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Qualities of the Watercolour Medium by Rowland Hilder Part 3

Posted on Thu 06 Dec 2018

Qualities of the Watercolour Medium, Rowland Hilder

In the last of his articles Rowland Hilder points out that the works of the great watercolourists look deceptively simple, but with practice and an understanding of the qualities of the watercolour medium, the artist today can do much to develop his skill to suit this sensitive medium.


When invited to write these articles, I asked the Editor, “to whom should they be addressed; to raw beginners, to moderately advanced, or to advanced painters?”  The reply was that the demand was from those who had tried and practised watercolour painting, and were experiencing difficulties in the process.  This answer could well describe my own situation; I have experienced difficulties in the process ever since I began painting.

Why do watercolours go wrong?  I have heard it said that a painting succeeds or fails before it is begun; I believe this to be true.  I believe also that the chief cause of failure is that sooner or later one is led to attempt something in watercolour that is beyond one’s ability – or something that cannot or should not be attempted in the medium.

Skiddaw, Lake District:  Watercolour 22” x 29”

Many years ago I remember trying to copy at watercolour sketch by Peter de Wint.  My own paintings were not turning out as I wanted them to; the de Wint was so near what I wished to achieve at the time, that I thought I would try to see how it was put together.  It all looked so simple when he did it – just a light brisk sketch!  I found, however, that I could not copy the picture.  For one thing I could not get my colours to match.  I was very surprised and annoyed, because I thought that that part of the job would be simple; for example, there was a deep, warm, muted yellow.  “That’s easy”, I said, “almost pure yellow ochre”.  But yellow ochre was nothing like the required depth and intensity.  Finally, in desperation I tried to match the colours exactly, brushing them out on slips of paper and laying them when dry against the painting.  I found I could not get the desired tones and hues with the colours at my disposal.  I became frustrated, and began to get really annoyed.  The painting was there in front of me.  It must be possible to reproduce it – yet I could not do so.  I got more colours, and embarked on a prolonged bout of colour-mixing and brushing.  As I progressed, I became amazed at my previous complacency and ignorance.  I had assumed that I knew how to mix any colour, when in fact, I was very far from being able to do so.  (Actually I finally matched what I had thought to be yellow ochre, with a fairly strong wash of raw umber – it appeared as ochre in the de Wint painting, simply by contrast).

At this point, I realised that if I had failed in the relatively simple task of copying a painting that was right under my nose – how could I possibly do something that was much more complicated and difficult – paint pictures that I saw in my mind’s eye – or pictures that I saw before me in nature?  I had failed partly because I didn’t know my scales.  There was nobody at hand to tell me of my limitations.  The tone and colour theory outlined in these articles stemmed from the realisation of these failures.

Let us pick up the threads of the last article:  we will assume that the limited palette, consisting of burnt sienna, indigo and lamp black, has been pretty thoroughly explored.  I would now suggest the addition of raw umber and yellow ochre.  One has now the three primary colours, the red, yellow and blue, in a muted form.  One can now proceed much as before, mixing and brushing out every possible hue and tone that can be obtained from the limited range of pigments.  One must become familiar with the results, and carry in one’s mind the appearance of any colour wash in the range when dry.  When one can do this – then one is beginning to think in terms of the watercolour medium.

Oast Houses:  Watercolour 22” x 29”

Having reached this stage, now consider the addition of new colours to the basic list – (perhaps, for example, brown madder).  As each new colour is added, the potential scale increases until the range of tones and colours becomes infinite.  For this reason, each new colour should be added to the existing palette, and digested and absorbed slowly, so that the mind can encompass the extended range of potential mixings.

Obviously one cannot hope to dwell here on every colour and upon every possible combination.  An enormous variety of watercolours is offered by the artists’ colourmen.  One should aim at keeping one’s palette to an absolute minimum.  Each pigment has its own unique quality and behaviour; each artist must find by experience which combination best suits his purpose.

Some pigments are muddy; that is, they lack qualities of transparency particularly in the lower range of tones.  Others are fugitive; some stain or dye the paper, others are slimey or insipid – some garish.  Some colours, such as French ultramarine blue and burnt umber, produce a granulated effect when dry.

Stream near the Meadows:  Watercolour 14” x 21”

There are many new colours that are useful additions to the traditional range, and many old colours which cannot be bettered.  Fashions change; the text book palette of the last century would end to limit the painter’s work and produce effects that would be considered weak or insipid by today’s standards.  One hesitates to be dogmatic, and to state what should or should not be used.  Nevertheless, I will venture a list of colours I have found useful at various times:  lamp black, Payne’s grey, indigo, burnt sienna, monastral blue, monastral green, cadmium lemon, yellow ochre, permanent purple, brown madder, alizarin crimson and cadmium red.

Westerham Mill:  Watercolour 30” x 20”

To conclude I would like to ass some observations on watercolour painting in general.  There is a tendency today to regard watercolour painting as a second-rate art form, as a cheap substitute for oil painting.

Watercolour painting is essentially a light-weight medium.  In good hands, it is sensitive and responsive, capable of conveying great beauty and feeling with the minimum of apparatus and effort.  Watercolour is to painting what the string quartet is to music.  Both are capable of reaching the highest levels of artistic expression, yet both have limits.

The Medway above Rochester:  Watercolour 7” x 10.5”

Watercolour is at its best in its lightest and most direct form.  It has been described as the medium of “hit and miss”.  It has been said that its best qualities are the “happy accidents”.  Both of these ideas are partly true – but only partly, because the great watercolour painters managed a surprising number of successes.  Clearly, to succeed, we must create the situation where the “accident” can occur at will.  When observing Ming pottery, we see beautiful liquid glazes.  No one could exactly predict the precise configuration resulting from the fusion of colours in firing.  Yet those results were not obtained by a haphazard disregard of technique.  On the contrary, they were obtained only by painstaking research, experiment and care.

So with the study and development of the watercolour technique, we must prepare the ground carefully, considering all the constituent  qualities and resources of the medium, practise and develop our skill, perfect our theoretical and practical knowledge – so that in the heat of inspiration we are equipped with an adequate and sensitive vehicle of expression.

This article by Rowland Hilder is taken from Volume 68 of The Artist, February 1965

Click here to read part 1 by Rowland Hilder on the Qualities of the Watercolour Medium

Click here to read part 2 by Rowland Hilder on the Qualities of the Watercolour Medium

Click here to read an article by Rowland Hilder on Painting Skies in Watercolour


Qualities of the Watercolour Medium by Rowland Hilder Part 3


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