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8 July 2014 – Palettes and colour mixing

There are three phrases used about watercolour painting which drive me mad, “use a limited palette”, “all colours can be mixed from the three primary colours” and “never use black”. These are all linked together so here are my thoughts on them.

Almost every watercolour instruction book you pick up talks about using a palette limited to three, six, nine, twelve or whatever is the magic number of the year, paints. Out of interest I went through two books by Glynis Barnes-Mellish, Watercolour Workshop and Watercolour Workshop II and listed all the paints she used. She started with a 'limited' palette of ten and then used another ten in her demonstrations. In the second book she expanded her palette with an extra fourteen giving total of thirty-four!

Recently, Ali Lindley gave us a talk on colour mixing using the three “primary” colours, true she used three different groups of paint for each demonstration but as soon as she moved to a flower painting she added an extra, manganese blue.

Another colour mixing nonsense is making green from blue and yellow, this is in fact very difficult because, unlike the other pairings on the colour wheel, blue and yellow combinations lie on curved lines. This means that tiny amounts of added yellow or blue send the resulting mix too far too quickly. It should be noted that none of the convenience green paints, sap green, Hooker's green, olive green, spring green and so on are made from yellow and blue pigments, they all start with a green pigment so if the colourmen make green paint this way so should we.

The original artist's “primaries” palette was not three but four paints, red, yellow, green and blue as described by Alberti or Leonardo da Vinci but this was suppressed during the 18th century when the colour theory prejudice took over, this continues until today.

Take another example, I could mix yellow and red to make an orange then add some black or blue to bring its chroma down, alternatively I could pick up a tube of burnt sienna and get it the same each time. I mix paints all the time but I start with one close to what I want and then adjust it a small amount, for example, sap green with a touch of yellow to make a more spring green.

Black is an important paint in watercolour, if watercolourists must never use it then why do the colourmen supply so many different types, Winsor & Newton and Turner both have three, Mars, ivory and lamp. We may not use it directly very much but it is useful for adjusting the tone or value of other paints. It is also used as part of the formulation of Payne's gray, sepia, neutral tint, van Dyke brown, Davy's gray and indigo so we are using black all the time!

I have forty different paints in my box all of which I use from time to time, of course I use a limited palette for each painting but usually a different group. It is the choice of paints for a painting that sets the atmosphere and is an important aspect of individual style.

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