I Heart Watercolors: Part III

Last week I talked a bit about what to know when buying watercolor paper. Now here’s some things to know about buying watercolor paint.

When you go into an art supply store, almost all the better quality paint–pretty much anything that’s better than the stuff meant for children’s craft projects–is priced by series. Series in this case means price tier so it’s worth paying attention to, as two different reds or yellows can be two very different prices depending upon the pigment. Paints are made up of pigment (the thing that gives it the color) and a binder (the thing that holds the pigment so that it’s not just loose powder, in the case of watercolors it’s gum arabic or glycol).

There’s a lot of interesting history behind the pigments we use today. Many of them originally or still do came from minerals (cobalt, cadmium, and they will be the most expensive) or plants (alizarin crimson, formerly known as madder). A lot were developed synthetically during the 19th or 20th centuries (permanent rose). Many of the pigments that originally had a non-synthetic source have been reproduced as synthetic pigments, either alongside the original, or completely replacing it. Usually these synthetic replacements will be called ‘hues’, so cobalt hue instead of just cobalt. This is usually done because the original pigment is prohibitively expensive, has become difficult or impossible to get, or is actively hazardous to use**. I do find that hues can vary more between brands, since they’re each making their own pigment instead of everyone going out to cadmium mine, but I’m not super picky about it, it’s just something to keep in mind if you find a hue in a particular brand that you really like. If you aren’t sure exactly what colors you’ll like you need only get the smallest tubes available as they’ll last you a surprisingly long time. It will take me years to go through an 8 ml tube of watercolor and I paint pretty regularly.

When you’re just starting out, I recommend getting the following: two each of the primaries (yellow, red, blue) and raw umber (brown) and if it’s not watercolor titanium white. Optional are a green, a purple, maybe another brown or gray. I was taught to never use black, and I still don’t, but that’s a personal choice. I was also taught to only use the white of the paper with watercolors…my art education was a tad hardcore, and also just because this is how I like to paint does not mean this is how everyone should paint. It is, however, probably the most economical way to paint as it’s a lot cheaper to mix your own colors instead of buying every single one that you might want. But anyways, the reason I think it’s really helpful to have at least two of each of the primary colors is because you’re not working with the Pure Essence of Color, you’re working with paint and each pigment has its own properties, and each has its own range of colors you’ll be able to mix from it. For example, I love the cadmium reds when I want RED, but they make dull, grayish purples no matter what blue you mix them with. Sometimes that’s what I want, sometimes it’s not. Alizarin crimson on the other hand makes lovely purples, but also tends to darken what its mixed with. Great for getting near-black, not so great if you want something super bright.

Complimentary complementary colors. I have no regrets.

I think most people have heard of warm colors as being yellow, orange, and red, and cool colors being green, blue, and purple, but within each color you also have a warm–>cool range. So it’s possible to have a cool yellow and a warm blue, relatively speaking. If you mix a cool yellow and cool blue together you will get a green, but it will be a DIFFERENT green than if you mix a warm yellow and a warm blue. This is where you get to experiment, and it’s super fun! You can also get a lot of interesting neutrals by mixing complements–colors opposite each other on the color wheel–together. That said, there comes a point where it’s a lot faster and more convenient to have some pre-mixed secondary colors (green/purple/orange) or neutrals on hand. For one thing, certain bright colors are pretty much impossible to mix, such as hot pink. For another, if you’re trying to do something like make a dull blue, first you have to mix an orange, and then add it to the blue (or if you live dangerously add tiny bits of red and yellow directly to the blue) and this can be time consuming. Also, yes in theory mixing a color with its complement gets you a neutral this can also be very time consuming, controlling this takes a lot of practice and patience.

I fully admit that there is a lot of technical information about paint specs–lightfastness, permanence, etc–that I’m aware of, but I really don’t take into consideration when choosing my paint because the only thing I really care about is how is it to paint with which I’m not really going to get a feel for until I use the paint.

These are swatches of the paint that I own, with a few mixes along the bottom

List of watercolors that I own (various brands): *indicate my building block colors. I have all of these pigments or their near equivalent in oils because they’re my workhorses. Everything else is just for funsies.

Cobalt Blue Hue*
Lapis Lazuli Genuine
Sap Green*
Serpentine Green
Cadmium Lemon Hue*
Cadmium Yellow*
Cadmium Orange Hue*
Yellow Ochre*
Cadmium Red*
Alizarin Crimson Hue*
Piemontite Genuine
Permanent Rose
Dioxazine Violet*
Tiger’s Eye Genuine
Raw Umber*

If anything is unclear or confusing please ask me to clarify and I’ll do my best! The basics of paint and painting are such ground level knowledge for me that it’s hard for me to see what isn’t obvious to someone new to it.

**Cadmium is a nice natural metal that is very naturally toxic. This is more of an issue with oil paint, but please note any warning labels when shopping. Flake white is LEAD white, and while I haven’t seen any in a while that wasn’t a hue or a replacement, that doesn’t mean it’s not still sold somewhere.

Celia Yost

Celia Yost is a graphic artist and painter by both training and trade. She's also prone to ill-advised craft projects and yelling about politics.

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