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DateLine Wednesday, 17 October 2007

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Colour mixing:

Getting the most out of your palette

Since the time man first made his mark on the wall of his cave, the art of creating paintings has been in transition. Over the centuries that have passed, many giants have experimented each adding a distinctive touch to the application of paint to a surface.

In water colour painting, my aim is to help you, identify some problems in your own work and to provide logical solutions to those problems. For ease of reference it's divided into three sections colour, composition, and problem subjects.

Colour mixing in water colour can be both fascinating and frustrating. Sometimes magical things happen, other times a colour will turn to mud for no apparent reasons.

This deals with the practical problems involved in controlling such an unpredictable medium as water colour and shows how to avoid the pitfalls of both muddy colour and weak, wash out colour. You will discover how to improve the vibrancy of your colours by mixing them wet-in-wet or applying them transparent glazes, and to show how to control colour relationships to create better painting.

Magical effect

In water colour, there is no more thrilling sight than that of large soupy washes of colour being brushed onto a sheet of sparkling white paper and allowed to diffuse softly together. The effect is magical and I consider wet-in-wet washes are the very foundation of watercolour painting.

Yet so many beginners miss out on all this fun because they are afraid that they won't be able to control wet washes. Instead they sit tight-lipped and hunched over the page, making dry little marks with dry paint on dry paper.

Then they wonder why their watercolours don't look like water colours! Learning to control water colour washes can be nerve-wrecking at times, but it is also exciting and exhilarating.


Composing a picture in watercolour presents its own particular problems. One has to plan things carefully in advance because you can't paint over mistakes as you can on oil paint. The scene on this page was painted on a cloudy day by the Kelani river, and I have titled the painting 'Down the Kelani River'.

Observe the dark shady clouds and the atmospheric effect of mist expressed to show a downfall of rain at any moment.

The river scene with the boat as the centre of attraction in relation to their surroundings gives a dramatic impression of the sheer scale and grandeur of the natural world. Notice the man standing on the edge of the boat.

When you are painting figures in a landscape it is not necessary or desirable to make them highly detailed. Challenge yourself by painting the figures directly, without first drawing a pencil outline as I have done.

You will observe this whole painting does not express any details including the distant hut and the boats anchored by the side. In this painting reflections expresses the smooth glassiness of the water through the use of contrasts of light and dark tones.

Some of the painting problems, one would experience in watercolour are streaks and runs forming in watercolour washes, for example painting the sky, water, reflections in water, shadows and proper use of colour mixture.

It's a good idea to try out different watercolour papers and test how they respond to wet washes. Different papers behave in different ways, depending on what materials they are made from and on their surface coating.


In watercolour there are four ways to apply paint to the paper; Wet on dry; dry on dry, dry on wet and wet on wet. Generally you should aim to include at least two different kids of brush-strokes in painting to give it variety and textural interest.

Dry on Dry

When pigment is picked up as a dry brush and skimmed lightly over dry paper, a ragged broken stroke is created. This method known as dry brush, can be highly expressive in suggesting rough, weathered textures or the sparkle of sunlight on distant water. Never labour dry-brush strokes. Use quick light movements. This technique works best on a medium or rough drawing paper that helps to break up the paint.

Wet on Dry

Controlling shapes is easy when you apply paint to dry paper with a wet brush. The paint remains right where you put it and dries to a clean, hard edged shape. If over-used, however, this method can make a painting look rather stationary and lacking in atmosphere.

Glazing (coat with a glossy surface), however, is a wet-on dry method that will enrich any watercolour painting. When a thin transparent wash is applied over another dry colour, the effect is more vibrant than when two colours are mixed together on the palette.

Never attempt a glaze unless the underlying wash is bone-dry, otherwise the underwash will be disturbed and the colours will mingle and turn muddy.

Always work quickly and lightly when glazing. Don't glaze more than two or three layers of colours. Use only the transparent pigments such as alizarin, crimson and viridian. Opaque pigments like cerulean blue and yellow ochore are not suitable for glazing.

Dry on Wet

In this method a 'dry' brush is loaded with pigment and applied to wet paper (damp). The applied 'swims' on the wet surface before settling into the fibres of the paper forming a shape with diffused edges. Because the paint is relatively thick it doesn't spread too far and attractive effects are shown while retaining some control over the shapes you make.

Wet on Wet

This is the most beautiful, the most expressive, and least controllable method. Again the paper is wet, but this time more water is carried in the brush.

The deposited pigment, being more diluted, floods out and into the wet paper and creates exciting diffusions and colour interactions that you could never equal if you planned them.

To get good results

Not only must we learn these four techniques of applying the paint to the paper, also we must learn how to look at things with a seeing eye. It will not guarantee you instant results. Constant practice is the only way to get good results.

If you ever become discourage, remember that for every masterpiece there is a stack of discarded 'failures'. But it is through our failures that we learn and discover something new that we can carry over to the next painting.


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