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Using a Limited Palette to Create Effective Watercolours

Posted on Fri 01 Feb 2013

When you’re confronted by the array of hues available in your local art shop, it’s easy to be tempted into buying all the pretty, bright colours. However, using many colours doesn’t necessarily lead to colourful paintings. Quite often, it just makes a psychedelic mess.

After years of painting in watercolour, I have made every mistake imaginable. However, every mistake is a lesson and I have come to the conclusion that achieving the right tonal values is more important than colour.

Opinions on this vary but, for me, it is true and I consider myself to be a tonal painter. I place great importance on the mixing of colours though, and in my workshops I encourage students to become familiar with a small selection. It often comes as a bit of a surprise to find out that I am the one with the least number of colours in the room.

I have a dozen colours in my palette: four blues, two browns, three reds and three yellows. My selection has evolved over the years and my current choice suits most subjects. However, I still try new colours and, if they perform well with the others in my palette, I’ll keep them.

I’ve never been very keen on ready-made greens so I have learned how to mix natural looking greens from blues, yellows and browns.

Unsure of Snow composition sketch                      Unsure of Snow tonal sketch

Unsure of Snow, watercolour, (28.5x40.5cm)

Colour choices

People often ask me what colours I use, especially during a club demonstration. I’m always willing to share information, but I don’t want to give the false impression that my colours are the best choice. They work for me, but ask a dozen artists and they’ll all say something different. Most students usually have a pretty good range in their paintboxes anyway.

What I would say is that it is wise to have a warm and a cool version of each of the primaries, and a brown. If you’re starting from scratch, that’s just seven colours, and you can do an awful lot with just those. I may have 12 colours in my palette, but it’s unusual for me to use more than four or five to create a painting. Sometimes I will get by with just three.

The advantage of working with so few colours is that they will create mixes that will be harmonious. They will look natural. Having too many colours can make you lazy. If you have one of those boxes that comprise about 30 colours, the temptation is to dip into the colour that’s near enough right and make do. However, sometimes those colours jar with each other. Working with a limited palette makes you think about colour and colour mixing.

An added advantage is that you can perhaps afford to buy a few more Artists’ quality colours to replace Student quality, as you’ll be working with less.

The paintings

In Unsure of Snow, (above) I began with the idea of painting a cat in the snow so I made a small pencil sketch first to establish a good design. I often paint animals and it’s important that they look as if they belong in their environment. The background is important and shouldn’t be treated as an afterthought. So, once I had my design, I created a monotone sketch to work out where the lights and darks would be. When it came to the final painting, I used just ultramarine, light red and burnt sienna.

Ultramarine mixed with burnt sienna creates a warm/cool grey, depending on the ratio of each colour in the mix. It’s also possible to make the ‘black’ areas of the cat with this combination, simply by using less water and more pigment. Light red was used in combination with ultramarine to paint the areas of reflected colour in the cat and the snow. Of course, the white of the paper is the lightest tone available, and in some areas, there is barely any pigment.

For Hugo, (below) I adopted the same procedure but, this time, I exchanged light red for aureolin yellow. This, when mixed with ultramarine, created the background green. A little red was added in places, such as the collar, and to warm up the foreground.

Hugo, watercolour, (33x25.5cm)

I tried out a few ideas in monotone for Saltern Cove, Paignton (below) before working out my colour scheme. Again, these were very small sketches , just a few inches wide, were done on a single sheet. To capture the serenity and warm atmosphere of this secluded cove, I used cobalt blue, raw umber and vermilion. I began with a wet-in-wet wash, mixing colours on the paper. Once dry, I built up the shadow areas and forms with darker washes.

Saltern Cove, Paignton Preliminary sketches and colour mixes

Saltern Cove, Paignton, watercolour, (23x31cm)

Boscombe Overcliff Gardens (below) also started with a wet-in-wet wash. I used raw sienna, cobalt blue and alizarin crimson for this one, with just a little aureolin in the foreground, right. There is a lot of counter change between the dark areas of the background trees, and the light tones of the columns.

Boscombe Overcliff Gardens, watercolour, (31x23cm)

Finally, Torquay Pavilion (below) was painted with cobalt blue, light red and raw sienna. The sky and sunlit surfaces were painted first, using cobalt for the sky and raw sienna for the building. Once dry, I painted the shadows with a mixture of cobalt blue and light red. A more intense mix was used for the darker areas.

Torquay Pavilion, watercolour, (23.5x33.5cm)

Next time you want to paint a picture, think for a moment about what colours are in the scene, and what colours you could mix to achieve a harmonious result. With practice, you’ll come to know what selection of colours is best suited to a particular mood.

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This feature by David is taken from the March 2013 issue of Leisure Painter

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Using a Limited Palette to Create Effective Watercolours


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  • This is fun to watch and you did an amazing job. But it is difficult to learn much from it if that was your aim. It needs to be slowed down and some explaining to be added. Thank you for sharing though. Recommend my favorite artists Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frida Kahlo, Roberto Matta Gabino amaya cacho and Pablo Picasso.

    Posted by Victoria apel on Wed 20 Sep 02:45:40