AskDefine | Define aquarelle

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  1. a picture made by the application of watercolor through stencils, using a different stencil for each colour


It. acquarello- watercolor

Extensive Definition

Watercolor (US) or Watercolour (UK) (and "aquarelle" in French) is a painting method. A watercolor is the medium or the resulting artwork, in which the paints are made of pigments suspended in a water soluble vehicle. The traditional and most common support for watercolor paintings is paper; other supports include papyrus, bark papers, plastics, vellum or leather, fabric, wood, and canvas. In East Asia, watercolor painting with inks is referred to as brush painting or scroll painting. In Chinese and Japanese painting it has been the dominant medium, often in monochrome black or browns. India, Ethiopia and other countries also have long traditions. Fingerpainting with watercolor paints originated in China.


Although watercolor painting is extremely old, dating perhaps to the cave paintings of paleolithic Europe, and has been used for manuscript illumination since at least Egyptian times but especially in the European Middle Ages, its continuous history as an art medium begins in the Renaissance. The German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) who painted several fine botanical, wildlife and landscape watercolors, is generally considered among the earliest exponents of the medium. An important school of watercolor painting in Germany was led by Hans Bol (1534-1593) as part of the Dürer Renaissance.
The three English artists credited with establishing watercolor as an independent, mature painting medium are Paul Sandby (1730-1809), often called "the father of the English watercolor", Thomas Girtin (1775-1802), who pioneered its use for large format, romantic or picturesque landscape painting, and Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), who brought watercolor painting to the highest pitch of power and refinement and created with it hundreds of superb historical, topographical, architectural and mythological paintings. His method of developing the watercolor painting in stages, starting with large, vague color areas established on wet paper, then refining the image through a sequence of washes and glazes, permitted him to produce large numbers of paintings with workshop efficiency and made him a multimillionaire in part through sales from his personal art gallery, the first of its kind. Among the important and highly talented contemporaries of Turner and Girtin were John Varley, John Sell Cotman, Anthony Copley Fielding, Samuel Palmer, William Havell and Samuel Prout. The Swiss painter Louis Ducros was also widely known for his large format, romantic paintings in watercolor.
Watercolor painting also became popular in the United States during middle 19th century; the American Society of Painters in Watercolor (now the American Watercolor Society) was founded in 1866. Major 19th century American exponents of the medium included William Trost Richards, Fidelia Bridges, Thomas Moran, Thomas Eakins, Henry Roderick Newman, John LaFarge and, preeminently, Winslow Homer. The popularity of watercolors stimulated many innovations, including heavier and more heavily sized wove papers and brushes (called "pencils") manufactured expressly for watercolor painting. Watercolor tutorials were first published in this period by Varley, Cox and others, innovating the step-by-step painting instructions that still characterizes the genre today; "The Elements of Drawing", a watercolor tutorial by the English art critic John Ruskin, has been out of print only once since it was first published in 1857. Commercial paintmaking brands appeared and paints were packaged in metal tubes or as dry cakes that could be "rubbed out" (dissolved) in studio porcelain or used in portable metal paint boxes in the field. Contemporary breakthroughs in chemistry made many new pigments available, including prussian blue, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, viridian, cobalt violet, cadmium yellow, aureolin (potassium cobaltinitrite), zinc white and a wide range of carmine and madder lakes. These in turn stimulated a greater use of color throughout all painting media, but in English watercolors particularly by the Pre-Raphaelite painters.


Watercolor was less popular on the Continent, though many fine examples were produced by French painters, including Eugene Delacroix, François Marius Granet, Henri-Joseph Harpignies and the satirist Honore Daumier.
Unfortunately the careless and excessive adoption of brightly colored, petroleum derived aniline dyes (and pigments compounded from them), which all fade rapidly on exposure to light, and the efforts to properly conserve the 20,000 Turner paintings inherited by the British Museum in 1857, led to an examination and negative re-evaluation of the permanence of pigments in watercolor. This caused a sharp decline in their status and market value. Nevertheless, isolated exponents continued to prefer and develop the medium into the 20th century. In Europe, gorgeous landscape and maritime watercolors were produced by Paul Signac, and Paul Cezanne developed a watercolor painting style consisting entirely of overlapping small glazes of pure color.
In America, the most famous watercolor painters from this period include Maurice Prendergast, Frederick Childe Hassam, Charles Webster Hawthorne and John Singer Sargent, considered by many the finest watercolor painter of all time.

