Diana Probst, Cambridge Artist

Adding Colour Part 3

A clear glass vase with two flowers in itThis is a bit of a ramble about my watercolour habits. First of all, let me blame James Knight and all the other people who encouraged me along the way. Fools, do you know what you have done?

I use dry pigment that comes in little cakes. Mine are the size known as ‘half pan’ but I could get bigger ones if I wanted to. It is a modern, standardised size, and when I run my half pan out I can just slot another one into the space in my palette. I have two watercolour palettes and a tiny pocket set of pencils that I carry most of the time. The small palette echoes the big one, letting me practice both when I have only one. I bought the big one first then wanted another to fit into my pocket, so I bought the smaller one to do just that. Tube watercolours tend to have an agent that keeps them thick. If you try to mix pan paint to that consistency with a brush it is hard to get there, although leaving the block to soak can have much the same effect.

If you buy a kit with white in, be aware that this is a piece of marketing. Beginners will usually be used to tempera paints, like the poster paints they have in school, where white is a valid colour. For pan paint, white is not needed. For tube paint, where you might possibly paint thickly, it is worth having the white.

I started, as most people do, buying a particular set of colours. Rather than buy small and work up, I decided to get myself a larger travel set, full of half pans, and I worked my way through a few internet exercises. I hit John Lovett’s online instructions and learned a lot, and then I was lucky enough to be presented with a project. Annoyingly, you could probably do at least as well on John Lovett’s page as here, but it is an information-heavy area, so if you start to drown, stop mixing the colours. Below, there is more of my rambling.

Because I bought the set, I had a load of student grade colours. These are often a strong pigment mixed with an extender – something that does not alter it much, but pads out the colour. They might also be larger particles covered with smaller coloured ones, to give nearly the same effect as if it were small particles alone. For the most part, you do not have to worry about paying extra; it will make far less difference than learning to use the colours properly, and if you still enjoy watercolour when you can control your brush work finely, you can buy more expensive paint.

Every pigment has a different particle size and a different transparency. In watercolour, there are two main groups of paint that you want to use together; transparent and opaque. Mixing two opaque pigments will give you a result that does not let the paper shine through. While it is possible to use paint thickly and chase this result on purpose, there are better mediums to be using for the same effect. Test this by putting down a thick line of black pen and painting over it with different colours. See which ones show least black through them.

Some colours stain the paper as soon as they are put on, while others sit on the paper’s surface and can be scrubbed or lifted later. Modern Cadmium colours are hard to lift off, but mostly this is a question of experimentation. Take a square ended brush and put a rectangular shape down onto paper. Wash the brush well, and when the rectangle is properly dry, use the brush to add a sheen of water over it and no more. Using the tip of the brush as a blade, scrub and look at the result.

A paint, especially a ground earth tone, can come out of solution and sit in the folds of paper. To find out which will do that most, you can mix up a wash with a bit too much water, and leave it. If when you come back you can draw in the sediment on the bottom, you have a sedimental paint. The same effect can be used on paper, but be sure to keep mixing these paints as you use them, so you do not have a paint that changes as more comes out of solution. These paints are harder to use as layers of washes, but as a mixed wash can look different to anything else because of the drifting colours in it. Take a strong wash of two sedimental colours, add extra water, and apply a very wet wash to taped down paper, then let it try and see how the piled colour looks.

When it comes to paper, there are a couple of things to bear in mind; sizing, and tooth. Assume for the moment that you are buying paper that will not discolour hugely over a short time, and concentrate on the other two parts. During the manufacture of paper, chemicals are applied to the pulp to change how water soaks in. You can also apply a surface or soak a paper after making. This is sizing. Without it, all you have is tough kitchen paper. The more sizing, the slower the drying. I have found the watercolour sketchbook made by Moleskine is sized to dry fast, so that you can get moving. General paper will dry more slowly.

Different sorts of paper also have surfaces with different amounts of tooth – rather like the tooth on a saw, paper has a surface texture that can grab paint. Smooth paper, generally made by a hot press method, takes very fine work. Rougher paper can give you results that look more alive and less precise. This is mostly a matter of trying different papers until you find some that work for you. I use the cheapest watercolour block I can find. It comes attached to the paper below on all four sides with a slot to help you tear it off after you have painted.

So there you are. All of those things are things you can find out by trial and error, but you should be spending your trial and error on finding out more important things, like how the individual paint flows work for you, or whether you like the mixing effects you can find.