Watercolor Primer with Diana Trout, Part I

Returning to the studio from vacation, I was dismayed by my almost-empty watercolor tubes. Ugh. This meant a significant output of $$$. After some thought and cuddling up with the idea of laying out some money though, Daniel Smith sent me an e-mail about a BIG SALE! Usually, these sale e-mails get deleted but this time I thought: Research and Smart Shopping.

After a very careful combing through, I found this set, heavily discounted. It is pretty much the same set of colors I use with acrylic paints and the palette I used for oil paintings way back when.

Yellows: Aureolin (Cobalt Yellow) and New Gamboge (a rich yellow with just a touch of orange)

Greens: Sap (indispensible primary green), Olive Green (neutral) and Gold Green (yellow green)

Blues: Phtalo (Red Shade), French Ultramarine, Cobalt (Primary) Cerulean Blue

Quinacridone Rose (Blue Shade), Permanent Red (primary, more opaque), Alizarin Crimson, Quinacridone Violet and Quinacridone Magenta

Earth Colors (Dead Palette) Quinacridone Gold, Raw Sienna and Burnt Sienna and Quinacridon Burnt Orange.

Missing from this palette is Yellow Ochre—usually a standard in my palette—but with the Raw Sienna and Aureolin, I can easily mix that.

Also, a black was missing. Easily mixed with the blues and oranges, but I added Indigo for its deep value and blue cast.

Building a Watercolor Palette
You may be ready to invest in a set of quality tube watercolors—there are many brands to choose from! Winsor and Newton makes a very good paint that I used for years. I recently began using Daniel Smith’s product and I also have a few tubes of M Graham. The pigment load in any of these brands is excellent.

Don’t waste your money on the student-grade watercolors—the pigment load is dismal in these paints. Sakura Koi is a decent pan watercolor set. The pigment load is better than the Prang and the price is decent. I use this set for traveling.

Here is a basic palette to get started with for tube watercolors. Note that the purple made with this palette is a bit muddy. That’s because the Permanent Red is a warm red (tends towards orange).

This is an alternate basic palette. Note that the green is a bit muddy. (The Quin Rose tends towards the purple.)

Here are three colors that will extend your palette further after you’ve purchased Basic A and Basic B. From this point, it is subjective. I find greens more difficult to mix and this gives more options.

The Dead Palette consists of neutral earth colors and below are a few examples. Yellow Ochre is missing here and would be a good addition. These colors soften and neutralize the basic primary palettes and provide you opportunities to mix a more sophisticated range of color.

How I laid out my palette
I am using a cheap-o plastic palette that closes with a lid. It has 24 wells and ample mixing areas.

I lay out my colors in rainbow fashion. I like this type of palette because you can leave the watercolors to harden and then close the palette. With a good spritz of water, you are back in business.

If you are a beginner, you needn’t (or, perhaps even, shouldn’t) have this many colors. Start with a primary palette:
The Primary Palette: Permanent Red, Cobalt Blue and Cobalt Yellow allows you to mix the full range of secondary and tertiary colors. Since Perm Red is not a blue-red it will give you a slightly muddied purple. I’m finding the Daniel Smith colors to be pretty much in line with the Winsor and Newtons I’ve used forever. BUT the Artist Grade tube colors are the most powerful and will give you the biggest bang for your buck.

OK, so you have your colors and you’ve laid out your palette. What better way to explore your watercolors than making a bunch of little samplers? (Or sketches, as we “Arteests” prefer to call them.)

Landscapes are a simple way to go because you can do a lot of invention and not get hung up on drawing. I started off by drawing some rectangles into my watercolor Moleskine.

Sunrise/Sunset (you can hum along) or full-on day with shadows. You can try night, as well. These different times of day will allow you to play with combinations of colors. Wet your paper and apply paint in ribbons to allow the colors to leak and run into each other. Now, this is really the best thing about watercolors: the wetting or not wetting. You can leave an area bone dry and the wet color won’t leak into it! Glory Be!

In the second part to this primer, I’ll share with you how I go about layering colors as well as several little videos to help you expand your watercolor repertoire.

Stay tuned . . .


Diana Trout is the author of Journal Spilling : Mixed-Media Techniques for Free Expression. You can see more videos from Diana, here. To visit her blog, click here.


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