I remember well the excitement I felt as an aspiring artist first discovering colors. When I began learning to draw, I worked in black and white for a long, long time. Graphite first. Charcoal. Conte sticks in neutral colors.
But then in the spring of 2016 I began playing with paints — watercolors, to be exact. I was not good with them. I’m still not good with watercolors, although I think I’m getting better. Even so, I loved playing with all those colors.
It was then that I first heard luscious names like alizarin crimson, viridian, cerulean blue, and dioxazine purple — and more. It seemed as though I’d just gained entrance to a magical, mystical world.
Soon my head was spinning. I knew about color wheels, but there was so much more to learn. As I wandered through the watercolor landscape I stumbled over color theories, discovered a seemingly endless array of pigments, and finally got myself so confused with ideas of warm and cool primaries, proper methods for color mixing, and various color schemes that — honestly — I probably did myself more harm than good. I wasn’t ready to have so much information crammed into my head. Even if I grasped a little of the knowledge, I didn’t know how to use it.
Of course, I couldn’t resist buying lots of watercolors. I wanted all those lovely-sounding colors, and since I saw quickly that I was horrible at mixing my own secondaries, I wanted them, too.
Long story short — I spent a lot of money, bought a lot of paints, and turned out a lot of really awful watercolors. Finally after several months of frustration, I decided maybe it was time to move on and explore other media.
I never really expected to come back to watercolors, but now, here I am, and I think I’m at a point where I’m able to learn a little more. Recently, as you know, I dug through my art supplies and took out all those glorious cakes and tubes of watercolors.
Did I feel that old excitement again? You bet. Of course, having done oil painting, I’ve grown more familiar with pigments. I have a better idea now of which ones I like and which ones I don’t. Or, at least, I thought I did.
Looking at colors in watercolor is different than seeing those colors in oil. Watercolor just looks more playful, more inviting, more exciting. Or maybe that’s just my imagination.
As I began going through my watercolors, a lot of the same old questions and concerns started nagging at me again. Do I really need all of these pigments? Should I have both a warm and a cool pigment for the primaries? Should I try mixing my own oranges, and violets? And what about “demon green“? I remember only too well my frustrations with that color!
Having learned from experience, I didn’t want to repeat the same mistakes I made before. I didn’t want to agonize over having the right colors for my palette. I certainly didn’t want to get bogged down again in color theories and recipes for color mixing.
I’m here to have fun with watercolors. Sure, I want to learn something in the process, but most of all, I want to enjoy my time in the studio.
One recent afternoon I made a feeble attempt at color-mixing. I looked at all my reds — all seven of them — and took out all my yellows — all six of those. Yikes! You don’t have to be a mathematician to quickly see that I could create a lot of different oranges. I did play around with vermillion and a few different yellows, but I soon realized I was wasting my time. Maybe someday I’ll be ready to do more color mixing, but not today.
I’m still learning the most basic principles of watercolor: how much water to use, how much pigment to use, which brush really works best for what I want to do. Until I’ve gained a little mastery in those areas, attempting to mix colors isn’t what I need to be doing.
I need to have fun. First and foremost, that’s my goal with watercolors right now. Having fun, and learning by doing, by playing around, by painting apples and alien vegetables, by doing colorful doodles.
So, no worries about picking a palette. For my purposes, as long as I have the basic colors — primaries, secondaries, an earth tone, plus black and white — I can play with my watercolors and have fun doing it.
I went through all my tubes of watercolor, sorting them out. Indeed, I have lots!
- Opera Rose
- Crimson Red
- Alizarin Crimson
- Scarlet Lake
- Pyrrol Red
- Hansa Yellow Deep
- Light Yellow
- Lemon Yellow
- Cadmium Yellow
- Yellow Ochre (I’ve since moved this one to Earth tones)
- Cerulean Blue
- Prussian Blue
- Cobalt Blue
- Indian Yellow
- Orange Yellow (Named as a tertiary color, but I have it in my secondaries)
- Gold Ochre
- Sap Green
- Deep Green
- Light Green
- Phthalo Green
- Dioxazine Purple
- Burnt Umber
- Raw Umber
- Burnt Sienna
- Yellow Ochre (Definitely belongs here with the Earth tones)
Even with this extensive collection of pigments, there are many I don’t have — and for now, I don’t want any more. But, here’s what I’m doing.
I have each of these colors separated into “grab bags” — one for each hue, plus one for my earth colors. As I get ready to warm-up each morning and play with my watercolors, I put together a palette at random.
Earlier this week, my palette consisted of: vermillion, Hansa yellow deep, cerulean, gold ochre, sap green, violet, and burnt sienna.
A few days later, I created a new palette: crimson red, yellow ochre, Prussian blue, orange-yellow, light green, dioxazine purple, burnt umber.
Instead of apples, I got adventurous — or maybe I was just hungry — and painted different foods. A cherry, an orange pepper, a pumpkin, green onions, blueberries, grapes, and a potato.
Here is where I realized that yellow ochre rightfully belonged with my earth tones. I really fell in love with the dioxazine purple, and I enjoyed using the crimson red.
Choosing these colors at random is giving me a chance to get acquainted with each, to try it out, to play with it, and to figure out where and how I might want to use it. For me, it’s a fun way to compare these different pigments without a lot of tedious study or memorization.
No bothersome color theories in my head. No charts showing which warm/cool combinations produce the best secondary results. No fretting about whether or not I’ve made the best choices. Just fun. Pure watercolor fun.
Some folks may find my approach to art — and learning — a bit childish. It is, and that’s the point. Right now I’m like a little kid playing with my favorite toys. Having fun isn’t just part of the process. It is the process.
Play with your paints today!