements. We use neutral backgrounds and are specifically discouraged from using cast shadows.
Nonetheless, I have found that the most successful scientific and botanical artists and illustrators, and the ones I admire the most make both deliberate and subconscious choices about lighting, colour, and subject selection which are very helpful in creating eyecatching, striking compositions.
This can play out within individual pieces, where artists choose to highlight the unique characteristics of their subject – in my lichen on elm bark image in my header image, I really loved the stark, graphic white look of the cup fungi, and chose my colour balance in a way that would highlight that graphic, almost comic look, choosing to neutralize most of the greenish-gray crustose lichen and tree bark, but pump up the colour in the pops of green, rust and ochre.
On a broader scale, even realist artists develop a colour “brand” or “colour signature” across their body of work. As an example, Anna Mason’s brightly lit, vibrant fruits and florals have a very different look from Jess Shepherd’s dramatic and earthy leaves and vegetables, although they both make large-scale, realistic botanical paintings.
Inspired by Iraville and other illustrators I admire who I have noticed use similar colour palettes, I thought it would be fun to create an earthy, natural triad to try sketching with or using as a base for some earthier subjects (obviously, this will never be an appropriate palette for very bright citrus or purple flowers I used my new paints from Pruche along with Mayan Blue from Rublev, which is bluer than it appears in this image but still very dark and muted. I generally prefer much brighter, clearer colours, especially greens, but I think this is an interesting jumping off point, in particular urban sketching and simple studies.
I’ve been spending a lot of time poring over James Gurney’s book Color and Light, which is fantastically detailed with loads of visual examples about different lighting situation, how they affect colours within a painting, and how they can be used to communicate mood and focus within a painting. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on gamut mapping. In future posts, I’ll be exploring pieces created with a limited palette, and sharing the gamut mapping for each of them.
Originally, I was going to give this blog post a much more clickbaity title, “There’s no such thing as primary colours”.
In this post, I will discuss why everything we’ve been taught about primary colours is an oversimplification to the point of being wrong. You can actually mix so-called “primary” colours from secondaries. And on the flipside, no matter which set of 3+ colours you assign as primary, I can find you a shade that cannot be mixed from them
As a first example, take a look at my spectrum mixing chart to the left, mixing Winsor green with Winsor Violet. According to every lesson on colour mixing I’ve ever seen, these are secondary colours.
If your primary school was anything like mine, you were taught fairly early on about the concept of primary colours. Sometime in kindergarden, or maybe it was first grade, we were taught that there three primary colours that can’t be mixed, from which all others can be mixed, and shown a beautiful colour chart.
In this first class, we were also taught that these three colours are Yellow, Blue and Red, and then asked to mix a pie chart with the secondary and tertiary colours.
I dutifully completed this exercise, and like most of you, was dissapointed my result looked nothing like the example above. Most of the mixes looked grey or brown.The flustered teacher comforted upset kids, assuring us it was not our fault the mixes came out muddy.
Some years later, perhaps in middle school, the same exercise was brought up again. We were told the “primary” colours we had previously been taught didn’t work well because they weren’t the real primary colours, cyan, yellow and magenta. With cyan, magenta and yellow, we really could mix every other colour. Perhaps this was even paired with a lecture about additive and subtractive colour.
Once again we were asked to mix colours. This time, the mixes did come out somewhat cleaner, but I was still wasn’t quite satisfied. I could not, for the life of me, mix a pure, non-neutralized ultramarine blue, or the brightest greens.
Finally in high school and beyond, we were taught the concept of split primaries, where instead of 3 primary colours you have six (a warm and cool yellow, a violet-blue and a turquoise, a red and a magenta), but by this point, I had lost all faith in the concept of primary colours.
Where does the concept of primary colours come from, anyway? In pure physical terms, colours are just a continuum of wavelengths of light in rainbow order (ROYGBIV) There are no colours with special “primary” distinction.
