Posted on Tue 04 Dec 2018
Qualities of the Watercolour Medium
Rowland Hilder discusses the relativity of colour and provides some useful exercises to prove that any colour under examination seems to change when compared to certain other colours (Part 2)
I have heard it said that colour is relative. This proposition, at first sight, seems absurd - nevertheless on examination there appears to be an element of truth in the statement. To demonstrate the point, I would suggest a simple experiment. First obtain an assortment of brightly coloured papers. These need not be larger than approximately six inches square – smaller would serve. The assortment should include a very bright white – and a jet black, and if possible, the primary and secondary colours in the brightest possible hues. Dayglow or fluorescent colours would be ideal.
Next one needs a body colour white; poster colour or gouache would do. Mix a mid-toned grey by adding a little watercolour lamp black to the white, creating a tone as near as possible mid-way between the black and the white. Now if one brushes a spot of this on to the intense white paper, the grey will appear to be quite dark. The same grey applied to the jet black paper, will appear to be almost white by contrast. On viewing the two, it would be difficult to believe that the same grey was used for both.
St. Paul’s and the River: Watercolour 10” x 15”
Now put a spot of the same grey in the centre of each piece of coloured paper, and observe the effect in each case. The grey spot on a bright orange will appear as a fairly bright blue, whereas the same grey when applied on an intense emerald green, will now take on a distinct purplish hue – and so on. One simply cannot believe that the same grey could be made to appear as so many different colours. The effect is so astonishing, that one could almost develop this idea as a parlour guessing game!
Now, mix a number of grey body colour tones and apply these to paper – perhaps painting a simple monochrome tone picture. Then add a little colour to one of the tones – say a little orange to one of the middle tones – then this tone will stand out as being quite bright and warm by comparison. I remember a picture by Sickert which hung in the Tate called The Woman in the Red Hat. Actually the hat was painted in a sort of brick or reddish-brown colour, and only appeared to be bright red by contrast. (This was one of Sickert’s little jokes!)
I remember trying to paint some marigolds. The brightest orange I had didn’t seem colourful enough. I laid the actual flower against my painting, and was amazed to see that by comparison my orange paint was, in fact, a rather brownish dirty looking colour. This brought home to me the severe limitations of paint, and it was only some time later that I learnt that the only way to make flowers look as bright as they did in reality, was to key the whole picture to a cooler and lower tone and colour key.
In the last article we established the fact that it is necessary to control and adjust the tone key in order to bring the scope of our subject matter within the range of the medium we work in. Now we must also accept the fact that we must make use of a controlled and keyed colour scheme as well.
Let us consider for a moment the development of traditional watercolour painting in this respect. The English School developed slowly from a form of monochromatic painting towards the use of fuller colour. To begin with, there were two main schools: one working in a warm, near sepia, monochromatic scheme – the other using a colder scheme of greys and blue-greys. Artists like Cotman and Girtin succeeded in bringing the two together, thus developing a controlled warm and cold colour system. Using this convention the artists of the past managed to produce some of the best watercolours yet known.
Harbour Scene: Pen and Watercolour 9” x 15”
If we consider the development of the artists who are accepted as the great colourists, we must accept the view that in almost every case they began painting in a low-toned subdued colour scheme – developing to the use of fuller colour later in life. Degas, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Picasso are examples taken at random. A touch of bright colour in a subdued, or rather a restrained, scheme carries a tremendous impact. (Everyone takes notice when the Bishop swears!) It is well to hold something up one’s sleeve.
Let us now consider some further exercises. These aim at developing from the conception of the use of the tone key and the use of “functional” colour. Let us return to the four basic tones of black. To each tone wash now add a little burnt sienna, thus increasing the warmth of the tones – giving a near sepia. Having completed the experimental brushings, one can now add a little more burnt sienna, further increasing the richness and warmth of colour. Now if one were to paint a small picture using these warm tones, and if, in this picture, a small area of the original monochrome lamp black grey were to show – one would notice that by comparison the grey would appear to take on a bluish or “cool” hue.
Country Snow Scene: Gouache 9.75” x 13.5”
As with the monochrome washes, the colour washes will dry lighter. One must learn to anticipate the exact degree of change, in order to strike the intended strength of colour and tone at the first painting, in the same way that the correct pianist is able to strike the correct notes. Like the pianist, one has to practise the scales, to gain skill and confidence. One would certainly take a poor view of the musician who succeeds in reaching approximately the right note only after several attempts. Yet beginners (and often “professional artists”) seem content to achieve the required depth by continued retouching and overpainting!
Having obtained experience with lamp black and sepia, one can now extend the palette to include Payne’s grey or indigo. A considerable number of brushings and a great deal of painting must be done, before one could hope to acquire anything like an intimate knowledge of the colours and tones that this simple palette will yield. At this point I would suggest making a number of small sketches from nature. Stout cartridge paper unstretched would do very well for this work at fist. One can now being to co-ordinate direct observation of nature with the technical experience already gained in the studio. It will become increasingly apparent that there are fundamental rules relating to colour, as well as to tone. Broadly speaking, cool colours (like lighter tones) tend to recede into the distance, and warm colours to come forward.
Green Hillside: Watercolour 7.5” x 11”
Another principle that can be observed on a fine sunny day, is the relative warmth and coolness of light and shade colours. The rule of thumb being that the lights are warm and the shadows relatively cold. Thus we can begin to build a system whereby, for example, a distant shadow is relatively cooler than a foreground shadow, both being cooler than the sunlit areas.
While making all these new developments be very careful to bear in mind that the threads of the earlier tone exercises should not be lost. Nor should we, when standing in the face of nature, be tempted to depart from the basic principles of simplicity of pattern, tone and colour. When one adds the problem of colour, to the problems of form and tone, then one is beginning to have a lot to carry one in one’s mind. The early exercises, and painting, made on location, should be based on the simplest possible subjects. Subjects which can be seen and executed in terms of the watercolour medium.
Some may consider it a merit to be over-ambitious, but I feel that it is wrong to be depressed and discouraged because one has failed to hit a target set impossibly high.
Willows in a Field: Watercolour 6” x 9”
It is well to remember that some of the very greatest watercolour drawings and paintings have depicted the simplest subjects, and were rendered in the simplest terms.
This article by Rowland Hilder is taken from Volume 68 of The Artist, January 1965
Click here to read part 1 of an article by Rowland Hilder on the Qualities of Watercolour Medium
Click here to read the concluding part of Rowland Hilder's article on Qualities of the Watercolour Medium
Click here to read an article by Rowland Hilder on Painting Skies in Watercolour