Choosing Watercolours, Part 1 - The Scientific Method

I usually prefer to self-identify as an artist first, and an engineer never.  However, there are times, even when doing art, that I cannot deny my history and nature.

A year ago,  I was accepted into the Society of Botanical Artists' Distance Learning Diploma Course.  My first task was getting myself some artist quality watercolour paints - I had signed up to do several of my assignments in watercolour, yet I had next to zero experience in watercolour painting and only a Cotman watercolour pocket box and 2-3 random WN tubes.

Falling back to my engineer background, I decided to do the only logical thing.  I combed through each of my course textbooks, tallying the frequency of colours and brands used in all of the examples.  I reasoned that this way, I could purchase only the most useful paints, saving money and effort.  The results, to my surprise, yielded a collection very similar to a 24-pan set of Winsor and Newton paints, which I promptly purchased.  I was very proud of my efficiency.

First Attempt Mixing ChartWhen my tin arrived, after some brief marvelling at the improvements over my old Cotman set, I set to work mixing greens, as prescribed by my course handouts.  To my dismay, many of my mixes came out much more opaque, muddy and granular than I had hoped.  Had I not gotten the perfect set after all?

I had not, in my initial search, paused to consider that most artists before me had probably purchased or received as a gift the very same tin, and that the frequency of use of these particular colours likely had more to do with convenience than any particular merit of the brand or paints.  While I wasn't thrilled with all of my colour choices, however, I was hooked on watercolour painting, and determined to find my "perfect" palette.

Armed with new determination (and a new job with which to pay for expensive paint), I set out to find the best watercolours. Google pointed me to  Handprint and Jane Blundell.  I eagerly read all about different pigments and brands, taking notes and cross-referencing. I desperately searched for any shred of information on which paints the artists I admired used.  I was frustrated that many seemed to offer completely contradictory statements of fact from each other. I made priority lists of paints I wanted to try, with alternates nearby on the colour wheel. I discovered brands that weren't mentioned anywhere in my course literature - it turns out, shocker, that North American brands are not widely available in the UK.

After at least a couple hundred hours of research, I finally bit the bullet, and started buying paint.  I bought 1-2 tubes from each of 6 brands on my list, all single pigment paints, with a preference for transparent and non-granular paints. I ran my own rudimentary pigmentation tests - debunking several manufacturers marketing hype as well as other artists claims, developing my own preferences as I went.CTTswj8WsAAmmOW (1)

Next, I went back to the internet.  Now that I was more familiar with my own preferences, I could start filling in the blanks in my own palette.  Using my selection of paints, I started working on a giant colour mixing chart to further refine my palette and develop better colour mixing intuition.  I left gaps for paints I had not yet purchased but intended to.

Scientific Method

My watercolour mixing mega-chart is still in progress.  I intend to fill it in fully next week.  However, I've learned so much from it I already have plans for the next one.  Of course, I'll need to try just a few more paints for that :P

Inspired by some of the bloggers I stalked obsessively this past year, I intend to write a series of post detailing what's in my palette and why I chose the brands/pigments I use.

Back to blog