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
Working as a primarily watercolour artist, I have heard some frequently repeated myths from customers as well as other artists, which I would like to dispell.
The first myth I hear very frequently is “Doesn’t watercolour fade?”.
The short answer is no, my watercolour paintings will not fade. In fact, most watercolour paintings you buy from professional artists should be just as durable as other media, especially if framed behind conservation glass.
Watercolour, like most other artistic paint media such as acrylic paint, oil paint, etc, is composed of pigments held together with a binder. For oil paint, this is a drying oil such as linseed oil or walnut oil, for acrylic this is an acrylic emulsion (a synthetic plastic product that hardens in contact with air).
The primary binder in watercolour is gum arabic, a resin made from acacia sap, and sometimes honey. Gum arabic and honey are no more prone to discolouration or other long term effects than other binders. In fact, oil-based binders have a tendency to yellow over time, as do acrylics (which as a newer media, have not yet stood the test of time).
Pigments are naturally occuring and synthetic colourful chemical compounds, which paint manufacturers mix with binders to create paint. In modern days, we are spoiled with a wide variety of stable pigments, thanks to global shipping and modern chemistry. With a little bit of care, artists in all media can use a palette of extremely lightfast, durable colours which will not fade or change colour under any circumstances.
In the past, artists had very limited choices in some parts of the colour spectrum. For instance, before modern lightfast synthetic rose colours such as Quinacridone Rose (PV19) became available, artists had no choice but to use less reliable pigments such as Alizarin Crimson (PR83 ) or extremely fugitive genuine carmine (NR4).
Lightfastness is a problem across all media, not just watercolour
Poor lightfastness is by no means unique to watercolours. Oil or acrylic paintings made using carmine or other fugitive pigments will also eventually fade. To the left is a portrait of Charles Churchill. It now looks ghostly, but when it was originally painted, the subject’s cheeks were likely rosy, and the coat a deep red, through the extensive use of carmine and other fugitive pigments, long since gone.
However, in oil paint, the thicker paint film provides a small amount of UV protection, so an oil painting using fugitive paints may last a little longer than an unprotected watercolour framed behind clear glass.
Modern artist-grade paints are generally not made with highly fugitive pigments such as carmine anymore. However, some specialty paints (such as neon paints and some common brands of liquid watercolours) as well as cheap scholastic grade paints, are made with fugitive dyes instead of traditional pigments (again, this is equally true in non-watercolour media). In addition, some pigments with limited lightfastness are still used in artist paint lines (for example, alizarin crimson is still a common pigment which many artists use. While more durable than carmine, alizarin still has a significantly lower lightfastness than similar quinacridone-based pigments)
How much do you really care about lightfastness?
Some artists prefer to use impermanent materials for immediate impact, rather than creating artwork that will last centuries. Most popular mixed-media, collages including newspaper clipping or plant matter, resin etc are prime examples of this. Similarly, some painters use neon paints, which are virtually all fugitive.
There’s nothing wrong with buying and displaying art for your enjoyment that won’t last forever. For example, I purchased the beautiful oil painting shown on the right (by my studio mate Carly Leyburne) as a statement piece for my dining room. The hot pink trees are painted with an oil paint that includes a rhodamine dye, which will eventually fade. I am not concerned. It looks fantastic right now. We’ll cross the fading bridge when we get to it. I may be old and senile by then anyway 😉
If you are unsure of the pigments used in your watercolour paintings, and would like to ensure they stay looking bright for years to come, framing your art behind conservation glass (which offers significant UV protection) and not hanging it in direct sunlight can dramatically slow any fading in both watercolour and other media.
How to ensure you are creating lightfast art
I am happy to buy any art that catches my eye, with little concern for archival qualities. However, as a seller, I do feel compelled to stay one step ahead, and ensure that my artwork will continue to look bright and fresh, regardless of how my customers choose to frame or display it.
If you are an artist looking to produce artwork that will last for centuries, you can ensure the durability of your pieces by eliminating pigments from your palette which do not have an “excellent” or “very good” lightfastness rating.