20th century

Among the many 20th century artists who produced important works in watercolor, mention must be made of Wassily Kandinsky, Emil Nolde, Paul Klee, Egon Schiele and Raoul Dufy; in America the major exponents included Charles Burchfield, Edward Hopper, Charles Demuth, Elliot O'Hara and above all John Marin, 80% of whose total output is in watercolor. In this period American watercolor (and oil) painting was often imitative of European Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, but significant individualism flourished within "regional" styles of watercolor painting in the 1920's to 1940's, in particular the "Cleveland School" or "Ohio School" of painters centered around the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the "California Scene" painters, many of them associated with Hollywood animation studios or the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts Academy). The California painters exploited their state's varied geography, Mediterranean climate and "automobility" to reinvigorate the outdoor or "plein air" tradition; among the most influential were Phil Dike, Millard Sheets, Rex Brandt, Dong Kingman and Milford Zornes. The California Water Color Society, founded in 1921 and later renamed the National Watercolor Society, sponsored important exhibitions of their work.


Paints comprise four principal ingredients:
  • colorant, commonly pigment (an insoluble inorganic compound or metal oxide crystal, or an organic dye fused to an insoluble metal oxide crystal);
  • binder, the substance that holds the pigment in suspension and fixes the pigment to the painting surface;
  • additives, substances that alter the viscosity, hiding, durability or color of the pigment and vehicle mixture; and
  • solvent, the substance used to thin or dilute the paint for application and that evaporates when the paint hardens or dries.
The term "watermedia" refers to any painting medium that uses water as a solvent and that can be applied with a brush, pen or sprayer; this includes most inks, watercolors, temperas, gouaches and modern acrylic paints. The term watercolor refers to paints that use water soluble, complex carbohydrates as a binder. Originally (16th to 18th centuries) watercolor binders were sugars and/or hide glues, but since the 19th century the preferred binder is natural gum arabic, with glycerin and/or honey as additives to improve plasticity and dissolvability of the binder, and with other chemicals added to improve product shelf life. Bodycolor is a watercolor made as opaque as possible by a heavy pigment concentration, and gouache is a watercolor made opaque by the addition of a colorless opacifier (such as chalk or zinc oxide). Modern acrylic paints are based on a completely different chemistry that uses water soluble acrylic resin as a binder.
Watercolor painters before c.1800 had to make paints themselves using pigments purchased from an apothecary or specialized "colourman"; the earliest commercial paints were small, resinous blocks that had to be wetted and laboriously "rubbed out" in water. Modern commercial watercolor paints are available in two forms: tubes or pans. The majority of paints sold are in collapsable metal tubes in standard sizes (typically 7.5, 15 or 37 ml.), and are formulated to a consistency similar to toothpaste. Pan paints (actually, small dried cakes or bars of paint in an open plastic container) are usually sold in two sizes, full pans (approximately 3 cc of paint) and half pans (favored for compact paint boxes). Pans are historically older but commonly perceived as less convenient; they are most often used in portable metal paint boxes, also introduced in the mid 19th century, and are preferred by landscape or naturalist painters. Among the most widely used brands of commercial watercolors today are Daniel Smith, Daler Rowney, DaVinci, Holbein, Maimeri, M. Graham, Schmincke, Talens (Rembrandt), and Winsor & Newton.
Thanks to modern industrial organic chemistry, the variety, saturation (brilliance) and permanence of artists' colors available today is greater than ever before. However, the art materials industry is far too small to exert any market leverage on global dye or pigment manufacture. With rare exceptions, all modern watercolor paints utilize pigments that were manufactured for use in printing inks, automotive and architectural paints, wood stains, concrete, ceramics and plastics colorants, consumer packaging, foods, medicines, textiles and cosmetics. Paint manufacturers buy very small supplies of these pigments, mill (mechanically mix) them with the vehicle, solvent and additives, and package them.
