As a new freelance artist and illustrator, it is very hard to resist getting sucked into worrying about “artistic style”.
There’s no denying that creators with a distinctive and cohesive “look” to their pieces have a certain edge in selling their work – viewers who are attracted to one of their pieces will likely enjoy all of them. The repetition of showing visually cohesive work tells a story and creates a brand. People will recognize an artist with a distinctive style by their work, even without seeing a signature. Customers will feel like they are purchasing a true insight into the artist when they buy a piece that is part of a larger visual narrative.
But what is artistic style, and can it be cultivated?
A couple of months ago, I finally took the plunge and bought myself some gouache paints. Although in general I love the delicacy and glazing properties of transparent watercolour, there are some subjects where the opacity and flatter finish of gouache (opaque watercolour) are preferable. I decided to use this opportunity of starting in a new medium to apply what I have learned about colour theory and gamut mapping as well as my own preferences to select only a relatively limited “personal palette” of colours. Continue reading →
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?
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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!
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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.
I’ve realised that not only am I generally a fan of transparent,non-granulating pigments in watercolour, I am particularly fussy about this preference when it comes to yellows. I can enjoy a fair bit of granulation and opacity in mossy greens and browns (great for adding visual weight to heavy foliage, bark and rocks). The opacity of Cobalt Teal is what gives it that absolutely yummy irresistible bright colour in the pan. Softly granulating, semi-opaque manganese and cobalt violets are great for laying in shadows, and even one of my favourite primaries, Purple Magenta (PR122) is far from transparent. But even the smallest hint of milkyness in my yellows makes me gag. In my ideal world- all yellows would be like clear, pure liquid sunshine.
This is a stroke of terrible luck on my part. Whereas transparent pigments abound in some sections of the colour wheel – there’s a transparent, non-granulating phthalo pigment for every shade of blue-green you can imagine, transparent yellows are few and far between – the most common yellows being opaque cadmiums or semi-transparent azo and hansa pigments.
As a result, for the past year, I have basically used one yellow pigment, PY150 (Nickel Azo Yellow or Transparent Yellow) for all my yellow needs. I do also use small amounts of Green Gold (PY129) and Quinacridone Gold (PO49), which are arguably also part of the yellow family, but PY150 is the only “true” yellow I have used in a painting in the past year.
As an unapologetic pigment magpie – at last count I had 15 blues in my half-pan palette, most of which I find a use for regularly, my yellow section has been relatively anemic. I do keep some Hansa Yellows PY3 and PY97 I tried and never took to, along with my trusty PY150. On somebody’s recommendation, at one point I also bought M. Graham’s PY110 Indian Yellow, which is a lovely colour, but also rarely used (and really more of a yellowish-orange, IMO).
Apart from an impulse to try ALL the things, having only one yellow I regularly use hasn’t been much of a problem. As a botanical artist – I primarily use yellow to mix greens for leaves. PY150 is very close to a primary yellow in tints, and I have so many blues and greens I can easily mix any green I could imagine with only the one real yellow.
However, the trouble with PY150 as a sole yellow comes when rendering pure yellow subjects such as flowers. Transparent pigments are darker in masstone – in the case of PY150, this masstone shifts to a greenish-brownish sludgy colour I like to refer to as “birdshit brown”. In rendering leafy subjects, this is never a problem, as this colour works with the shadows. However, pure yellow flowers often want similarly “clean” shadows in a warmer orange colour or a cleaner greenish one. So a few months ago, I started once again feeling the itch to try exploring alternative yellow pigments.
Reading up on pigments, I became very curious about PY153 Nickel Dioxine Yellow, often sold as “Indian Yellow” or “New Gamboge” up until 2012 or so. It is described as transparent, non-granulating marigold yellow in masstone fading out to a warm primary yellow in tints.
Manufacturing of PY153 ceased a couple years before I started painting in watercolour. Most lines have since discontinued the once popular PY153, but a few brands still use it and of course there’s some older tubes still floating around. I decided to try to find as much PY153 while I could, and stock up if I liked it.
From Jackson’s Art Supplies in the UK – I ordered two PY153 paints. Sennelier Yellow Light, still made with single pigment PY153, is an oddball formulation that is much lighter/greener than the Indian Yellow/New Gamboge usually associated with the pigment. I also ordered Jackson’s own brand Indian Yellow, which claims to be made with PY153. I actually question whether this is true – Jackson’s brand is also made by Sennelier, who a few years ago reformulated their own Indian Yellow to be a mix of PY153 with PY154. However I will trust the label, as it is possible that it is older stock, or that Sennelier is still making paint they resell to other labels with the old formula.
I also wanted to try some of the popular, discontinued Winsor Newton PY153. Luckily for me, I live in a smallish town – large enough to have art stores, small enough that their stock turnover rate is extremely slow, and was also able to get my hands on some Winsor Newton Indian Yellow made with single-pigment PY153. Winsor Newton also apparently sold PY153 as New Gamboge, although I could not find any left over in the local shops.
In this way, I’ve managed to collect 3 different formulations of PY153. I also, rather confusingly, now have 3 paints named “Indian Yellow”. In the test swatch above, I’ve painted out Sennelier Yellow Lt (PY153), MG Nickel Azo Yellow (PY150), Winsor Newton’s old formula Indian Yellow (PY153), Jackson’s Indian Yellow (PY153) and MG Indian Yellow (PY110)
On the bottom line I glazed all the yellows over Winsor Blue GS – clearly I didn’t let the latter dry long enough as it bled into the yellow paints. It is a hot, humid day here.
