Why you should (or should not) stick to single pigments in watercolor

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:

  1. 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.
    May Green by Schmincke (PG7, PY151)
    May Green by Schmincke, a convenience mix of two greens

    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.

  2. 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.
  3. 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),
    No automatic alt text available.
    Juggling my paint collection to fit new pigments into my 52-pan mega palette.  

    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.

  4. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

 

Colour harmony, limited palettes and realism

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).

Mixing Surface, Studio Watercolor Palette and corner of Gladiolus painting
My usual studio setup – 52+ pigments in my studio palette, about 3-5 paints make it onto my mixing surface

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.

Magenta and Two Greens
Two Greens and a Magenta – An effective colour palette for tomato plants?

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.

Screenshot 2017-07-22 20.50.54
Instagram Feed by Iraville

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.

Lichen and Cup Fungi on Elm Branch by Lee Angold
Cup Fungi and Lichen on Elm Branch – Coloured Pencil and Micron Pen by Lee Angold

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.

Muted Primaries
Muted, earthy triad – Spanish Gold Ochre, Salmon and Mayan Blue

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.

Rethinking the colour wheel: Mixing primaries from secondaries

Originally, I was going to give this blog post a much more clickbaity title, “There’s no such thing as primary colours”.

PG7 to PV23
Green + Violet = Blue ?!?

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.

The primary, secondary, and tertiary color wheels.
Yellow, Red, Blue Primary mixes

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.

CMY colour mixing, from John Muir Laws

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

Amazonite to PV55Cyan, 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.

Orange to violet.png

 

 

 

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.

YellowsFinally, 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The search for transparent yellow

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.

Nickel Azo
My single yellow – PY150 Nickel Azo Yellow by M. Graham

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.

IndianYellow
Comparison of “Transparent” Yellows  – 3 Formulations of PY153,  3 Indian Yellows, PY150

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.

The colour of joy is a mixed pigment

 

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”)

Greenish Yellow by Holbein (Py117) and May Green by Schmincke (PG7, PY151)
Two lovely yellowish greens. One has debatable lightfastness, the other is a convenience mix of two greens

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.

Favourite greens in other media
Most used colours in other media (Neon Green by Prismacolour scanned teal for some reason, it actually is a neon yellow-green)

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.

 

Testing Greens
“Joy” and “Self” greens in various media

 

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!

 

Effects of water hardness on watercolour paints

For the past couple of years,  my tap water has been curdling my paints.

It all started with a tube of Quinacridone Rust (PO48)  from M. Graham.   I was attracted to this paint partially because the pigment is listed as non-granulating,  and I fell in love with the colour, but ever since I got it, the paint has had a tendency to clump and curdle when mixed with water in the palette or dropped into a wash, resulting in an incredibly pronounced granulation pattern.  This pattern becomes even more pronounced when Quin. Rust is mixed with another dark valued, non granulating paint such as a phthalo.

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Colour mixing experiments with Quin Rust (PO48) and Phthalo Turquoise (PB16)

I searched the internet extensively, and could find no other reports of quinacridone rust granulating like this.  For months I was actually convinced I had received a dud tube, but avoided investigating further, because I really adore the colour and transparency of the tube I own.  Instead, I simply developed strategies for mitigating the crazy clumping and curdling.

Then, a few months ago, I purchased two more quinacridone paints by M. Graham – Quinacridone Rose (PV19)  and Neutral Tint (PV19 + PG7).  Again, all of the pigments are listed as non-granulating, but both of these paints showed the same clumping/curdling behaviour (albeit to a lesser extent).

Now, one dud tube would be easy to explain, but 3 dud tubes purchased at different times would reflect very poorly on the manufacturer.  And yet, still I could find no reports of similar experiences online.  I felt like I was going crazy.

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PV19 Quinacridone Rose (M. Graham) on palette with KW water

Finally, I reached out to other botanical artists and asked around.  Someone suggested I should paint with distilled water, as acidity and mineral in tap water can react with some paints.  Suddenly it clicked.   I live in Kitchener-Waterloo, known to have the hardest water in all of North America.

