Back to Basics: Color, Part One

Have you ever found yourself making paintings in which the color is just not right?

I’m not too used to that — my teachers were calling me a colorist as soon as I started using color over 25 years ago, and I’ve had many, many compliments on my use of color, such as one visitor who called me “the Monet of Austin” on her blog after a visit or two to my studio during the East Austin Studio Tours – a compliment I don’t think I quite deserve, but it was nice to be thought of that way.  I usually feel pretty comfortable with color.  Exploring color is part of what I do.  Or what I think I do.

The Problem

For several years, I’ve been doing small works on paper using either watercolor pencils or watercolor crayons, and never really noticed any issue with the harmony of the colors in the final piece.  I guess that’s because they are discrete colors. And I would usually pick out a palette of colors to use for each little work on paper, such as in the example below, thereby figuring out color harmonies in advance.

Palette for "Hippie Nouveau"

Palette for “Hippie Nouveau”

"Hippie Nouveau," watercolor pencils on heavy Raffine sketch paper, 6" x 5.75", © 2013 Marilyn Fenn

“Hippie Nouveau,” watercolor pencils on heavy Raffine sketch paper

But then, I realized I should switch to straight watercolor for these little works, as it takes about half as long to do: one step to add color and paint with watercolor vs. two steps to draw in the color and then paint the color with water when using watercolor pencils or crayons.  Plus with watercolor paints, I could better mix the precise colors I’d want.

However, I haven’t had much experience with watercolors, being primarily an oil painter.  So I was dismayed and frustrated to discover that several of my watercolors came out with colors that didn’t play well together, or that certain colors might look good together in certain proportions to each other, but not in other proportions.

Being watercolor, there wasn’t much I could do to fix them.  You can’t just paint over the wrong colors like you can with oils or acrylics.  You can lift the paint somewhat with water, or paint over the offending regions with opaque gouache, but that changes the nature of the painting in a not completely desirable manner.  With watercolor, you’ve pretty much got to get the color right the first time.

Research Time
Van Gogh's Sunflowers

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

So I decided to begin a new study of watercolor paints and colors.  I started with a book on selecting paints, “The Artist’s Guide to Selecting Colours,” by Michael Wilcox.  I discovered that quite a few of my little ancient tubes of watercolors contained pigments that are not lightfast (a.k.a. “fugitive”), meaning that the colors could either fade or shift over time, either through mixing with particular chemicals in other paints or varnishes or through exposure to certain types of light, such as sunlight and LED lighting. This happened with the chrome yellow used by Vincent van Gogh in his sunflowers paintings, which started out as bright yellow, but darkened and turned brown over the decades.1

Wilcox’s book was published in 1998, though, and several reviewers on Amazon suggested some of his information was out of date, so I continued my research at Handprint.com, a wonderful site that provides much excellent information about pigments, brushes, and watercolors in general — “the world’s finest guide to watercolor painting,” according to the website, and after spending several days of research there — and yet having only scratched the surface of the depth of information there — I think I agree!

Paints with questionable lightfastness

Paints with questionable lightfastness

It should be noted, however, that even the information on handprint.com may be slightly out of date; i.e., certain pigments by certain manufacturers may no longer be made with the same formulations as they were when reviewed.

So I picked up another source for pigment information, “Hilary Page’s Guide to Watercolor Paints”, not because the book is more up-to-date, but because she keeps updating the information on her website, and offers to send you complete Update Lists of the 600 or more colors she has reviewed since the publication of her book.  I have not yet reviewed this material, though, so I can’t say much about it at the moment.

What I Learned

Much to my relief, I discovered that all but one of the colors that has been a frequent standard on my palette since I began painting are extremely lightfast.  The standard palette suggested by many of my art teachers in the schools I went to included:

Standard palette of colors

Standard palette of colors

  • titanium white (PW6)
  • cadmium yellow (lemon, light, pale, medium, and/or deep) (PY35 or PY37)
  • cadmium red (light, medium and/or deep) (PR108)
  • alizarin crimson (PR83; Fugitive – Avoid!)
  • ultramarine blue (PB29)
  • cerulean blue (PB35 or PB36)
  • viridian green (PG18)
  • yellow ochre (PY42)
  • raw sienna (PBr7)
  • burnt sienna (PBr7)
  • raw umber (PBr7
  • burnt umber (PBr7)

With the exception of Alizarin Crimson, all of these colors (and many other colors I have experimented with) have an excellent Lightfastness rating – a rating of I, according to ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials).  So, perhaps our teachers didn’t know that Alizarin Crimson was fugitive.  I’m not sure when the ASTM began testing artists pigments, but now we know better, and a lot of artists have switched from Alizarin Crimson to Quinacridone Magenta for their cool red.

Here are a few other tips and curiosities:

  • You really don’t need very many colors.  Six to twelve should be sufficient, as you can mix almost any color from a small range of carefully selected pigments.  More isn’t necessarily better.
  • Many manufacturers mix a few pigments together to make a “new” color; generally speaking, you won’t need it.  Stick to single-pigment paints.
  • A single pigment paint is more trustworthy than a mix of several pigments; but if you choose to buy a few “convenience colors,”2 like Naples Yellow or Gamboge, be sure of the lightfastness rating of all the pigments used.  Look on the tube or the manufacturers website for the list of pigments used.3
  • Manufacturers’ rating of Lightfastness may not be accurate, or may be assumed based on the Lightfastness tests for that pigment according to ASTM.  Tests done by Bruce MacEvoy of Handprint.com show some differing results.
  • The same pigment color may be called different things by different manufacturers.   Very confusing!  Do some homework before spending money!  Here’s a great place to start: Handprint.com Guide to Watercolor Pigments.
  • The same pigment from different manufacturers may have (and likely will have) different physical properties, due to their manufacturing process, binders, and such.  Buy good quality paints: avoid student grade paints, paints that you can’t find out much about, and paints that haven’t been tested.
  • A paint called “Permanent” anything is likely not really permanent (lightfast).
Read the label

Read the label

The Solution

As this post is already quite long, I will post my solution, along with two weeks of color studies, in my next post.  You can sign up to receive my blog posts, if you like, at that little link called  OR leave a comment at the bottom of this post, and check the “Notify me of follow-up comments via email” box, and I will comment here when the new post is out (so far, have not written part two.  Sigh!).

1 The mystery of the discolored Van Goghs

2 A “convenience color” is a mix of two colors that you may use frequently, therefore it is sometimes more convenient to just go ahead and buy tubes of that color.

Links to paint suppliers and manufacturers (under the Art Resources tab)

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I always made stuff but never thought, I’m going to be an artist.

— Mark Bradford
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Gallery of Recent Paintings
Untitled 2015-029 - Oil on Canvas - 10 x 10 - © 2015 Marilyn Fenn Untitled (2015-007) - Oil painting by Marilyn Fenn Don't Look Down - Oil on Canvas - 10 x 10 - © 2015 Marilyn Fenn Composition Number 9, 2013 - Acrylic on panel -  9 x 12 -  © 2013 Marilyn Fenn