Many artists are confused or misled by labeling practices common in the art materials industry. The marketing name for a paint, such as "cobalt blue" or "emerald green", is often only a poetic color evocation or proprietary moniker; there is no legal requirement that it describe the pigment that gives the paint its color. To remedy this confusion, in 1990 the art materials industry voluntarily began listing pigment ingredients on the paint packaging, using the common pigment name (such as "cobalt blue" or "cadmium red"), and/or a standard pigment identification code, the generic color index name (PB28 for cobalt blue, PR108 for cadmium red) assigned by the Society of Dyers and Colourists (UK) and the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (USA). This allows artists to choose paints according to their pigment ingredients, rather than the poetic labels assigned to them by marketers. Paint pigments and formulations vary across manufacturers, and watercolor paints with the same color name (e.g., "sap green") from different manufacturers can be formulated with completely different ingredients.
Watercolor paints are customarily evaluated on a few key attributes. In the partisan debates of the 19th century English art world, gouache was emphatically contrasted to traditional watercolors and denigrated for its lack of "transparency" or hiding power; "transparent" watercolors were exalted. Paints with low hiding power are valued because they allow an underdrawing or engraving to show in the image, and because colors can be mixed visually by layering paints on the paper (which itself may be either white or tinted). In fact, there are very few genuinely transparent watercolors, neither are there completely opaque watercolors (with the exception of gouache); and any watercolor paint can be made more transparent simply by diluting it with water. The 19th century claim that "transparent" watercolors gain "luminosity" because they function like a pane of stained glass laid on paper -- the color intensified because the light passes through the pigment, reflects from the paper, and passes a second time through the pigment on its way to the viewer -- is false: watercolor paints do not form a cohesive paint layer, as do acrylic or oil paints, but simply scatter pigment particles randomly across the paper surface.
Staining is another characteristic assigned to watercolor paints: a staining paint is difficult to remove or lift from the painting support after it has been applied or dried. Less staining colors can be lightened or removed almost entirely when wet, or when rewetted and then "lifted" by stroking gently with a clean, wet brush and then blotted up with a paper towel. In fact, the staining characteristics of a paint depend in large part on the composition of the support (paper) itself, and on the particle size of the pigment. Staining is increased if the paint manufacturer uses a dispersant to reduce the paint milling (mixture) time, because the dispersant acts to drive pigment particles into crevices in the paper pulp, dulling the finished color.
Granulation refers to the appearance of separate, visible pigment particles in the finished color, produced when the paint is substantially diluted with water and applied with a juicy brush stroke; pigments notable for their watercolor granulation include viridian (PG18), cerulean blue (PG35), cobalt violet (PV14) and some iron oxide pigments (PBr7). "Flocculation" refers to a peculiar clumping typical of ultramarine pigments (PB29 or PV15). Both effects display the subtle effects of water as the paint dries, are unique to watercolors, and are deemed attractive by accomplished watercolor painters. Regrettably the trend in commercial paints seems to be to suppress pigment textures in favor of homogeneous, flat color.
Commercial watercolor paints come in two grades: "Artist" (or "Professional") and "Student". Artist quality paints are usually formulated using a single pigment, which results in richer color and vibrant mixes. Student grade paints have less pigment, and often are formulated using two or more less expensive pigments. Artist and Professional paints are more expensive but many consider the quality worth the higher cost.
As there is no transparent white watercolor, the white parts of a watercolor painting are most often areas of the paper "reserved" (left unpainted) and allowed to be seen in the finished work. To preserve these white areas, many painters use a variety of resists, including masking tape or a liquid latex, that are applied to the paper to protect it from paint, then pulled away to reveal the white paper. White paint (titanium dioxide PW6 or zinc oxide PW4) is best used to insert highlights or white accents into a painting. If mixed with other pigments, white paints may cause them to fade or change hue under light exposure.