The most durable pigments should last centuries without discernable change, given proper framing and protection. Below, I’ve listed a few common paints to watch out for, as well as alternatives. This list is by no means exhaustive – do your homework and research the specific paints that you use if lightfastness is a concern for you
“Opera Rose” and other paints containing rhodamine dye (BV10): Probably the least lightfast paint in most modern paint lines, “Opera Rose” is a hot pink, popular with botanical artists looking for the brightest colour. Usually formulated with PR122 (Quinacridone Magenta) and rhodamine B dye. The rhodamine is highly fugitive, if exposed to sunlight, this will lose brightness, fading back to the (still fairly bright, but not neon) PR122. A safer alternative is to just stick with Purple Magenta (PR122) to begin with.
Alizarin Crimson (PR83): An early synthetic and once the most stable “cool” red, Alizarin Crimson is a relatively dull, deep rosy red. It is now considered relatively fugitive compared to the many available permanent red pigments. Many modern paint manufacturers still offer Alizarin Crimson, and it is favoured by portrait artists and traditionalists over the brighter, modern quinacridone rose (PV19) for mixing skintones and rosy lips because it is slightly muted. However, it isn’t very permanent. Many brands offer a “permanent alizarin crimson” formulated with quinacridone red (PR206) or redder shades of quinacridone violet (PV19). I use Quinacridone Rose (PV19) or Purple Magenta (PR122) for most mixing, and Perylene
Hansa Yellow Lemon (PY3 and PY1): The moderately lightfast Hansa Yellow Lemon (PY3) is one of the most common lemon yellow pigments available. It is much more transparent and highly tinting than other pigments in this range. PY3’s close cousin PY1 (also a Hansa Yellow Lemon) is even less lightfast, yet is still available in some paint lines. An increasing number of paint brands have started offering Lemon Yellow paints made with PY175 , an azo lemon yellow with a “very good”lightfastness rating.
Dioxazine Violet(PV23): Present in nearly every watercolour line, dioxazine violet varies in lightfastness depending on manufacturing. It is a deep, saturated, transparent and non-granulating bright cool violet colour, in a portion of the colour wheel with relatively few pigment alternatives. It is also a relatively inexpensive pigment, whcih no doubt contributes to it’s enduring popularity. There is no single pigment replacement for dioxazine violet, however, hues can easily be mixed from a warmer violet shade such as quinacridone purple (PV55) and a splash of a blue.
Rose Madder Genuine: Most brands have discontinued this pigment, but Winsor Newton have made it their flagship colour. The Winsor Newton paint is scented with bergamot – originally to please Queen Victoria. It is a slightly muted, liftable colour similar in hue to Quinacridone Rose (PV19) but lighter and more muted. Just use quinacridones. For a muted pink with some granulation, try Potter’s Pink (PR233)
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Apparently I just can’t let this subject go. I am becoming the crazy water hardness and watercolour clumping lady. Recently I was reminded of this problem/puzzle while planning for participating in Inktober.
In this video she demonstrates how she creates dramatic, organic-looking textural effects using Winsor & Newton Indian Ink diluted in water. When mixed with tap water the ink clumps up, and deposits in a granulating texture on the paper.
Being a water-resistant ink, this can then be worked over with transparent watercolour without destroying the granulation pattern. I thought this might be useful for some spotting effects I commonly see on dry grasses and
seed pods in winter, and stashed the tip away for possible future use.
I’ve been thinking about what to do for Inktober. I would like to try in
king with liquid ink and a brush for some of my pieces. While thinking about what to do with liquid ink, I saw some other recommendations to thin it out for grey washes. I was reminded of the Stephanie Law video, and decided to look up Winsor & Newton ink specifically.
On the Jackson’s art listing for Winsor & Newton’s waterproof ink, I found something very interesting:
See that yellow highlighted paragraph. Here’s what it says:
The colours can be easily diluted with water to reduce the strength of the colour or to increase it’s transparency. Distilled water must be used as tap water causes the dye to separate from the binder.
Yep, that’s right. Winsor & Newton drawing inks are watersoluble, but only in distilled water. Even small amounts of dissolved minerals in tap water cause the ink particles to clump and curdle out of solution, causing the textural effects that Stephanie Pui-Mun Law uses to such great effect in her pieces. This behaviour is similar to what I experienced in M. Graham watercolor paints.
