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Experiment in colour-mixing with Leonard Willcock

Posted on Thu 07 Mar 2019

Experiment in colour-mixing

Leonard Wilcock takes a look at the great watercolourists to see how they achieve the subtlety of their colours – and gives ideas for colour mixes

In the Turner Bequest at the British Museum there is one magnificent sketch book consisting of 80 colour studies of skies recording the pearly tints of dawn and twilight, the luminous blues of cloud-flecked summer skies, the indigo threat of approaching storm and the flaming hues of sunset.

At the very moment that Turner was producing these superb studies, Constable (for they were contemporaries) was creating his wonderful sketches and paintings of skies seen from Hampstead Heath and in the Vale of Dedham and now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Although skies were an important element in all their paintings, they both brought an equally sensitive observation of the effects of the elements upon fen and foreshore, meadow, vale and stream, magically catching the changing colour effects in paint.

Nearer to our own time, one can observe the same subtle interpretation of Nature in the limpid and superbly lovely watercolours of Wilson Steer (1860 – 1942) – the same intuitive eye for mood and colour and the same subtle response.

‘Paddlers’, a watercolour by Philip Wilson Steer.  By kind permission of the Tate Gallery

How can this eye and skill be developed? Wilson Steer, when asked if he could give some helpful hint to an amateur struggling with watercolours said, ‘There is only one hint I can give you. A watercolour is nearly always a fluke. If you go on doing them, flukes will happen a little oftener’.

Many of the masters, particularly in their early years, made copies of the work of painters they admired. Bonnington, for example, copied Flemish masterpieces in the Louvre, and Dunoyer de Segonzac, the distinguished French watercolourist, has been greatly influenced by the watercolours of Cézanne, as you can see from the manner in which he floats colour on colour, achieving, particularly in his still-lifes, a wonderful colour radiance and luminosity.

Making copies of the work of the master watercolourist is one of the best ways of examining their methods and techniques and learning how they built up their effects. By analysing their subtle colour mixing and progression you can discover just how they handled skies, seas, woods and lakes, under the changing elements. Someone once wrote to Wilson Steer for the loan of one of his watercolours as he wanted to know how to paint trees. Steer, instead sent him a little book of reproductions from Claude’s drawings saying that was how he had learned himself.

Elm Trees by Philip Wilson Steer. By kind permission of the Tate Gallery

By making a copy of a Wilson Steer landscape you will quickly appreciate that the wonderful greens of his trees and meadows, together with their deep and rich shadows, are not straight from the pan or tube but are subtle and inimitable colour mixings of his own, as also are the gloriously cool and warm greys (Japanese-like) found in his Shoreham and Thames-side watercolours and the cool purple-browns of his Walberswick seashore paintings.

Besides making copies of the work of the painters you admire, it is a good idea to experiment continually with the colours in your paint box. To help you in this valuable exercise I have prepared the following charts which are the result of my own experiments. By exploring these colour combinations you will discover, I hope, some lovely and unexpected tints and hues and perhaps also add a greater subtlety to your watercolours. Remember it is your particular manner of using your paint-box that makes for a personal and characteristic style.

Chepstow by Philip Wilston Steer. By kind permission of the Tate Gallery

Not unnaturally, a wide range of tints can result from each individual combination of colours depending on the actual proportions of each constituent and the dilution of the resultant colour mix. To arrive at the precise hues that please you most is a question of trial and experiment.

Watercolour mixing chart

Tints useful for mud-flats, estuaries and clouds

  • Ultramarine & Burnt Umber
  • Indigo (or Ultramarine & Black) & Burnt Umber
  • Cobalt & Burnt Sienna
  • Burnt Umber & Neutral Tint (or Mauve & Black)
  • Prussian & Vermillion
  • Ultramarine & Vandyke Brown
  • Indigo (or Ultramarine & Black) & Sepia
  • Ultramarine & Burnt Sienna
  • Ultramarine & Burnt Umber
  • Ultramarine & Neutral Tint (or Mauve & Black)

Cool greys

  • Tints useful for clouds and shadows
  • Prussian & Brown Madder (or Rose Madder & Burnt Sienna)
  • Indigo & Brown Madder (or Ultramarine, Black, Rose Madder & Burnt Sienna)
  • Prussian & Brown Madder (or Rose Madder & Burnt Sienna)
  • Ultramarine & Vermilion
  • Ultramarine & Light Red
  • Scarlet & Indigo (or Ultramarine & Black)

Muted purples

The hues of heath, heather and winter woods

  • Rose Madder & Prussian
  • Brown Madder (or Rose Madder & Burnt Sienna) & Ultramarine
  • Alizarin Crimson & Ultramarine
  • Alizarin Crimson & Indigo (or Ultramarine & Black)
  • Brown Madder (or Rose Madder & Burnt Sienna) & Cerulean
  • Rose Madder & Prussian
  • Vermilion & Indigo (or Ultramarine & Black)
  • Brown Madder & Indigo (or Rose Madder, Burnt Sienna, Ultramarine & Black)

Glowing reds

The flaming hues of dawn and sunset

  • Crimson & Ultramarine
  • Rose Madder & Cobalt
  • Alizarin Crimson & Cerulean
  • Alizarin Crimson & Ultramarine
  • Scarlet & Prussian
  • Lemon & Rose Madder
  • Chrome Orange & Rose Madder
  • Vermilion & Raw Sienna
  • Vermilion & Burnt Sienna
  • Vermilion & Ultramarine
  • Chrome Yellow & Brown Madder (or Rose Madder & Burnt Sienna)
  • Scarlet & Burnt Umber

Red browns

Valuable for roofs, old walls and the tints of Autumn

  • Vermilion & Naples Yellow (or Yellow Ochre & White)
  • Raw Umber & Rose Madder
  • Crimson & Raw Umber
  • Crimson & Burnt Umber
  • Rose Madder, Burnt Sienna & Raw Sienna
  • Vermilion & Burnt Umber
  • Vermilion & Sepia

Muted greens

The infinite greens of foliage, foreshore, sedge and marsh

  • Lemon & Prussian
  • Lemon & Sepia
  • Chrome Yellow & Prussian
  • Emerald & Ultramarine
  • Burnt Umber & Prussian
  • Raw Sienna & Ultramarine
  • Raw Sienna & Black
  • Sepia & Olive Green (or Sap Green & Black)
  • Raw Umber & Ultramarine
  • Raw Sienna & Prussian
  • Raw Umber & Prussian
  • Hooker’s Green Dark & Prussian
  • Olive Green (or Sap Green & Black) & Prussian

This artcle was first published in the Summer 1969 edition of Leisure Painter 

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Experiment in colour-mixing with Leonard Willcock


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