Monthly Archives: July 2012

Neutrals make powerful watercolors


Simple watercolor using neutrals

Glazes top and bottom, charges in center

Mixing color for effect

Making use of neutrals can give your watercolors a powerful boost.      

Take a look at the two color charts.  The combination is simple.  A red, a blue and a yellow is all that is involved.   Choosing the best red, blue and yellow will depend upon your experience. How do you know which combination to use? Experiment!

What is in the charts?    

The chart on the left is made up of Winsor & Newton Permanent Alizarin,  Holbein Marine Blue  and M.Graham Gamboge.

The chart at the top consists of American Journey Joe’s Blue, Winsor & Newton Perylene Maroon and M.Graham Gamboge.

While all of the paints are in the red, blue or yellow category you should be able to see that there are differences in the results. Compare the pale wash examples to the stronger wash examples. Also note the change in effect between the combinations.  Take time to explore your paints on a piece of paper not when you are actually painting. When you are painting you should have some sort of concept in mind.  However, it makes good sense to keep a separate piece of watercolor paper close by.  It can come in handy when you are trying to make sure of a color passage BEFORE you apply it in a critical area.

Get a grip on color 

I  am accustomed to lecturing on color theory for several hours in my classroom. It is a vast subject.  However, on this page I’ll stick to essentials. If you study the concept of subtractive color you will realize that as painters who work with pigments we have certain boundaries.  In pure theory our red is known as magenta, blue is called cyan  and yellow is called yellow. Simple enough.  However, not every paint named yellow is close to process yellow, not every blue is process blue and pure magenta really doesn’t look like the reds most of us are accustomed to seeing.

What is the solution?

If you have not done so, take the time to look at these process colors.  Every printed color page you view is based upon subtractive color theory. Be aware that it is different than additive color, the color of light, such as the color you see on this screen. Take time to learn the difference.  If necessary, memorize what the colors look like.  If you will do that you will find your color mixing frustration level greatly reduced.

Two approaches

As you examine the charts you will note that the swatches in the center look different from the other examples.   The center swatches were produced by charging.  Charging is the act of loading another color into a wet or moist field. It is very much like wet into wet painting.  You will note it produces a soft effect while the other swatches that are glazes have hard edges.  Both techniques have their place.

St.Clair Barn

The watercolor at the top is a small painting measuring about 10″ x 14″ (25.40 x 35.56cm). It was produced using Grumbacher Thalo Blue, Grumbacher Indian Yellow, and Winsor Red. Every neutral was created by manipulating the ratio of color in each wash. The painting contains combinations of glazing, charging and dry brush.  Basic flat washes were applied first.  Selective areas were charged with color while still moist. Can you see where?  Hint: the sky was washed in and while it was drying the foreground and middle ground  of a pale yellow/red wash was applied. The sky was not allowed to touch the foreground and middle ground lest they bleed together.  That was the plan. However, if you look on the left side you should be able to see that some of the blue sky seeped into the middle ground while on the right past the barn you can see almost pure white paper.   After all of this dried, the entire sky was dampened with clean water (this was done to prevent any inadvertent streaks).  At this point a darker combination of thalo blue and red was used for treeline.  As it was drying more of the mixture was added to the trees to enhance the dark value. The charging was done with the tip of the brush and the color was allowed to bleed into the wash.   The barn roof is another combination of blue and red.  In the final stages a dry brush technique was used in the grassy area.

Any Questions?

Please feel free to contact  me.

Similar pieces and more involved tutorials are available in Mastering Glazing Techniques in Watercolor, Volume I at

Choosing Reds

While preparing for this segment I took a moment to get out my basket of watercolor paints.  As I began to separate my red colors into groups it suddenly came to me that some of the tubes in my basket are older than many of you reading this blog!  My wife is constantly reminding me of the fact that the vast majority of my students are 40-50 years younger than me. So be it.  At times like this  I reflect on the blessings I have had to have been exposed to some of the finest teachers in American Art.  The sad part is that I often did not appreciate it until many years later.  What is my point?  Today most painters are bombarded with information regarding such topics as lightfastness, toxicity, etc.  While these are important issues I can’t help but smile as I recall that as young students we often trained and peaked our sable brushes by putting them into our mouths.  The saliva helped train and keep the point on those  treasured series 7 Kolinsky  sable  brushes.   At one point the manufacturer of the brushes and the paints sent out pamphlets with disclaimers warning all of us that they would not be responsible for any sickness or death resulting from anyone insisting on continuing the saliva bath practice.

Fading away 

So now to the present and the question of reds. What constitutes a good red?  I think it all depends upon how you plan to use it.

1. Are you painting florals or exotic birds?

2.Perhaps you are painting landscapes or portraits.