Watercolor painting has the reputation of being quite demanding; it is more accurate to say that watercolor techniques are unique to watercolor. Unlike oil or acrylic painting, where the paints essentially stay where they are put and dry more or less in the form they are applied, water is an active and complex partner in the watercolor painting process, changing both the absorbency and shape of the paper when it is wet and the outlines and appearance of the paint as it dries. The difficulty in watercolor painting is almost entirely in learning how to anticipate and leverage the behavior of water, rather than attempting to control or dominate it.
Many difficulties occur because watercolor paints do not have high hiding power, so previous efforts cannot simply be painted over; and the paper support is both absorbent and delicate, so the paints cannot simply be scraped off, like oil paint from a canvas, but must be laboriously (and often only partially) lifted by rewetting and blotting. This often induces in student painters a pronounced and inhibiting anxiety about making an irreversible mistake. Watercolor has a longstanding association with drawing or engraving, and the common procedure to curtail such mistakes is to make a precise, faint outline drawing in pencil of the subject to be painted, to use small brushes, and to paint limited areas of the painting only after all adjacent paint areas have completely dried.
Another characteristic of watercolor paints is that the carbohydrate binder is only a small proportion of the raw paint volume, and much of the binder is drawn between the hydrophilic cellulose fibers of wet paper as the paint (and paper) dries. As a result, watercolor paints do not form an enclosing layer of vehicle around the pigment particles and a continuous film of dried vehicle over the painting support, but leave pigment particles scattered and stranded like tiny grains of sand on the paper. This increases the scattering of light from both the pigment and paper surfaces, causing a characteristic whitening or lightening of the paint color as it dries. The exposed pigment particles are also naked to damaging ultraviolet light, which can compromise pigment permanency.
Watercolor paint is traditionally and still commonly applied with brushes, but modern painters have experimented with many other implements, particularly sprayers, scrapers, sponges or sticks, and have combined watercolors with pencil, charcoal, crayon, chalk, ink, engraving, monotype, lithography and collage, or with acrylic paint.
Many watercolor painters, perhaps uniquely among all modern visual artists, still adhere to prejudices dating from the 19th century rivalry between "transparent" and bodycolor painters. Among these are injunctions never to use white paint, never to use black paint, only to use transparent color, or only to work with "primary" color mixtures. In fact, many superb paintings flout some or all of these guidelines, and they have little relevance to modern painting practice.
Perhaps only with the exception of egg tempera, watercolor is the painting medium that artists most often compound themselves, by hand, using raw pigment and paint ingredients purchased from retail suppliers and prepared using only kitchen utensils. Even with commercially prepared paints, watercolor is prized for its nontoxic, tap ready solvent; lack of odor or flammability; prompt drying time; ease of cleanup and disposal; long shelf life; independence from accessory equipment (jars, rags, easels, stretchers, etc.). Its portability makes it ideal for plein air painting, and painters today can buy compact watercolor kits -- containing a dozen or more pan paints, collapsible brushes, water flask, brush rinsing cup and fold out mixing trays -- that fit neatly into a coat pocket.

Washes and glazes

Basic watercolor technique includes washes and glazes. In watercolors, a wash is the application of diluted paint in a manner that disguises or effaces individual brush strokes to produce a unified area of color. Typically, this might be a light blue wash for the sky. There are many techniques to produce an acceptable wash, but the student method is to tilt the paper surface (usually after fixing it to a rigid flat support) so that the top of the wash area is higher than the bottom, then to apply the paint in a series of even, horizontal brush strokes in a downward sequence, each stroke just overlapping the stroke above to pull downward the excess paint or water (the "bead"), and finally wicking up the excess paint from the last stroke using a paper towel or the tip of a moist brush. This produces an airy, translucent color effect unique to watercolors, especially when a granulating or flocculating pigment (such as viridian or ultramarine blue) is used. Washes can be "graded" or "graduated" by adding more prediluted paint or water to the mixture used in successive brush strokes, which darkens or lightens the wash from start to finish. "Variegated" washes, which blend two or more paint colors, can also be used, for example as a wash with areas of blue and perhaps some red or orange for a sky at sunrise or sunset.
A glaze is the application of one paint color over a previous paint layer, with the new paint layer at a dilution sufficient to allow the first color to show through. Glazes are used to mix two or more colors, to adjust a color (darken it or change its hue or chroma), or to produce an extremely homogenous, smooth color surface or a controlled but delicate color transition (light to dark, or one hue to another). The last technique requires the first layer to be a highly diluted consistency of paint; this paint layer dissolves the surface sizing of the paper and loosens the cellulose tufts in the pulp. Subsequent layers are applied at increasingly heavier concentrations, always using a small round brush, only after the previous paint application has completely dried. Each new layer is used to refine the color transitions or to efface visible irregularities in the existing color. Painters who use this technique may apply 100 glazes or more to create a single painting. This method is currently very popular for painting high contrast, intricate subjects, in particular colorful blossoms in crystal vases brightly illuminated by direct sunlight. The glazing method also works exceptionally well in watercolor portraiture, allowing the artist to depict complex flesh tones effectively.