I wonder whether there is a similarity between the binder(s) used in the Winsor & Newton inks and the M. Graham paints. Very intriguing.
After my latest post (a tour of my huge studio palette), I received several requests to post a similar “palette tour” blog entry for what I call my “Greatest Hits” palette, a collection of full pans of my 14 most commonly used colours.
The idea behind this palette was to curate a selection of paints that I could take out of the studio for travel or home use which would allow me to paint a large range of botanical and plein-air urban sketching subjects in a relatively portable way (although this palette is still relatively bulky), as well as facilitating my work in the studio and out by enabling me to load larger quantities of my frequently used colours easily.
I’ve been delaying writing this post for a few weeks, because although I have been using this palette regularly for several months, as both a travel palette and in the studio, over time I’ve come up with several changes I intended to make to it as I used up the paints currently inside it. I couldn’t decide whether I should profile the palette as I’ve been using it, or my current (and ever-evolving) lineup of “ideal” colours.
However, last week I decided to order an all-new full-pan palette from Ebay. The new palette is thinner and more compact than the current palette, yet holds up to 24 full pans. The picture below shows the half-pan version of the same palette, which I ordered to use as a studio palette in my home studio.
The practical upshot is that sometime in the next few months, my “greatest hits” palette in it’s current format will cease to exist, being replaced with a much larger selection of paints. However, I still think it is useful to keep track of my paints in terms of smaller curated collections.
Therefore, I will give you a tour of what is currently in my “greatest hits” 14-colour palette, and discuss what I would change, or which paints I could eliminate in even smaller palettes.
The image below is the swatch sheet I made of the colours in my current “Greatest Hits” Palette. The template I used was designed by the amazing Sade of “Sadie Saves the Day”, who sells the templates as digital downloads in her shop :
In the listings below, I’ve included (affiliate) links to my favourite paints. As always, I’m trying to find the best prices for most of my viewers. American brands have Dick Blick/Utrecht links, European brands are listed with Jackson’s links. All have reasonable shipping fees around the world. However, if you are in Canada, the Daniel Smith/M.Graham paints are available more affordably at Deserres and Curry’s, respectively. The colours contained in this palette are:
PY150 – Nickel Azo Yellow – M. Graham : My favourite yellow, hands down. Truly transparent, no milkiness and a beautiful middle yellow in tints. Mixes beautiful greens and subtle oranges. Lovely in glazes. Forever in my faves.
PO49 – Quinacridone Gold – Daniel Smith: Recently discontinued by Daniel Smith, the last remaining manufacturer, this is a good transparent alternative to Raw Sienna or Yellow Ochre, and works beautifully as a glazing colour. I have a few backup tubes stockpiled, but a good convenience mix is available from most brands (usually made with PY150 and PO48, the two neighbouring pans). In a smaller set, or if I run out of the single pigment, I would simply mix PY150 and PO48
PO48 – Quinacridone Rust – M. Graham: A beautiful earthy orange hue, this particular formulation of this pigment has given me no end of grief . Although I love the saturation of this paint, I’ve decided I just can’t deal with the weird curdling behaviour for my formal paintings. I’ve already replaced it in my studio palette with the similar Da Vinci paint, which is a slightly browner tone. It will be years before I run out of the Da Vinci, but I’m also curious to try the Daniel Smith Quinacridone Burnt Orange, which is apparently slightly more orangey.
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.
PV19- Quinacridone Rose – M. Graham: Another M. Graham colour with weird curdling behaviour , this one is available from basically every other manufacturer. However, I tend to prefer using PR122 for most applications, so I could leave it out altogether, or replace it with another colour, such as a deeper red, or my current crush PR242 Geranium Red by Schmincke
PR122 – Purple Magenta – Schmincke: My choice for a primary magenta colour, a really pretty transparent clear magenta, very slightly on the violet side.
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.
PB16 – Phthalo Turquoise – Winsor Newton: Another clear favourite, the final part of my “primary triad” of PY150, PR122 and PB16. Oh so pretty, deep and transparent.
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. Graham Chosen 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.