Pleasant colour or poor colour is apparent in a watercolour at a first glance. Some artists have a natural eye for pleasant colour schemes, whereas for others it is a blind spot. Colour, therefore, is a very personal thing; it must first of all be seen by the artist, in his first reactions direct from nature, before he is able to put it down.
If a patch of pure colour, say viridian green, is spotted on a sheet of paper, it has no brilliance in relation to the white surrounding it, but if a strong colour mixture of viridian and light red is painted round the patch of green, the latter assumes an importance and registers as a very bright patch of glowing colour. So from this simple exercise we learn that colours are merely of value when used in relation to one another. An excellent example of these two colours used successfully together is shown in a picture hung in the Tate Gallery, by Francis Burnett, an English impressionist. Two women are seated on a couch, one of whom is holding a basket of flowers. In the diffused lighting of the room, their faces are daringly painted in thinly applied, very pale viridian green, with just a trace of light red against a neutral background. Some of the flowers in the basket are painted degrees of light red, which is in itself not a particularly bright colour, but placed against the surrounding tones of a complementary broken green, the effect is magical. They take on a brilliance which is surprising. The green used in the faces of the sitters immediately becomes acceptable as a correct flesh tone. It is quite clear, therefore, that when using our colours we must think of them in twos and threes and as related to one another.
The present trend in watercolour painting seems to favour pictures painted in a low key, using dull greys and blacks, but with a strong accent on drawing, whatever the predominating mood of nature happens to be. I feel that if the artist has a complete knowledge of the use of bright as well as dull colours he will be better equipped to give a more interesting interpretation of his subject. If one continues to paint low toned sketches to excess, the tendency is to get darker and more dismal in each successive picture. My advice, therefore, is not to be afraid of colour but enjoy the exhilaration which it gives, and I am sure this will be shared by the viewers of your work.
I am sometimes asked for a list of useful colours for the student painter in watercolour. My advice has little new to offer: start with just a few, including the earth colours, slowly adding more to your palette as your experience increases. Here are those you must have however: yellow ochre, light red, ultramarine and pale cadmium. After you have explored their possibilities, include cadmium red, Naples yellow, raw umber and viridian; then add alizarin crimson, burnt sienna and cobalt blue or cyanine. There is nothing you cannot paint with this assortment.
Here are just a few colour mixtures which I find useful in landscape and which you might like to try out, although their uses will, of course, vary in individual cases. The mixtures should contain a larger amount of the first colour listed and lesser amounts of the second and third: (1) Light red and yellow ochre - a warm, sunny colour; (2) Burnt sienna and ultramarine – a deep shady brown; (3) Yellow ochre and viridian – bright green for landscapes; (4) Viridian and raw umber – deep green for trees and reflections; (5) Ultramarine and light red – recessive colour for distance; (6) Cadmium yellow, ultramarine and light red – dull medium green; (7) Ultramarine, alizarin crimson and viridian – interesting blue for skies and water.
It is a good exercise to try to paint a watercolour by using two colours only, perhaps ultramarine and light red, and compromising for the other colours you would normally use. It is a real test for your ingenuity and it helps to get the maximum value from the warm and cold colours used.
I was recently instructing a class of weekend artists in still life when I noticed a partly finished picture in oils at the other end of the studio. It seemed to have something that the others lacked. It was a study of a group of bright delphiniums in a brown vase with yellow drapery for a background. I spoke to the artist and she humbly apologised for her effort and pointed out that she had run out of blue and had to substitute black. Her efforts to compromise and turn varying shades of black into bright blue had produced an unusual attempt at a commonplace subject which was not unpleasing. This is, of course, an extreme case, but it is a safe principle not to paint objects in their self-colour, by which I mean the exact colour which you know them to be. Skillful use of tone and contrasts will give you a far more interesting result.
Let us now turn to the accompanying colour reproduction and the half-tone sketch from which it was produced.
Pencil sketch for “East Cliff, Whitby” 12in x 16in
I arrived at Whitby on a particularly dull August day with a mist sweeping in from the sea, giving the harbour a dull, sad appearance. Painting was out of the question. I walked around, keeping my eyes open for a possible subject for use when the weather improved. Climbing uphill through some narrow streets, I came upon a flat piece of ground by some public gardens, where there was a fine view overlooking the harbour entrance, with the ruined abbey on a hill in the distance. Out came my large sketch book and I made the pencil drawing shown here. The effect at that time was grey and uninteresting, so I did not make any colour notes but left them till the next day, when the sun shone and I was able to get the lighting effect I needed, together with some valuable cast shadows. My colour notes were jotted down in a corner of my drawing, with indications of light and dark tones.
At home in my studio, I began my watercolour. As it was intended for reproduction and would go overseas, I had to bear in mind that it must have good definition, as well as giving the viewer a clear idea of the place depicted. I mentally divided it into three places – the distant one, consisting of the headland and the old Saxon abbey; the nearer one, consisting of the old houses, the jetty and the water; and the foreground, of roofs and chimneys. By establishing this in my mind, I hoped to get the recession which was necessary for the success of the subject.
I chose a piece of 140lb Whatman paper and used a 4B pencil for my drawing. My paper was stretched and I commenced by laying in the sky with a cobalt mixture, running the wash down into the water and as far as the area taken up by the houses. Then the same mixture, with the addition of pale cadmium, was used for the yellow green headland in varying strengths. The ruined abbey and cliff face were completed and not touched again; for these I used a mixture of cobalt and light red. The light patch of sandy beach was painted with Naples yellow and the same colour, with light red added, was introduced in the lighter roofs of the cottages. The shady side of the walls and some of the darker roofs were put in and definition added by the use of a small brush. Light red, ultramarine and cadmium yellow were used to complete the group. I decided to shorten the jetty a little, for the sake of composition. Both this and the reflection were paints at the same time. I then carefully washed over the whole water area with a paler cobalt mixture and ran in deeper shades of the same colour for the ripples. The reflection of the cliff was put in at the same time and the wash allowed to run into the lighter blue of the water, leaving the white strip of surf. Cyanine blue dulled with a touch of light red was mixed in my palette and used for the varying strengths of the very strong reflection of the darker houses on the right, also for the small boats which were carefully drawn with a small sable. The actual painting time so far had occupied two days.
Lastly came the rooftops of the cottages in the near foreground, which called for strong and detailed treatment. The weight of colour was only achieved by superimposed washes of burnt sienna and ultramarine, using the former for the bright ridge tiles and mixed opaquely for the strong shadows from the chimneys. Light red mixed with Naples yellow served to give the chimney pots the necessary warmth, a small brush being used to give them shape and definition.
East Cliff, Whitby. Watercolour.
Comparatively few colours were used in this sketch but I endeavoured to get the utmost out of them by careful mixing.