Wet in wet

Wet in wet includes any application of paint or water to an area of the painting that is already wet with either paint or water. In general, wet in wet is one of the most distinctive features of watercolor painting and the technique that produces a striking painterly effect.
The essential idea is to wet the entire sheet of paper, laid flat, until the surface no longer wicks up water but lets it sit on the surface, then to plunge in with a large brush saturated with paint. This is normally done to define the large areas of the painting with irregularly defined color, which is then sharpened and refined with more controlled painting as the paper (and preceding paint) dries.
Wet in wet actually comprises a variety of specific painting effects, each produced through different procedures. Among the most common and characteristic:
  • Backruns (also called blossoms, blooms, oozles, watermarks or runbacks). Because the hydrophilic and closely spaced cellulose fibers of the paper provide traction for capillary action, water and wet paint have a strong tendency to migrate from wetter to drier surfaces of the painting. As the wetter area pushes into the dryer, it plows up pigment along its edge, leaving a lighter colored area behind it and a darker band of pigment along an irregular, serrated edge. Backruns can be subtle or pronounced, depending on the consistency of the paint in the two areas and the amount of moisture imbalance. Backruns can be induced by adding more paint or water to a paint area as it dries, or by blotting (drying) a specific area of the painting, causing the wetter surrounding areas to creep into it. Backruns are often used to symbolize a flare of light or the lighting contour on an object, or simply for decorative effect.
  • Paint Diffusion. Because of osmotic imbalance, concentrated paint applied to a prewetted paper has a tendency to diffuse or expand into the pure water surrounding it, especially if the paint has been milled using a dispersant (surfactant). This produces a characteristic feathery, delicate border around the color area, which can be enhanced or partially shaped by tilting the paper surface before the water dries, shaping the diffusion with surface water flow.
  • Pouring Color. Some artists pour large quantities of slightly diluted paint onto separate areas of the painting surface, then by using a brush, spray bottle of water and/or judicious tilting of the painting support, cause the wet areas to gently merge and mix. After the color has been mixed and allowed to set for a few minutes, the painting is tipped vertically to sheet off all excess moisture (the lighter colors across the darker ones), leaving behind a paper stained with random, delicate color variations, which can be further shaped with a wet brush or added paint while the paper is still wet. A popular variation uses separate areas of red, yellow and blue paint, which when mingled and drained produce a striking effect of light in darkness; areas of white are reserved by first covering them with plastic film, masking tape or a liquid latex resist. (The technique was actually invented, and used for similar effect, by J.M.W. Turner.)
  • Dropping In Color. In this technique a color area is first precisely defined with diluted paint or clear water, then more concentrated paint is dropped into it by touching the wet area with a brush charged with paint. The added paint can be shaped by tilting or stroking; backruns can be induced by adding pure water or concentrated paint, or the color can be lightened by wicking up paint with a moist brush. A striking, tesselated effect is produced when many precisely defined and interlocking areas are separately colored with this randomly diffusing technique.
  • Salt Texture. Grains of coarse salt, sprinkled into moist paint, produce small, snowflake like imperfections in the color. This is especially effective when the color area is a wash that displays the texture more clearly. A similar effect can be produced by spraying a moist (not shiny but still cool to the touch) paint area with water, using a spray bottle held two or three feet above the painting surface, or by sprinking a wet paint with coarse sand or sawdust.
Watercolor painters also learn to apply paint to paper and then, when the paint has dried to the right point, brush along the edge of the paint with a flat, mop or sky brush charged with a moderate amount of clear water. This new area of water pulls the wet paint outward in a diffusion fan that is controlled by judging the wetness of the paint and the amount of water applied; if excessive water is used, this brushing produces both an outward diffusion and a backrun into the drying paint. This method is useful to produce transitions in value or color within narrow bands, such as the locks of hair in a portrait head.