My results were somewhat mixed, and I feel somewhat foolish for spending a whole bunch of money on yellows when really I’m happy painting with PY150 99% of the time
PY153 Sennelier Yellow Light (Sennelier) is a beautiful pure yellow colour, just to the lemon side of primary. It would make a good addition to my palette, but it really isn’t transparent. You can see the yellow over the top black line. Also, annoyingly, it is less transparent when wet, which really adds to my gaggy reaction painting with yellow milk. That said, for those who don’t have such an illogical response to non-transparent yellows, it is a pretty colour.
PY150 Nickel Azo Yellow (M. Graham) remains my favourite yellow. The birdshit brown really doesn’t look so bad unless it’s REALLY concentrated, and it makes a beautiful variety of greens and oranges in mixes. I would probably still choose to paint most things with this.
PY153 Indian Yellow (Winsor Newton) This is my favourite of the PY153 paints (and of the paints named Indian Yellow). It is the most transparent and the most chromatic of these groups, although still less than PY150 – ranging from a golden orange to a beautiful marigold yellow, down to a buttery colour in tints. It is really too bad this is discontinued. I’ve managed to get my hands on 2 5mL tubes. I can see reaching for this paint to paint warm yellow flowers such as sunflowers or black-eyed susans, where it would capture both the body colour and midtone shadows perfectly.
PY153 Indian Yellow (Jackson’s) This is similar to the WN paint but slightly less transparent and slightly less chromatic. I don’t know if this is down to the paint manufacturing, or whether the Jackson’s tube is incorrectly also contains the less transparent PY154. On the brighter side, it is about a quarter the price, not discontinued, and comes in massive 21 mL tubes – a couple of those should last a lifetime. If you are less fussy about transparency, it’s a nice colour.
PY110 Indian Yellow (M. Graham) Although my scanner is exaggerating, this really is more of an orange than a pure yellow, although it does make a nice golden glaze.
Over the past couple years I have primarily been focusing on watercolour as a medium, and building up my collection of watercolours one tube at a time. I’ve been focusing on single-pigment colours, especially those rated “very lightfast” by independent testers. I now have quite a large selection of different colours, fairly well distributed around the colour wheel, yet I still felt like something was missing.
A couple of months ago, I was swatching out dot sheets by Schmincke. I got to the colour “May Green” and squealed out loud. It is such a lovely, happy green! Of course, it was also a mixed pigment (PG151 and PG7) so I debated whether I should get it, since I could just mix it myself.
Around the same time, the single pigment Py117 Greenish Yellow by Holbein had caught my eye. Although I love the colour, I was put off by Handprint’s review, which showed less-than-perfect lightfastness (Holbein ranks the lightfastness as “excellent”)
I debated whether to buy these paints for a while. I really, really wanted them, but my dogmatic side prevented me from pulling the trigger, until one day, while working on a coloured pencil piece, I noticed which pencils were worn down to stubs in each of my sets. Without fail, it was all my yellowish greens in the light olive to bright spring green family.
This should not come as a surprise. A fun fact that few people know about me is that I have synaesthesia. In fact, I only found out a few years ago that I have it.
Synaesthesia is a quirk in brain wiring that affects something like 3% of the population – causing different senses or concepts to be associated/linked in unusual ways. When I first read about synaesthesia, the article used some examples that seemed really foreign and crazy to me, such as one person who has shape-smell synaesthesia (ie- cubes smell like carrots, etc), and another who uses her number-depth synaesthesia as a way to perform complex arithmetic really quickly by “balancing” distances. I was kind of jealous that other people had these crazy, weird superpowers when my brain was just normal (or so I thought).
The second time I read about synaesthesia was in a much more in-depth article that gave examples of more common types of synaesthesia. This time I was very confused, because several of the examples given were things that I do experience. For example, as I am writing this in my cold basement, my fingers feel a very nearly white, icy blue, whereas my arms and hands are more of a teal. I have temperature-colour synaesthesia. Since I’ve experienced temperatures as colours as long as I can remember, I have trouble imagining the concept of a warm day that is NOT orange-yellow, or of cold fingers that are not icy blue. I thought, since people often discuss the concept of warm vs. cool colours, and that water taps are labelled with blue/red, that this was the universal experience of temperature (although I always did find it odd that the cold tap is labelled with ultramarine, which is most definitely not the “cold” blue).
In fact, I have many types of experience/colour synaesthesia. Among other things, I experience emotions as colours, some kinds of sounds have colour associations, people have colour associations.
Notably, my colour association for the emotion “Joy” is a bright, spring green, nearly a perfect match for Schmincke’s May Green watercolour. You can see similar examples in the top row of the swatches of my most used/favourite colours in other media below. No surprise then, that my reaction to painting it out was so giddy. (Again, ignore Prismacolor’s neon green. It is neon green, not teal)
On the second row of swatches are some more olive yellow-greens. These are all near matches for the colour I associate with myself. The truest match for “Lee Green” is between Faber Castell Polychromos May Green, and Lyra Polycolor Apple Green. Holbein’s Greenish Yellow is among the closest single pigment watercolours, although a little too muted and yellow. Daniel Smith’s Serpentine Genuine (from the Primatek line) is also fairly close, but a little too cool, and not as transparent as I often want.
So, needless to say I bought both of the watercolour paints. I will conduct independant lightfastness tests for the Holbein paint, but even if I am not satisfied it will have a place in my travel/sketch palette. May Green may be a mixed pigment, but Joy should always be available in my palette.
I hope you will all join me in hoping for more single pigment greens to be discovered and developed for watercolour!