There are, however, wavelengths of light that we distinguish better than others. Our eyes have 3 colour receptors (red, blue and green) which each record light within a band of wavelengths and an intensity receptor. Our brains interpolate intermediate colour in the overlaps between these receptors (so what we perceive as yellow is a colour in the very narrow band between the extremely far apart green and red receptors where both are fired. When both blue and red are fired we interpolate violet and magenta- magenta doesn’t even have an associated wavelength – it is the halfway between red at one end of the visible spectrum, and violet all the way at the other.
By wrapping that line of wavelengths around on itself, we create a “colour wheel”. In actual fact, a wonky horseshoe/triangle might be a more accurate representation in 2D space of the colours we really see. However circles are more satisfying and easy to understand than wonky horseshoes, so colour wheels it is.
On this colour wheel, you can pick any two colours, they don’t have to be primary colours, and mix them together to get colours on the line between them. Mix a yellow and a magenta together, and you will get an orange (albeit a less saturated orange than the brightest orange you could see). Likewise, mix a violet and a green together, and you will get a blue, albeit a muted, dusky one. There are many resources, such as the one below by Bruce McEvoy of Handprint, which map common pigments onto a colour wheel.
You can easily map out the area you can mix with any given palette of 3 or more colours by drawing lines between the pigments you are using. The area enclosed is the colour gamut you can mix. No three colours can actually mix all of the visible colours, however, they may be enough to render the subjects and lighting you are interested in representing.
So what makes primary colours special?
Our most accurate “primary colours”, in terms of paint (as opposed to emitted light) are in fact the midpoints between our three colour receptors placed on the colour wheel. In other words, what we commonly consider primary colours: magenta, cyan and yellow, are actually the 3 colours we see least well.
While it seems backwards, when explained in words, that our primary colours are the ones that we don’t see very well, there is a good reason for this.
In the image to the right, you can see the results of the XKCD colour survey. People were asked to name colours on a computer screen generated from RGB codes. As you can see, the range of different colours we perceive as green and blue are huge compared to what we label yellow.
It is therefore very easy to mix an acceptable “green” from yellow and cyan or blue. Mixing the “primary” colours, however, is a little bit trickier, as the target is much narrower
Cyan, or blue, (as there are no true cyan pigments artists usually substitute a blue or teal), is probably the easiest of the primaries to mix from secondary colours. Any bluish-green with purple mixes a satisfactory range of teals and blues.
You’ve seen my PG7 and PV23 example above. In case you thought that was a fluke or something to do with the specific pigments, here’s another example, mixed with Amazonite Genuine (DS) and Quinacridone Purple (PV55).
But this really does work with any colour to some degree. Let’s take the example of the red/magenta area. You can, of course, mix a red (in the grade school “primary” sense of the word) from magenta or rose and orange or yellow. We’ve all done this.
However, you can also mix an orange with a violet to get magenta. You won’t get a clear, pure PR122 Purple Magenta colour, of course (just as you won’t get a clear, vibrant green mixing a far apart yellow and blue), but you will get a magenta colour saturated enough to work as a “primary” in a muted palette. The spectrum charts on the left are a little overexposed – my scanner does weird things to oranges, but you get the idea.
Finally, the hardest primary colours to mix (and get my scanner to show properly) are yellows. Anything but the purest, most saturated yellows read as brown, olive or orange to the average observer.
To mix a yellow, my first attempt actually included two “secondary” colours actually in the yellow colour index. PY129 (Azo Green, or green gold, a very yellowish green) and PY110 (Isoindoline or Indian Yellow, more of an orange at full saturation, mix to make closer to a primary yellow.
My scanner really shifted the masstone of my Azo Green, which truly does read as a green or chartreuse in real life, but the mixes in this spectrum are fairly close on my monitor to their real life colours.
In colour mixing, think beyond “primary colours”. Sometimes the blue you need is most easily reached by mixing green and violet. Sometimes the “secondary colour” you need cannot be mixed from the “primary” colours you have available.