At the other extreme from wet in wet techniques, Drybrush is the watercolor painting technique for precision and control, supremely exemplified in many botanical paintings and in the drybrush watercolors of Andrew Wyeth. Raw (undiluted) paint is picked up with a premoistened, small brush (usually a #4 or smaller), then applied to the paper with small hatching or crisscrossing brushstrokes. The brush tip must be wetted but not overcharged with paint, and the paint must be just fluid enough to transfer to the paper with slight pressure and without dissolving the paint layer underneath. The goal is to build up or mix the paint colors with short precise touches that blend to avoid the appearance of pointilism. The cumulative effect is objective, textural and highly controlled, with the strongest possible value contrasts in the medium. Often it is impossible to distinguish a good drybrush watercolor from a color photograph or oil painting, and many drybrush watercolors are varnished or lacquered after they are completed to enhance this resemblance.
Scumbling (in the 19th century, called "crumbling color" or "dragging color") is an unrelated technique of loading a large, moist flat or round brush with concentrated paint, wicking out the excess, then lightly dragging the side or heel of the tuft across the paper to produce a rough, textured appearance, for example to represent beach grass, rocky surfaces or glittering water. The amount of texture that can be produced depends on the finish or tooth of the paper (R or CP paper works best), the size of the brush, the consistency and quantity of the paint in the brush, and the pressure and speed of the brush stroke. Moist paper will cause the scumbled color to diffuse slightly before it dries.

Diluting and mixing watercolor paints

When using watercolors, it is important to use the full range of paint consistency. The densest possible color is obtained by using the paint as it comes from the tube. The lightest color is obtained by using paint heavily diluted with water, or applied to the paper and then blotted away with a paper towel. Generally, paint directly from the tube should be used only with drybrush application: if the paint is used to completely cover the paper it typically dries to a dull, leathery appearance (called bronzing). Usually one part tube paint must be diluted with 2 to 3 parts water to eliminate bronzing in paint applied with a large brush to dry paper; with 4 to 6 parts water to produce the most saturated color; and with still more water to produce delicate tints of color and to enhance pigment textures (granulation or flocculation). The main point is to take advantage of the complete range of paint effects that are produced at different paint consistencies.
Tube paints are normally used with a flat palette that provides compartmentalized paint wells (for holding separate paint colors) and a large mixing area for mixing or diluting paints; pan paints are arrayed in enameled metal paint boxes that provide shallow mixing areas in the folding cover or in a fold out faceted tray. With tube paints, the excess paint remaining in the palette paint wells should be cleaned out only if the paint has become dirtied with another paint; otherwise the paints should be allowed to dry out promptly and completely, as this prevents mold from forming. Despite the common misconception, there is no visual difference between the viscous paint packaged in tubes and the dried paints in pans. Tube paints left to dry in paint wells are used in exactly the same way as pan paints -- the painter simply drips or sprays water over the paint a few minutes before starting work. The only notable difference is that some tube paints, such as viridian or cerulean blue, produce a gritty, uneven paint mixture when left to dry and then rewetted.
There are three finesses to color mixtures with watercolors. First, the raw or "pure" paint in the paint wells should never be discolored with any other paint. To ensure this, colors are mixed by picking up the desired quantity of dissolved paint from the prewetted paint well, using a moist, clean brush, then applying the paint onto the flat mixing area of the palette. Then the brush is rinsed before picking up any other paint. Once all paints are on the mixing area, they are mixed and/or applied to the painting.
Second, colors can be mixed in at least four ways: (1) by completely mixing together on the palette the paints that exactly match a desired color; (2) by loading together in a large brush the separate paints that approximately match the desired color, then letting these partially mix as the paint is applied to the paper; (3) by laying down first a single paint color, then "dropping in" the remaining paint colors with the brush while the painted area is still wet; (4) by glazing the paints as separate layers, one over another. Each technique has its purpose -- the first provides color accuracy (for photorealist painting), the second provides color variety (especially in dark colors), the third produces many "wet in wet" effects between wetter and drier paint areas (for greater color expressiveness), the fourth can produce a variety of luminous, iridescent or "broken color" effects, similar to mixtures with pastel chalks.
Third, watercolors should be used confidently: applied with a single stroke or joined strokes, then left alone to dry. Color muddiness or dullness typically comes from excessively brushing wet paint after it has been applied to the paper, or adding new layers of paint onto paper that has soaked water into its pulp (capillary action draws the paint inside the paper, dulling the color, rather than letting it dry on the surface). Overbrushing and "color soaking" are the most common flaws of novice watercolor paintings.