Water hardness refers to the amount of dissolved calcium and magnesium in the water.  Water tends to be harder when drawn as groundwater rather than from lakes or streams.  Water hardness leads to limescale deposits in pipes and fixtures, and premature degradation of water heaters in pipes.  In my area, most households (including my own) have a home water softener, which functions by replacing the dissolved calcium/magnesium with sodium.  We shower and do our dishes with saltwater, which is not drinkable, and have a hard-water tap direct from the city for drinking water. At my art studio, a few blocks away, we do not have a softener.  Thus, my paintings in the past few years have all been done with limewater, and perhaps occasionally saltwater.

In order to test the effects of the tap water on my paints, I purchased a large jug of distilled water at the grocery store, and painted out samples wet-in-wet and wet-on-dry on identical paper using hard water vs. distilled water.

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The difference between the two samples was dramatic.  However, there was still a little bit of texture visible in some of the paintouts even when using distilled brushwater.  I attribute this to mineral build-ups in the pans themselves, as well on the brush and the plates I use as palettes, which of course get washed in tap water.  I even tried a sample using fresh tube paints, which was even cleaner, but still contained a little bit of granulation.

So, from now on, I will be painting using distilled water.  My paints are much posher than me, and will get fancier drinking water than I do.  Eventually, I will have a reverse osmosis system installed for the drinking water line at home, although likely not at the studio, which is a rental shared with other artists.  I will however be able to fill up a bottle at home and take it to the studio.  However, I can’t imagine going through the trouble of only washing my palettes and brushes with distilled/RO water, so some hardness effects will still be seen.

I am somewhat torn about manufacturers.  I love the brightness and saturation of M. Graham paints, but they seem to be much more prone to this kind of curdling. Since running this test, I did look through my mixing charts and found a few other paints where some minor unexpected texture, but nothing remotely close to what is seen in these three paints.

My quinacridone pigments from other manufacturers do not show nearly as much clumping.  My PV19 Permanent Rose from Winsor Newton is unfortunately not as bold and red as the M. Graham version, but it shows only the faintest amount of texture even in hard water.  My PR122 Purple Magenta and PV55 Quinacridone Purple from Schmincke and PO49 Quin. Gold from Daniel Smith are also quinacridone pigments, but paint out completely smooth.  Given that in most cases I prefer smooth, non-granulating paint, and that my paint will no doubt continue to come into contact with some dissolved calcium and magnesium, would I be better served switching to different manufacturers for quinacridones (and any other paint that may be similarly affected)?

Does anyone know what the chemical reaction occuring might be in these cases?

Schmincke Horadam Dot Sheets – Brand Review

As I mentioned in my Watercolour Palette Tour teaser post last week, I recently received some watercolour trial dot cards of Schmincke Horadam watercolours.

I do already own a few Schmincke watercolours – Purple Magenta (PV122) and Translucent Orange (PO71) are in my “greatest hits” palette.  I also keep Schmincke’s Ultramarine Finest (PB28) in my larger studio palette – although I don’t love PB28 in, it is such a ubiquitous pigment that I do want to have some around. I do find this smoother, less granulating version less aggravating than most.

In general I had been impressed with my Schmincke watercolours.  The Purple Magenta and Translucent Orange are both unique, brilliant, beautiful colours with fantastic mixing and layering properties.  All three pour buttery smooth into pans, set nicely and rewet beautifully.  However, since Schmincke is such a hard-to-find, expensive brand in Canada, I only have a few tubes that other artists had recommended as standouts from the line.   I was thrilled to see them offering trial sheets, so I could find out how the rest of the line compares.

In addition to the 12-colour card I already blogged about,  I also got a a trial sheet of the 35 new colours they released in celebration of their 135th anniversary, and a large 80-dot set.   I also snapped up some small tubes of  Cobalt Blue Deep (PB74) and their newly released Quinacridone Purple (PV55) and Phthalo Sapphire (PB15:6) in the same (135-year!) anniversary sale where I got the dot samplers.