In each case a proper red may differ.  Thankfully there is a variety of reds from which to choose. Like any other color I think it is best for you to acquaint yourself with the color index.

3. I am speaking of designations such as PB,PR, PY, etc.

These index numbers will help identify the chemical composition of the paint you choose. If you cannot find an index number on the tube or chart choose a manufacturer that is willing to divulge the information. Take some time and go online with the search engine of your choice.  Pull up your favorite paint manufacturer and navigate or cruise to the color chart.  Examine the chart rather closely and you will most likely find a key or legend that will explain a number of things about the property and handling characteristics of each color.  You should be able to discern not only the lightfastness rating but the relative transparency /opacity of each color as well as the primary ingredients. Various sites  may be more informative than others.

Is fading the only issue?

No, a good watercolor paint has many considerations.  How does the paint behave when you use it?  Does it just sit on your paper like an inert lump or does it blossom and bloom on a moist field? As it dries does it retain its color or does it fade away?  While the loss of a bit of color or dry back is considered to be normal, too much is definitely not good.  So paint manufacturers have a number of challenges when they are seeking to develop the best choice at a reasonable price.  The bottom line is that there are pigments that will probably last for a thousand years but may not be suitable for our palettes for a variety of reasons. Thankfully today the painter has a much broader choice of suitable colors.

Not all pigments are created equal

Remember the old adage, “There is no free lunch”.  You could apply that philosophy to pigments and paints. Buy the best you can afford. When you are beginning that may be a bit daunting. That is one reason I urge you to experiment with various brands.

* Buy a smaller tube at first if you are not sure about a particular color or brand.

*Avoid discount store brands.

*Some student grade paints are pretty good, others are miserable.

Be careful when you purchase. The color red can be particularly testy.  Forgive me for bringing up the good old days but I want to make a point.  Many years ago as a beginning watercolor painter I fell in love with Alizarin Crimson. I had used it for years in oil painting so it was only natural to transfer that love to watercolor.  I had painted a snow scene that had found its way to a friend that lived on the New Jersey shore.  One summer, while visiting, I got to see the piece proudly displayed on the landing of the stairwell of this old Victorian home.  The setting was perfect and the light was wonderful. However, there was one major flaw; in a very short time the pale hints of Alizarin I had used had completely disappeared!  It didn’t seem that anyone else noticed but I did. The moral of the story is to be sure you know something about the colors you choose.  Always remember that colors that are lightfast in oils may not necessarily behave in the same way in watercolor.

Know your PRs 

The preceding story is intended to reinforce the need to be aware of the nature of pigments.  For hundreds of years certain ingredients have been used to make red paint.

* Vermilion, made from cinnabar, a mercury derivative, has been prized and very expensive. Not only is it expensive, it is toxic.

*The same is true for cadmium colors.

In today’s market we find a number of mixtures that are designed to perform like many of the old colors without the expense and the risk associated with them. This is not to say that you cannot find many of the old standards but in many cases you will be using a well crafted substitute.  If you study you will find that some of the old compounds suffer from exposure to air borne contaminates or pollutants.  This is an involved subject that I will not expound upon here. Feel free to research the subject.  There are excellent sources as well as guides written by various individuals concerning pigments and the story of color.  However, if you research do pay attention to the date on the material. There are new updates that render a lot of technical information obsolete.

Chart of Reds

Down below you will see a chart of red colors.  Do understand that I DO NOT use all of these colors at once or all of the time.  I have them and will use them if and when needed.

 In most cases I work with a fairly limited palette; usually no more than three or four colors. I make use of analogous as well as complementary color schemes. It all depends upon the effect I am trying to achieve.

Like every painter I have my favorites.  One favorite that I am having to reconsider is Grumbacher Red.  If you check the ingredients you will see a combination of PR170 and PR188.  According to some individuals who have devoted much time to the study of the relative permanence of color; PR170 is not considered to be lightfast.  However, Grumbacher gives it a Class II designation which suggests that it has durability.

 One point to consider, some manufacturers will place conditions upon their lightfast designations.

For example,  Rembrandt will state that their ratings for durability are based upon the paint being displayed under museum conditions. So what does this mean?

Where and how your work is displayed will play a role in its longevity.

Certain types of florescent lighting as well as direct sunlight can bleach out a lot of color. My personal observation is that I have been using Grumbacher Red since 1962.  At this time I have not had an incidence of the color fading or dulling. There are those who speculate that when ingredients are combined such as PR170 (Napthol red) and PR188 that the mix is stabilized.  However, as you examine the chart you will see that there are other colors that come close to matching it.

Grumbacher Red has been a proprietary color for many years.  I often contrast it against Winsor Red since in my experience it is a little cooler than the warmer Grumbacher color.  I often use them full strength and that may account for the lack  of dulling. A lot of people swear by M. Graham’s cadmium red while others prefer Sennelier Red.  So try them all and settle on your favorites.