Minimal palettes

Palette is also the term for a specific selection of paints (or "colors") and, as a matter of economy, convenience or technique, painters have often preferred palettes comprising the smallest practical selection of paints. Many professional watercolorists work routinely with a palette of a dozen or fewer paints.
Though commercial watercolor brands offer selections of up to 100 or more paint colors in tubes, subtractive pigment mixtures can produce a complete range of colors from a small number of specific paints. In the 19th century a six paint "split primary" palette became popular and is still advocated by older painters. It is based on the three subtractive primary colors (red, yellow and blue), each in a "warm" and "cool" version:
  • "warm" yellow: Cadmium Yellow Medium (PY35)
  • "cool" yellow: Cadmium Lemon (PY35)
  • "warm" red: Cadmium Scarlet (PR108)
  • "cool" red: Quinacridone Carmine (PV19)
  • "warm" blue: Ultramarine Blue (PB29)
  • "cool" blue": Phthalo Blue (Green Shade) (PB15)
The reason for this intricate selection was that bright or saturated mixtures were only produced by related primary colors, e.g. the brightest orange is the mixture of a yellow with some red in it (warm yellow) and a red with some yellow in it (warm red); the brightest green is the mixture of a yellow with some blue in it (cool yellow) with a blue with some yellow in it (cool blue); duller mixtures are produced by mixing contrasted primaries, and the dullest mixtures by mixing three primaries.
The modern approach (the hexachrome palette) also relies on six paints, but spaces them more equally around the hue circle so that their mixtures automatically produce the most saturated color in every hue:
  • yellow: Cadmium Yellow Pale (PY35 or PY37) or Benzimidazolone Yellow (PY151 or PY154)
  • red orange: Pyrrol Orange (PO73) or Cadmium Scarlet (PR108)
  • magenta: Quinacridone Magenta (PR122) or Quinacridone Rose (PV19)
  • blue violet: Ultramarine Blue (PB29)
  • cyan: Phthalo Turquoise (PB16) or Phthalo Cyan (PB17)
  • green: Phthalo Green (PG7 Blue Shade or PG36 Yellow Shade)
Both palettes obtain dull or darkened colors, including a "neutral" (dark gray or black), by mixing together paints or colors on opposite sides of the hue circle -- especially orange or scarlet with cyan, and carmine or magenta with green.
As a matter of convenience, painters typically also add one or more paints made with an iron oxide pigment (the so called "earth" pigments, many of them manufactured as concrete colorants or wood stains) and sold under the names yellow ochre, raw sienna, raw umber, burnt sienna, burnt umber and/or venetian red. Exactly the same brown or ochre colors can be matched with either of the six paint palettes, but it tedious to do. As dark colors also require inconvenient mixing, most painters prefer to add a premixed dark neutral paint containing a carbon (black) pigment, usually sold under the marketing names indigo, payne's gray, neutral tint or sepia.

