So, what is watercolour? Watercolour paint is made up of finely ground pigment suspended in a binder made of distilled water and gum Arabic (a gum that is extracted from 2 species of the acacia tree). The acacia gum, or gum Arabic, acts as the glue that binds the pigment to the substrate it is applied to once the water has evaporated during the drying process. It slows the movement of the watercolour when applied as a wash, and many artists add more gum Arabic to their watercolour to gain control over their colour, i.e. stop it from bleeding or spreading too quickly over a surface (more of this in the watercolour mediums section!) Generally, the character of each watercolour colour tends to rely more heavily on the characteristic of the pigments used, and certainly more so that found in oils of acrylics, where the character of the binder itself plays a more significant role in contributing to the character of the paint overall. This is also true because colour is applied much more thinly, which allows for the characteristic of the pigment to be more apparent in the very thin paint film that is applied.
Watercolourists tend to consider 3 key characteristics when choosing the pigments that they wish to work with:
- The Staining capacity
Because watercolour is supposed to be applied in a relatively diluted state, it is rare to find watercolour applied so that it appears fully opaque, however, all pigments have their own degree of transparency/opacity which will have some bearing over how they mix with other pigments, and how they appear on the surface when painted with. Staining refers to how much of the pigment will not lift from the paper after being blotted with a damp sponge; more modern pigments as well as some of the stronger traditional watercolour paints such as Prussian Blue and Alizarin Crimson tend to have a greater staining capacity whereas the older, more traditional pigments tend to lift with relative ease. Granulation refers to when the pigment particles do not dry with even spacing, and instead they form pools of darker shades of colour when applied to a surface (be it paper or a canvas that has been primed with absorbent ground) – in other words it dries with a grainy appearance. This is caused by the characteristics of the pigments used – some are heavier and cannot be ground to as fine or as uniform a state as other can, and this causes the effect. There can also be a difference between the manner that pigments granulate – a fine pigment such as French Ultramarine will show flocculation – this is when the pigments rush together in huddles. A heavier pigment such as the ones used to make permanent mauve will simply fall into the hollows of the paper surface. The general rule to bear in mind is that while traditional pigments such as the earths, cobalts and ultramarines granulate, the modern colours tend not to. Winsor and Newton’s Granulation Medium can be added to colours to increase their tendency to granulate.
You will find in some watercolour ranges that there will be some pigments that are not classified as lightfast – this means that they will fade if continuously exposed to sunlight. Not all watercolourists make paintings that are intended to be framed and hung on a wall, and because some pigments have a wonderful vibrancy and brilliance despite their poor lightfastness ratings, they are included in some ranges due to the demand. An example of this would be Opera Rose – this vibrant pink is extremely popular among botanical painters in particular, and because some botanical painters keep their work in books and portfolios, its permanence is of lesser importance, and this is why manufacturers such as Winsor & Newton and Sennelier include it in their ranges. If lightfastness is of great importance to you and your work, always consult the manufacturer’s colour chart to make sure the pigments you choose will not fade.
Single pigment colours are easier to mix bright and vibrant colours with as a combination of too many pigments will only ever achieve muddy or dull hues. Some colours can only be made with a combination of pigments – popular colours such as Quinacridone Gold have to be mixed as the original pigment is no longer available, and Permanent Alizarin Crimson is mixed so that there is a lightfast alternative to the traditional single pigment colour. It is a good idea for beginners of watercolour painting to try to avoid using more than 2 or 3 pigments in mixes. It is a really good habit to get into in order to achieve vibrant and colourful looking paintings.
Artist and Professional quality watercolour paint ranges will have a larger proportion of single pigment colours in their ranges, examples of these include Jackson's Professional Watercolour, Sennelier l'Aquarelle, Winsor and Newton Artists' Water Colour, Daler Rowney Artists' Watercolour, Schmincke Horadam, Holbein Artists' Watercolour, Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolour, Old Holland Classic Watercolours, Shin Han Artists' Watercolours, Blockx Artists' Watercolours and Rembrandt Artists' Quality Extra Fine Watercolours. Student Watercolour ranges are more affordable because there are less expensive pigments used in the colours, and ‘hue’ colours (mixtures of other pigments) are used to replace expensive cobalt and cadmium colours. Student watercolours are cheaper, and suitable for beginners as well as students and professionals on a budget. Student watercolour ranges are more likely to have lower permanence ratings, but if this is of importance to you it is always worth consulting the colour chart. Student watercolours can be mixed with Artist Watercolours. The ranges of student watercolour that we sell include St. Petersburg White Nights Artists' Watercolour, Winsor and Newton Cotman Watercolour, Dr. Ph. Martin's, and Reeves. Lascaux Sirius Primary Watercolour System is a revolutionary concept in watercolour painting – 5 colours comprising of 2 reds, 2 blues and a yellow, form the whole range. It is the belief of Lascaux Colours that all the colours a watercolour painter might need can be mixed from these 5 tubes of paint. It can easily be argued that the seemingly limited colour range actually allow for greater control, freedom and chances of success, as colours are less likely to muddy and palettes are much more likely to maintain colour harmony. Some colour ranges such as Jackson's Professional Watercolour and Sennelier l'Aquarelle, use honey as well as gum Arabic to bind their paints, as the honey helps to enhance brilliance, luminosity and the longevity of the colours. The consistency of St. Petersburg White Nights Watercolour can vary from colour to colour; this is because there are less controls within their manufacturing processes. The result is that the characteristics of the individual pigments are more apparent, and many artists find it adds dynamism to the working process.