About the chart

OK.there are a few things that need to be said about the chart.  As stated earlier, this chart is no indication that these are the best or  only colors one should choose.  These colors just happen to be in my basket at this time.  Daniel Smith makes excellent color as does M.Graham, Holbein and others.  So just because they are not included should not be considered a negative indictment.

Starting from the top and working clockwise I am going to list 18 colors by brand and index number.  After that I’ll make some general comments. Top center : American Journey Fire Engine Red (PR108/PR19), Sennelier French Vermilion (PR242),  Winsor & Newton Permanent Alizarin (PR206),  Winsor & Newton Quinacridone  Magenta (PR122),  Grumbacher Thalo Crimson (PV19),  Winsor & Newton Perylene Maroon (PR179),  Sennelier Rose Magenta (PV19), Sennelier Permanent Magenta (PV19),  Winsor & Newton Rose Dore’ (PV19/PY197),  American Journey Pomegranate (PV19), Winsor & Newton Permanent Rose (PV19),  Rembrandt Red Deep (PR108),  Rembrandt Red Light (PR255/PY154),  Rembrandt Vermilion (PR255/PY154), Stephen Quiller Quinacridone Red (PR202), Sennelier Red (PR254) and Grumbacher Red (PR170/PR188).


As you look at the color chart keep at least two things in mind.  As with other charts I am attempting to demonstrate the relative transparency of each color. The top band was painted pretty much full strength while the second band was diluted with water to produce an approximate 50% value.  This is not a scientific rendition.  It is a painting attempt.  The swatches could probably be a little more uniform in places but that is not the primary issue.  Gaining some understanding  of each paint is a part of the process and objective.  I use the circles, even though they area bit of a pain,  because they fit well on a page. Look at the colors. Please keep in mind that you are viewing an electronic rendition.  Your results will vary depending upon the paper you use and how fully you load your brush.  You need to test the colors for yourself so that you can see with your eyes the results you get.

Analyzing the chart

As you look at the colors how many seem to be very similar if not almost identical?

Caution: remind yourself that you are looking at a computer screen. Real life observation may reveal very subtle differences.  Now with those suggestions in mind how many colors can you see crossing the thick black india ink band? Count them.

Would you say that almost half of them reveal some degree of opacity?  Since we are working with reds that should be no surprise.

However, take note that almost as many are quite transparent even at full strength.  This makes them likely candidates for beginning washes that need to be a bit transparent.  Be careful with reds they do like to bleed into other colors so you need to use them prudently.

Next: check out the ingredients.  Do you see similar ingredients being repeated in various areas of the circle?  At least five of the colors list PV19 as the main ingredient. Do you also notice other ingredients being listed in several locations.  For example PR108 has been rated as an excellent pigment for lightfast qualities.   Do you think it might be a good idea to research these ingredients since they currently appear so often?

Now that you have looked at the chart you can make choices from the display and /or hopefully seek out other reds. There are many out there. You will soon find that even though many may list the same ingredients the color and the handling characteristics may be different.

For example, I love to use Winsor & Newton’s Perylene Maroon. It is such a regal color and it blends well with other colors on my palette. ( My next installment will introduce a few examples.)  Sennelier Red is very smooth handling and provides vibrant color while American Journey colors provide a lot of powerful pigmentation.


In my next installment I’ll be introducing some neutral color combinations utilizing glazing as well as charging.  Meanwhile, now that you have studied the red chart think about how you can mix various reds with a differing yellow and blue in order to get a wide range of values.  I’ve have often used the term expanded primary system working off the basic premise of mixing red,blue and yellow.  There is a study of mixing various neutrals in Mastering Glazing Techniques in Watercolor, Volume I available direct at

Comparing pigments

Do the paints I choose make a difference?

Absolutely! As I begin this discussion I  want to clarify that all comparisons on this page are being made with high quality watercolor paints.  To clarify or to be precise; in this section I am demonstrating such brands as American Journey, Grumbacher, Holbein, Maimeri, Winsor & Newton, Sennelier and Stephen Quiller.  This is not to imply that all other brands are inferior. These just happen to be the colors I use most often in my studio.

Experiment with your own colors:

You should gather your own colors and arrange them in some orderly sense that works for you. The objective will be to compare several qualities in your chosen paints. If you wish to work with glazes you will need transparent colors.  How can you tell which ones are more transparent?   Two choices come to mind immediately.  The first one is to study the chemistry of watercolor paint ingredients.  You can make it as involved as you like.  Most major paint manufacturers have web-sites and they will tell you a lot about the basic ingredients in their paint.    This will help you become aware of some of the most often used ingredients. There are a number of guides that have been written that will offer their opinion regarding various colors.  All of this is good. You should care enough to learn as much as possible about the materials you use.  The second alternative is to experiment with the colors. In reality you should combine both approaches.  After all experimentation is wonderful but you do need some structure as you conduct your investigations otherwise how will you make use of  what you learn?