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I had hoped that that the 80-colour and 35-colour would be completely different sets (adding up to almost the full range of 139 colours Schmincke now offers), but alas there was substantial overlap, so I missed out on a number of interesting pigments, including the Translucent Brown I was particularly excited to sample.  Schmincke does produce a 135 colour dot trial sheet, which was out of stock.  Perhaps someday I will buy that one.

Schmincke testing

According to Handprint, Schmincke is a popular brand among botanical artists “for their consistent texture and less emphatic chroma”. I’ve heard the same sentiment echoed by other artists.  With only a few paints, I couldn’t really comment  on consistency, and “less emphatic chroma” is not a word I would use to describe Purple Magenta or Transparent Orange, even alongside my eye-scorchingly bright M. Grahams.  After painting out swatches from the large trial sheet (and squeezing my new paints into pans), I have a much better understanding of what they mean.

Schmincke Horadam are exceptionally well-behaved paints.  These are stern, precise, German paints.  

All 6 of the tubes I own have squeezed out neatly with a creamy, even consistency, and then settled into looking like smooth, shiny little candies, which all rewet neatly and are never sticky.  This in comparison to my M. Graham paints- which glob out unevenly into sticky, unsightly mounds in my palette which eventually dry but never look smooth, or my Daniel Smith and Winsor Newton paints, which crack as they dry or pop out of the pan entirely.

In terms of the behaviour of the paints themselves, particularly in the dot set, I was struck with how all of the paints behaved similarly.  Whereas in some brands, like Daniel Smith, granulating paints will create wild crater-like patterns and staining paints will be prone to dramatic backruns, this effect was barely noticeable across most of the Schmincke line, with the exception of a few of the newest additions.  Granulating paints left delicate granules in place.  Staining paints painted out evenly, and stayed put where they were brushed in.   The colours seemed about as saturated as Winsor and Newton or Holbein overall, although the range of saturation was less pronounced (the phthalos less overwhelming, cobalts and earth tones more saturated).

The Schmincke line does include a few very bright, brilliant, high chroma colours.However, although these are all bright and well-pigmented, they do not overwhelm mixes as much as some of my M. Grahams or even the Winsor Newton phthalos.

Having swatched out these paints, I can certainly see why many botanical artists would appreciate this controlled, predictable behaviour.   In very detailed, technical work where precise colour mixing is desired, one does not want to worry about a stray puddle of phthalo green eating your palette whole or crazy textured bumps appearing in your smooth flowers because your ultramarine granulated over-enthusiastically.  Schmincke definitely delivers a consistent, reliable, user-friendly product.

For most of my painting, I am addicted to the wild ride of the most saturated, highly staining, brightest colours and the responsiveness of honey-based paints.  However, I do find the idea of putting together a cohesive palette with similar hues to my current favourites, but all in nicely-setting, evenly mixing formulations appealing.  Occasionally for delicate subjects, or in a travel context, it might be nice to have better-behaved alternatives, so I looked carefully at the Schmincke offerings of my favourite pigments.

My current primary triad is Schminke’s Purple Magenta (PR122),  M. Graham Nickel Azo Yellow (PY150) and Winsor Newton Pthalo Turquoise (PB16).  Given that my choice for magenta is already Schmincke, I was particularly interested in Schmincke’s PY150 and PB16 offerings.  I was not impressed with either one.  Whereas the M. Graham PY 150 looks like bird poop in the pan but washes out to a brilliant primary yellow, the Schmincke looked smoother concentrated but didn’t achieve that clear pure yellow look even in tints- always looking a little brownish/earthy, not a great choice for a primary/main yellow.  And while the PB16 was a lovely colour in tints, it did not appear to be as concentrated as the Winsor Newton, which is nearly black in masstone.

Other favourites were also dissapointing.  PY129 did not have the lively green masstone of M. Graham’s green gold, instead appearing more brown.  PB60 Delft Blue was the gorgeous blue of cobalt glass when wet, and I was very hopeful, but when dry it looked ashy and greyer than both the M. Graham and Daniel Smith versions.

