Watercolor class #6 – daily prep 4

May 31, 2013

color saturation pans color setting

Okay, I’m getting out of doing any ‘proper’ watercolor today by looking at color saturation. Basically, I’m asking myself, “How dark can I go?”

I’ve been meaning to do this exercise concerning the consistency of watercolor paint for some time now. Obviously watercolor is a blend of “color” and “water”, so it’s physical properties relate to letting the light of the paper through and a lot of watercolorists subsequently produce work done in in a high key. If artists want to work in low key, they go for oils and if they want a mid-key look, they go for acrylics.

I’m avoiding doing any ‘proper’ watercolor today so on the basis of what I’ve been reading lately and because I’ve had to make a change in scanners, I did two sheets, one of colours straight from my Winsor & Newton field set and one of colors straight from tubes.

Paint consistency

Uppermost in my mind in applying the colors was not the strength or saturation of the color, but rather the consistency of the paint. I aimed for what Marc Taro Holmes calls “tea”, “milk” and “cream”, what one artist calls “Vegemite” consistency (which comes very close to the raw consistency of tube watercolor with no addition of water) and what Liz Steel and others refer to as “juicy”.

In terms of the pan colors, it’s virtually impossible not to add water, so I’ve added the minimum amount to cover the half inch squares. I’ve tried not to ‘go back in’, that is, bulk up the color by adding more once it’s on the paper; one exception is the dark blue, Ultramarine. I’ve tried to use the minimum amount of water so that the brush will move on the paper; with no water, the paint won’t move – it will sit there as dabs and with inconsistencies associated with brush marks. Which is fine, but it’s rare to see a watercolor with paint so thickly applied you can see the texture of the brushmarks.

So, to the best of my ability, I’ve gone for just three tones: a thick one, a thinner one where there is plainly more water but also plenty of pigment, plus a third where I’m getting towards the minimum amount of pigment visible when I paint it on. This last is what I’d call a “wash” or what Holmes might call “tea” perhaps. There’s just enough of the pigment so that the viewer can discern the particular color.

Color saturation and digital scanning

As the new owner of a Samsung scanner (upgrading from a Hewlett-Packard as a result of moving from a cartridge to a toner printer), I’ve used the Color setting. I’m finding already that my pencil drawings show up better on the Grey Scale setting. I can safely say that while my washes show up on the paper I’m painting on, they don’t show up on the HP scan: they are too light.

Notice the W&N pan white. Despite the presence of a speck of blue in the first square, all white whites showed up on the scans. Particularly important for me is that any wash I create will come up on the Samsung scan: I haven’t “lost” any of my painted squares at all.

Watercolor vs pencil

For the sake of comparison, I’ve used a very narrow tonal scale from black to white using Derwent graphite soft pencils: a 9B, a 6B, a 4B, a 2B and an H. As a pencil sketcher, I don’t restrict myself to just three or four tones, but in watercolor I have to: it doesn’t seem feasible to work in other than “tea”, “milk” and “cream” in terms of paint consistency, so additional tonal value has to come from color mixing.

color saturation tube paint

Tube paint

I only go out and buy new watercolor paints to enlarge my palette when I’m desperate. I try to stick to the minimum number of colors. One day I might sign up for a course given by a local botanical artist who shows her students how to mix hundreds of individual colors. In the meantime, I read about the legendary Monestial Blue and I’m aware of the current fashion for quinacridone and watercolorists who seem only to work with a purple-yellow palette.

The difference between paint from the pan and from the tube is immediately obvious. Paint straight out of the tube is indistinguishable from gouache: it’s thick and won’t move across the paper without adding water. This ability to “move” it makes it alien to general watercolor painting; the colors are also matt and ‘flat’, lacking any of the luminosity associated with the addition of water. I might use this degree of “raw” paint for highlights, but not for covering any area bigger than a brush dab mark. If I want matt, flat color, I’d turn to gouache instead.

I have two other color mixing exercises in mind: deliberately painting “mud” colors, i.e. by adding complementary colors, and investigating opaque/transparent colours by painting over waterproof black ink.


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