Conduct your own tests:

To get started make use of waterproof black india ink.  You want waterproof ink and you want to let it dry thoroughly before you begin to pull watercolor washes across it.  You can paint a straight line or you can do circles, triangles what ever makes you happy.  I use circles because they work better on a book page.

What to do:

Ok. Your ink is dry.  Now it is time to apply your washes. As you look at the two charts below you will see that some colors disappear as they cross the black surface. Others do not. The ones that disappear more fully are the most transparent colors.  Now if you labeled your colors then you know which ones will work best for you in the first washes you apply to produce a glaze.  As you experiment with your colors you will learn several things.  For example some washes will become more transparent as you dilute the strength of the wash.  You do this by simply adding more water to the paint.

Two charts below:

The first chart is an excerpt from my book Mastering Glazing Techniques in Watercolor, Volume I which is a revised edition of the original publication.  It is available at various outlets but you can order direct at or  By the way, the colors are labeled in the book but the copy is too small for this illustration. The second chart will be in Volume II.

Chart I contains what I call more traditional colors. Colors like some cadmium colors and ultramarine.  Do note that many of these colors are no longer made with traditional substances. That is, modern chemistry has found ways to produce similar effects with either less toxic or often less expensive components.  Several years ago the rule of thumb was that the traditional names were retained in order to inform the experienced artist that the paint was made to perform much like its original counterpart.

Chart II is primarily made up of Quinacridone colors that I have mentioned in earlier posts. A careful examination will reveal that the colors on Chart II are more transparent than some of the more traditional  colors. You will note that the outer ring has washes that are applied pretty much full strength while the inner ring has received diluted washes.


If you go back to an  earlier post you can see some of the difference in the quality of paint between the piece entitled Dragging Canoe and Young WarriorYoung Warrior was painted primarily with quinacridone colors while Dragging Canoe was painted with colors found on Chart I.

Chart I

Quinacridone colors and other staining pigments

Quinacridone Colors and watercolor glazing techniques/painting for effect

Do pigment types make a difference?

If you look at the beginning of my page you will see two watercolors. The top piece is entitled Young Warrior.  It was painted on 300lb. Lana cold press watercolor paper. The image measures approximately 19″ x 23″,  This piece was painted largely with quinacridone colors. American Journey Indian Yellow, Copper Kettle, Pomegranate, Old Sienna, as well as Winsor Violet and Winsor blue to be precise.  Painting number 2 is entitled Dragging Canoe*. It was painted on 300 lb.cold press Lana watercolor paper as well and measures approximately 24″ x 18″. As you examine the two pieces you will see a difference in appearance of color. There are several reasons for that difference. As stated Young Warrior was painted using quinacridone colors almost exclusively.  Dragging Canoe was painted using pigments like new gamboge, winsor red and winsor blue. When you compare the two pieces there is a definite difference. Certainly the age of the subjects, the lighting and setting are different. The two pieces were painted several years apart. Considering all that, it is logical that there would be differences. Now look a little closer. The Young Warrior’s color is a bit lighter and perhaps a bit brighter.  The older man is portrayed with colors that seem to have more body. Perhaps the proper terminology is to suggest that the first painting has a higher key in its color range.  Considering that there was a physical age difference I think the switch in pigment types was helpful. The younger man appears to be almost innocent, somewhat fresher than the older warrior who had experienced a lot more.

Both paintings are transparent with no opaque colors. Both paintings were glazed in sequence over a fairly well defined under painting.  Dragging Canoe has a blue under painting, Young Warrior has a lot of violet,. One piece appears to have more substance to its color. At least, I get that feel as I look at them. In this comparison I am trying to point out that your choice of pigment types can make a difference in the mood and effect of your painting.

Some readers who scan pictures and read less have often assumed that I use a large number of colors in a painting. Not true.  While it is true that I have a large reserve of paints, I learned long ago that too many colors at one time can spoil the effect.  Personally I seek harmony in my work and I love working with a limited palette. Working with complements as well as analogous color schemes have their place and can produce incredible results . Strive to learn about color and its relationship to one another. Color is like a community. We all know individuals who behave in a different manner depending upon their neighbors or close associates. Well, color behaves in the same way. Explore. Try different combinations and see what happens.  Sure, you win a few and you may lose quite a few but the destination is well worth the journey.

* Dragging Canoe  is featured  Mastering Glazing Techniques in Watercolor, Volume I  Dragging Canoe by Dr, Don Rankin available at

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