A Glossary of other useful Watercolour-colour related terms
Mass Tone – The appearance of the colour of the paint as it comes from the tube
Under Tone – Under tone is the bias of a colour when applied across a surface in a thin film , e.g. Ultramarine blue would be said to have a reddish-blue undertone
Colour Strength – Another term used to define colour strength is saturation. Colour strength essentially refers to the ratio of pigment to binder, it is a description of how vibrant/brilliant/clean the colour appears.
Opacity/Transparency – Is the measure of how much light is able to pass through the pigment particles. Opaque colours allow only very small quantities of light through the colour whereas transparent colours allow a lot of light through the colour. The difference is that opaque colours will look flatter and will cover over any marks that may have been made underneath. Transparent colours will show the marks made underneath, and may appear to have more texture. Traditionally watercolour painting is a transparent painting method and conventionally it is the white of the paper being painted on that acts as the white in your work…however it is now common practice for many watercolour painters to use white gouache or Chinese white watercolour in a watercolour painting, often as finishing highlights and touches. White gouache can be tinted with transparent watercolour and used in watercolour painting; it is often referred to as ‘body colour’ due to its opacity.
Blending – the fusing of 2 colour planes with one another in such a way that there are no hard edges. In watercolour this is easily down with a wet brush, dipped in either water or gum Arabic. If watercolour is allowed to thoroughly dry then blending is made a little more difficult – the edges may be harder to lift. In instances such as this a blending medium can be mixed with the colour with will prolong the amount of time that the colour is wet for, and make blending a lot easier.
Dry Brush Technique – When watercolour paint that is relatively dry, and in the least ‘gummy’, is applied with a dry brush to paper. The effect is chalky in appearance, and saturated in colour, and often makes for a dramatic contrast against more delicate, watery, water colour washes. A very effective and dramatic method for creating textured surfaces within water colour painting.
Watercolour Easels – watercolour easels often tilt to allow painters to work flat (preventing washes and large amounts of water from running). However some watercolourists may find that working upright works for their preferred technique.
Flat Wash – The use of a single diluted colour to cover the white of the paper in a relatively unsaturated and uniform manner. Washes are usually applied with a broad brush with natural hair that can hold a lot of fluid, such as a squirrel mop. Painters may choose to work over the wash once the wash is dry, or to work into the wet wash. By doing this one is said to be painting ‘wet on wet’ and the result is that the colours bleed into the layers on to which they have been applied. Flat washes can be applied on to dry or damp paper.
Fugitive Colour – refers to non lightfast paints, such as Opera Rose. They fade, or distort in other ways, when exposed to sunlight. Generally it is advised to stick to colours that have been rated of excellent or very good lightfastness (they may also have the classification of being ‘I’ or ‘II’) if you are intending on exhibiting or displaying work on a wall, as opposed to keeping it in a book or portfolio.
Glazed Wash – A glazed wash is when a dilute colour is applied across the surface of a watercolour painting that has been left to dry completely – the result of doing this is to tint the whole surface with the colour of your wash. Someone who decides to apply a glazed wash over a work would therefore have to consider the influence the chosen glaze hue would have over the colours that have been worked with previously. Once dry the artist has the option to work over the top once more.
Gum Arabic – a gum that is extracted from 2 species of the acacia tree, which is used as a binder in the manufacture of watercolour paint. Can also be purchased separately – it increases transparency and gloss.
Masking Fluid – Masking fluid is sometimes known as liquid frisket and is used to mask off areas of your work. It is painted on like tippex (you can apply it using a brush, a ruling pen, a colour shaper, or anything else!) and once dry you can then work in watercolour over the top. A good example of when masking fluid may come in handy is if you are applying colour on to a painting of a leaf, but you wish to keep the veins white – you would then paint the veins on with the masking fluid, allow it to dry and then apply your colour over the top. Providing the masking fluid is applied in dry paper and is left to dry completely before working over the top, (and the watercolour applied over the top is also left to dry completely!) the masking fluid should peel off with relative ease, just coax off a corner with a colour shaper or the end of your brush and the rest should come off by pulling it with your fingers. If it feels as if it is very stuck a handy little tip is to roll up a ball of dried masking fluid between your finger and thumb and use this to coax the masking fluid off – the stickiness works wonders!
To view the Jackson's Art Supplies YouTube Channel Watercolour Painting Playlist please click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TDuLXulQkKs&list=PLi86B3jOHkDYF1SC-_RKGlLz8JNAWNevq