Paint Lightfastness

A final consideration is lightfastness, or the ability of a pigment to retain its original color appearance under exposure to light. This is usually indicated as a numerical rating, from I (high lightfastness) to III or IV (low lightfastness), on the paint tube or in the paint technical information available from the manufacturer. Lightfastness is a crucial issue with watercolors, because the paint pigment is not surrounded by a protective dried binder (as in oil or acrylic paints) but is left exposed on the surface of the paper. Watercolors acquired in the 19th century a market reputation for relative impermanence that continues to suppress their price today, and painters who admire this medium will make choices to improve its market status: in fact, lightfast watercolor paints on archival papers are as durable as any oil painting on canvas.
Unfortunately, paint manufacturer lightfastness ratings are not always trustworthy. However, because they have been demonstrated to be impermanent in watercolors, certain pigments (paints) should never be used under any circumstances. These include: aureolin (PY40), alizarin crimson (PR83), genuine rose madder (NR9), genuine carmine (NR4), genuine vermilion (PR106), most naphthol reds and oranges, all dyes (including most "liquid watercolors" and marker pens), and paints premixed with a white pigment, including paints marketed under the names naples yellow, emerald green or antwerp blue. Most of these are colorants invented in the 19th century or before that have been superseded by far more durable modern alternatives, and these are usually sold as "hue" paints (e.g., "alizarin crimson hue" is a modern pigment that resembles alizarin crimson). Industry labeling practice is to include a lightfastness rating on the paint packaging, and painters should only use paints that have a lightfastness rating of I or II under the testing standards published the American Society of Testing and Materials (now ASTM International).



  • Martin Hardie. Water-Colour Painting in Britain (3 volumes: I. The Eighteenth Century; II. The Romantic Period; III. The Victorian Period.). Batsford, 1966-1968. ISBN 113184131X
  • Michael Clarke. The Tempting Prospect: A Social History of English Watercolors. British Museum Publications, 1981. ASIN B000UCV0XO
  • Christopher Finch. Nineteenth-Century Watercolors. Abbeville Press, 1991. ISBN 1558590196
  • Christopher Finch. American Watercolors. Abbeville Press, 1991. ASIN B000IBDWGK
  • Christopher Finch. Twentieth-Century Watercolors. Abbeville Press, 1988. ISBN 089659811X
  • Andrew Wilton & Anne Lyles. The Great Age of British Watercolours (1750-1880). Prestel, 1993. ISBN 3-7913-1254-5
  • Anne Lyles & Robin Hamlyn. British watercolours from the Oppé Collection. Tate Gallery Publishing, 1997. ISBN 1-85437-240-8
  • Eric Shanes. Turner: The Great Watercolours. Royal Academy of Arts, 2001. ISBN 0-8109-6634-4

Tutorials & Technique

  • John Ruskin. The Elements of Drawing [1857]. Watson-Guptill, 1991. ISBN 0-8230-1602-1 (Reprints from other publishers are also available.)
  • Rex Brandt. The Winning Ways of Watercolor: Basic Techniques and Methods of Transparent Watercolor in Twenty Lessons. Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1973. ISBN 0-442-21404-9
  • Edgar A. Whitney. Complete Guide to Watercolor Painting. Watson-Guptill, 1974. [Dover Edition ISBN 0-486-41742-5]
  • Stan Smith. Watercolor: The Complete Course. Reader's Digest, 1995. ISBN 0-89577-653-7
  • David Dewey. The Watercolor Book: Materials and Techniques for Today's Artist. Watson-Guptill, 1995. ISBN 0-8230-5641-4
  • Pip Seymour. Watercolour Painting: A Handbook for Artists. Lee Press, 1997. ISBN 0-9524727-4-0
  • Charles LeClair. The Art of Watercolor (Revised and Expanded Edition). Watson-Guptill, 1999. ISBN 0-8230-0292-6
  • Curtis Tappenden. Foundation Course: Watercolour. Cassell Illustrated, 2003. ISBN 1844030822
  • Royal Watercolour Society. The Watercolour Expert. Cassell Illustrated, 2004. ISBN 1844031497


  • Jacques Turner. Brushes: A Handbook for Artists and Artisans. Design Press, 1992. ISBN 0830639756
  • Sylvie Turner. The Book of Fine Paper. Thames & Hudson, 1998. ISBN 0500018715
  • Ian Sideway. The Watercolor Artist's Paper Directory. North Light, 2000. ISBN 1581800347
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