Several weeks ago, I wrote what turned out to become my most popular blog post yet. In it, I explored the effect of water hardness and dissolved mineral content in water on watercolour paints on the palette and on paper.
In particular, I was trying to find an explanation for some weird curdling/clumping behaviour I was observing in quinacridone paints from M. Graham. When I experimented by switching my brushwater from Kitchener-Waterloo tap water (some of the hardest in North America, containing extremely high levels of dissolved calcium and magnesium) to store-bought distilled water, I observed a marked reduction, but not a complete elimination of curdling effects
At the time of my original post, I attributed the remaining curdling/clumping in the distilled water sheet to mineral buildup in my pans, brushes and palette from previously using tap water. I theorized that if I switched to distilled water for my painting, over time, this would improve. I could also reduce the effect of mineral residue on my palettes by wiping them off after washing, and rinsing my brushes in distilled water. At the time, I was cautiously optimistic that I would be able to all but eliminate this problem with changes to my painting routine.
Over the past few weeks, I have been dilligent about using only distilled water. I no longer think this is a realistic solution, and I now have serious doubts that this is the only reason for my M. Graham paints curdling. A few things have changed my mind:
Despite my dilligence in using only distilled water, all the affected M. Graham paints continue to curdle. In the case of the quinacridone rose, this effect has reduced enough that it is now no longer as bothersome. However, the neutral tint still sometimes separates, and the Quinacridone Rust(PO48) still clumps dramatically. In this case, I have gone as far as to fill a fresh pan, tried using paint straight from the tube, even washed my palettes with distilled water, to no avail. No matter what I do, if I water this paint down, or try to mix it with another colour, it still clumps. If this is indeed simply a reaction with some minerals, it is reacting with extremely low mineral content, lower than most tap, filtered or bottled water most artists use.
While I am willing, grudgingly, to buy distilled water and haul it to the studio for studio use, I also enjoy carrying around palettes for urban sketching, field studies, etc. In these cases I will use whatever water is handy – filled from a drinking fountain, lake water, bottled mineral water, etc. I now find myself concerned not only about whether my paints will unexpectedly clump with the water of the day, but whether I will be messing up my pans by leaving mineral residue in them. This is ridiculous and unacceptable
In a bizarre mix of frustration and optimism, a couple weeks ago I purchased both a replacement PO48 (Quinacridone Burnt Orange, by Da Vinci) and another supposedly non-granulating M. Graham paint (PG36- Phthalo Green YS). The Da Vinci paint performs beautifully, a very similar colour to the M. Graham, but not a hint of clumping no matter what water I throw at it – whatever the issue is, it’s clearly not merely pigment related. The new phthalo from M. Graham, on the other hand, does some bizarre stuff. It clumps dramatically on the palette, although how much varies day to day, but then the clumping relaxes and all but dissappears as the paint dries on the paper.
I’m running out of ideas of what could be causing this. It has occured to me that it could be the honey crystallizing inside the paint due to living in a climate with dramatic temperature swings, but that would also fall under the unnacceptable paint behaviour category.
So where does this leave me? I’m actually really upset, because, as I’ve raved before, I love the rewettability and saturation of M. Graham paints. I love their pigment choices and focus on single pigments. Their PY150 Nickel Azo Yellow is hands down my favourite (read: only) yellow. and I love a bunch of their other pigments too. However, at this point 4 of the 10 or so M. Graham paints I own display some level of frustrating clumping. While it is possible to mitigate and work around this in most cases, none of my paints from any other brand have this issue, so I am reaching the conclusion that it will simply be easier to just buy from other brands in the future.
So I guess this is my breakup letter to M. Graham, at least for now. M. Graham, it’s not me, it’s you. I just can’t handle your high maintenance needs and mood swings anymore. I’ll be moving on to more reliable, easygoing paints.
I will reach out to the manufacturer at some point in the near future. I hear they are very receptive to feedback. I hope that they will be able to track down the root of the issue and fix it, so I can once again enjoy these pretty colours.