Color is important, fascinating, and confusing. Once again, books can
teach a great deal about color, but I confess that I never understand it
all---and I don't believe it is necessary to understand all the theory in
order to do small watercolor sketches. Having said this much, let me
outline a few basics on the subject which may be useful to have in mind.
The three "primary" colors are red, blue, and yellow. Theoretically, you
can achieve all other colors from these three. In practice it does not
work out that way. On the "color wheel" these three colors are 120 degrees
apart. If you mix the primaries which are next to each other on the color
wheel, you get the so-called "secondary" colors: red with blue equals
violet; blue with yellow equals green; and yellow with red equals orange.
Colors opposite from each other on the color wheel are called
"complimentary colors," so that red and green are complimentary, as are
yellow and violet, and blue and orange. Theoretically again, if you mix
two complimentary colors together you should get black, which never
happens. Actually, you get a kind of gray shade, which is often useful in
painting. However, if you put complimentary colors next to each other in a
painting, they tend to brighten each other, which is also a useful tool in
painting. For instance, the red flowers in the middle of green foliage
will seem redder.
You should also know that there are "warm" colors and "cool" colors. This
has also confused me, but I can tell you the obvious: that the "warm"
colors are colors like red, yellow, orange, and some greens; and the
"cool" colors are in the blue range.
To further confuse matters, you should also know that there are "warm" and
"cool" tints in each color range. For instance, "cadmium red" is "warm,"
while "alizarin crimson," another useful red, is "cool." The same with
yellows and blues, although this gets more confusing.
However, I do know that warm and cool colors are very important and useful
in a painting. For example, a wall facing direct sunlight should obviously
be on the "warm" side---while a wall in shadow that receives its primary
color from the sky should be on the "cool" side.
How can all of this be summed up for our purposes? Firstly, get a good
book and read about this color theory---it is interesting and
helpful---but don't be discouraged by it. You will learn all that you need
to know by actually using the colors and practicing with them. Read about
it, then put the book aside and play with the colors until you get the
hang of them.
Most little watercolor sets, including the one I use, have all of the
colors you will need to get a satisfying sketch. They usually include a
`warm" and a "cool" pan of each primary color---plus the so-called "earth
The "earth colors" are so named because their pigments are usually derived
directly from earth materials. At one time or another I use burnt umber,
raw umber (less frequently), raw sienna, and burnt sienna. Yellow ochre is
also a useful color similar to raw sienna. These colors are in almost all
In point of fact, for most of my paintings---large and small---I seldom
use more than four or five colors! I am not alone in this. One of the most
successful of all contemporary marine artists uses only four or five
colors for all of his exceedingly expensive oil paintings.
It is amazing how much painting you can accomplish with two colors. Try it
with a blue and an earth color such as burnt umber. If you dilute the blue
with water you get everything from pale to intense blue. The same holds
for the umber. Then mix them together in various proportions and you get a
wide variety of colors, values, and shades. Add a third color and you have
virtually everything you need---especially for a simple sketch.
I almost never use black---and most other painters don't either. Black is
a "dead" color. However, it can be used at times to darken the shade of
another color, like yellow, when adding another color to yellow would
totally change the color. A more vibrant "black" can be obtained by mixing
blue and burnt umber with plenty of pigment. White is also virtually
useless in transparent watercolor painting, although opaque white has uses
beyond the scope of this book.
Stay with the "primaries" and a few earth colors---and you will have all
that you need for outdoor sketching. Enjoy mixing them and discovering the
results. If it looks terrible on your painting, blot it up quickly before
it dries and try another color. Learn to match the colors you see in
nature by mixing the colors in your watercolor set.
Can you go over one color with another after it has dried? Absolutely. One
style of watercolor painting, more associated with classical English
watercolors, is the slow build-up of light washes with succeeding washes
of a different color.
I find this particularly helpful in sky areas. For instance, if you mix
blue and yellow together on your palette before applying the wash, you
will get green, which I usually don't want in a sky area. But if you put a
light wash of yellow to the paper---let it dry completely---then add a
light wash of blue, the result will be much happier than a bilious green.
Don't ask me why this is so, but it works that way.
However, if you add too many thin washes together, it too easily turns
into "mud"---a thick, semi-opaque, unattractive mess. Try to keep your
colors simple, direct, and pure---and they will sparkle as the white paper
underneath shines through. This is the glory of transparent
watercolor---don't ruin it.
I have read many times that if you "mix" your colors on the paper itself
as you are applying them, the result will be much more attractive than if
you thoroughly mix the colors on the palette before you apply them. This
is true, although not always easy to do--for it requires a rather refined
judgment based on experience. You might begin by pre-mixing your colors,
and gradually experiment by placing a different color in a wash while it
is still quite wet. For example, if a shadow is blue, try dropping a bit
of raw sienna into the still wet blue wash. This will make it "zing" a
little bit as it suggests reflected color. This is easier to do than to
One final hint: The color almost always becomes lighter when it is dry.
The water makes it look darker. You will soon learn this from experience,
but you might make allowances for this fact when you are painting. Be bold
with your use of color, for watercolors need not be anemic-looking.
Keep your color simple and enjoyable. You will never learn everything
there is to know about it. Carl G. Evers, master marine artist, once
stunned me by saying that he had no trouble with drawing, but he was still
working on his color! If only my color behaved like his color.
When you get as good in your use of color as John Singer Sargent---or Carl
G. Evers---write a treatise on it and send me a copy. Meanwhile, have fun
with it. Just for fun, I am including a little color wheel below, for
those who might be helped with a diagram.