However, the dot cards did introduce me to some other offerings which I may soon add to my collection.  Schmincke has quite a range of pleasingly bright and transparent colours in the red/rose/coral family. I am also hungrily eyeing the absolutely yummy version of PG50 Cobalt Teal.  I currently own this pigment in QoR, which is nice from the tube but I don’t like the rewetting behaviour of.  The Schmincke version is prettier, brighter, and rewets beautifully.   I may even spring for May Green, which is the happiest bright green (gasp! a convenience colour).

 

 

Watercolour Palette Tour 2017 – Teaser

Whew, I haven’t blogged in a really long time.  I’m eager to get back to it.

I’ve made a number of changes to my palettes since my last colourholics post last year.    Recently, I set up a “complete” studio palette in  a tin of half-pans of all of the watercolour paints I regularly use  (it claims to hold 48 – I haven’t filled up the 52 I crammed in there yet and I think I could find a way to fit a few more in the brush well) , and repurposed one of my old 24-half pan tins to hold my 14 most commonly used pigments in full pans.

Soon after creating my 14-colour “greatest hits” set, I received some freebie dot cards from Schmincke.  One of the samples was  a 12-colour dot card.  These are the colours they include in their filled version of the same tin.  I couldn’t resist painting out the comparison.  The results are a reminder of how far I’ve drifted in only a couple of years, when I used to use sets much like this one.

The top row in the dot card below are the colours in the Schmincke 12 colour set.  The ones in the bottom row and middle are the 14 colours I’ve recently put in the same tin.

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Comparison of Schmincke 12 paint set vs. my top 14.

The colours in the Schmincke 12-colour basic set are:

Lemon Yellow 215 (PY3)
Cadmium Yellow Light 224 (PY35)
Cadmium Red Light 349 (PR108)
Permanent Carmine 353 (PV19)
Ultramarine Finest 494 (PB29)
Prussian Blue 492 (PB27)
Phthalo Green 519 (PG7)
Permanent Green Olive 534 (PO62, PG7)
Yellow Ochre 655 (PY42)
English Venetian Red 649 (PR101)
Sepia Brown 663 (PBr7, PBk9, PB15:1)
Ivory Black 780 (PBk9)

My set contains the following (the starred items are the most permanent fixtures)

Nickel Azo Yellow (Py150, M. Graham)*
Quinacridone Gold (PO49, Daniel Smith)
Translucent Orange (P071, Schmincke)
Quinacridone Rust (P048, M. Graham)*
Quinacridone Rose (PV19, M. Graham)*
Purple Magenta (PV122, Schmincke)*
Neutral Tint (PV19, PG7 M. Graham)
Indanthrone Blue (PB60, Daniel Smith)*
Prussian Blue (PB27, M. Graham)*
Phthalo Turquoise (PB16, Winsor and Newton)*
Amazonite Genuine (n/a, Daniel Smith Primatek)*
Serpentine Genuine (n/a, Daniel Smith Primatek)*
Burnt Sienna (PBr7, M. Graham)
Raw Umber (PBr7, Daniel Smith)*

I find this comparison a rather hilarious reminder of how far I’ve come.  I much prefer my colours (of course).  They are overall much more transparent, more saturated and darkly valued, and are far more chromatic in the magenta and turquoise ranges.  I love turquoise.  Over the course of the past 2 years, I have very effectively gamut shifted from a beginner set like this one to something I find more attractive and fun to work with.

The colours in the Schmincke 12-paint set (and most 12-colour sets like it) remind me quite a bit of the basic box of crayola crayons or pencils.  This is not a criticism of Schmincke paints, as this is the impression I get from most basic colour sets across manufacturers.  The highest chroma “primary colours”  included are the yellow, blue and red we are familiar with from kindergarden – a highlighter yellow (Py3), an opaqueish orangey red (PR108), and a very violet blue (PB29).

The magenta tone in the Schmincke set (PV19) is still quite a warm rose, and relatively muted – there is no way to use this set to mix nice violets and magentas. It’s a shame, as Schmincke manufactures an amazing pure magenta (PR122 Purple Magenta) which would really round this set out.  Even a less muted, cooler variant of PV19 (Schmincke has a few) could be used.  Similarly, the greenish blue spot is occupied by PB27 Prussian Blue.  I actually quite like Prussian blue (and have included M. Graham PB27 in my own set), but the Schmincke version  is particularly muted, and I would like to see a high chroma  turquoise-slanted blue, such as a PB15:3 Phthalo Blue or  PB16 Phthalo Turquoise (my personal favourite) in that spot.

As with most beginner sets, the Schmincke set has a black watercolour as well as a mixed dark containing black.  As most artists, the first thing I do when I buy a set is chuck the black/white and replace it with a personal favourite.  The earth tones – a yellow ochre and “English Venetian red” a brownish brick red made from PR101, are a somewhat surprising choice.  I actually quite like the venetian red but I think I would prefer a PBr7 in this set, to mix neutrals with the Ultramarine Finest.  I don’t like the yellow ochre, and would prefer something livelier and more transparent.

I also got some larger dot cards from Schmincke with my order, which I will review in a later post.  I’ve had a lot of fun experimenting with different watercolours, and it’s renewed my confidence and love for the pigments I’ve chosen for my own palettes.  I look forward to sharing my full palette tour and colour swatches with you soon.

 

 

DIY Christmas Tiny Palettes

As holiday gifts, several people on my list are receiving lovingly handmade tiny watercolour palettes, filled with a selection of artist quality paints.  I’m also making a couple different versions for myself.

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My palettes are a shameless rip-off.  Last year, while putting together my urban sketching kit, I came across the absolutely amazing Expeditionary Art Pocket Palette by Maria Corryel Martin.

This palette has a number of advantages over other travel palettes.  it is extremely compact, fitting 14 colours into a business card holder. The pans are shallow but have more surface area than a standard half pan, making this a very usable palette that holds a surprising amount of paint.  In addition, the pans are made of tin and attach magnetically to the palette box, which means if you purchase extra pans, you can swap colours around at will.

Most cleverly (Maria Corryel Martin is a visionary genius), the Pocket Palette is assembled entirely out of commercially available products.  It is a snazzier version of the popular DIY watercolour kits made from Altoids tins, blister packs of gum, dollar store makeup palettes, etc.  Immediately, my gears started churning thinking of all the variations I could make myself. I’ll show you how to DIY your own palettes.

NOTE:  If you just want 1 or 2 basic palettes, support a brilliant artist by buying  from Expeditionary Art.  DIY is only cheaper if you plan to make several palettes or customize them.

What you’ll need:

How to assemble:

  • First, create your mixing surface by masking off the rest of the cardholder/box and using spray enamel on the inside lid.  Allow to dry according to package directions.
  • Squeeze your desired tube paints into tin makeup pans, and allow to dry.
  • Once your mixing surface is dry, stick the magnetic sheet to the inside bottom of your cardholder/box
  • Arrange your paint pans on the magnet surface.

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  • Paint colour swatches on watercolour paper for reference.  I used the makeup pans as a template.
  • Done!  Easy-peasy.

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The pictures in this post are of a palette I made and filled for my sister. For my sister’s watercolour kit,  I stuck fairly close to the original Expeditionary Art design. I ordered a business card holder engraved with her name from Vistaprint. My studio business card is included for scale reference.My enamel paint did not arrive in time, so my sister’s palette won’t get a mixing surface until later.

The chart below shows the colours I included in her set (she also received 5 empty pans to swap out with her own tubes).

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Most colours are from my usual studio tube set.  However, I also purchased a QoR High Chroma Set just for travel kits.  Two of my current favourite pigments are Green Gold/Azo Green (Py129) and Cobalt Teal (PB50) but these are both extra sticky liquid in my favourite M. Graham, and thus unsuitable for small travel pans.  QoR’s High Chroma set includes lovely versions of these pigments, as well as a deep rosy PR122 Quinacridone Magenta and a very rich PV23 Dioxazine Purple, which I also included in this palette.

In a later post, I will share some of the other small magnetic travel palettes I am working on for myself and others.

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