Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Heart of Watercolor– Luminosity

Our natural inclination is to mix color on the palette or, easier yet, use premixed color straight from the tube. Color is certainly more predictable that way. But the beauty of watercolor— luminosity, is best revealed when color is mixed on the paper. This is where watercolor quite literally shines! The transparent nature of watercolor allows light to pass through and bounce off the white of the paper. This is not a medium for the heavy handed. Those loose, delicate washes of color appear effortless, yet they require much of the artist wielding the brush. Watercolor practice will develop patience and the ability to focus. It will fine-tune all of your senses. And, it can show us how to live wide awake and paint with that vivid awareness. There probably will be moments of discouragement, but don't fret! The mingling of water, pigment and artist on the paper is a truly sublime experience that makes any momentary discouragement pale by comparison. Set aside desires for predictable outcomes and formulas to get them. Watercolor, like life, is full of surprises. It is the unexpected that makes it so endlessly captivating. Though modern pigments are crafted for longevity, the luminosity they impart has a decidedly ephemeral feel. I love that we mix earth and water as we paint and express what is most important to us. If you pause to contemplate the life of the colors on your palette, you see that you hold the whole universe on your brush.

When you made the chart of your primary colors, you learned how to deepen a color by glazing, or layering one stroke of color over another. The palette chart documented your pigments showing their hue, transparency and staining qualities. Now we'll use the same glazing technique to create new colors. Lay down a good sized stroke of each primary color.
We're going to mix secondary colors— orange, green, purple— by glazing with your three primaries. Are those strokes dry yet? Check with the back of your fingers. (The oil from the skin on your fingertips can transfer to your paper and create paint-resistant spots, so use the back of your fingers.) Now, paint a stroke of yellow over half of the dry red stroke. Where the two colors layer over one and other, you should see a nice glowing orange. Next, paint a stroke of blue over part of your yellow swatch. You should see green where they overlap. And last, paint a stroke of red over part of your blue swatch. Voilá! Purple!

Glazing is one of the most important watercolor techniques you can develop. It's key to building luminosity and depth. Of course you can also mix the secondary colors right on your palette— red + yellow for orange, yellow + blue for green and blue + red for purple. Mix the secondaries and then paint swatches of them on your paper to compare with your glazed secondaries. How do they look? The glazed secondaries should have a unique glow as one color shines through the other. Mixed colors have a more solid appearance depending on the ratio of water used.

You may have noticed new hues appearing on your palette as pigments dripped and bled and mingled creating whole arrays of colors. Let's do this on watercolor paper. This time lay down strokes of clear water and drop brush loads of primary colors into the watery strokes. Let red and yellow mingle, red and blue, and yellow and blue. The water and pigment move by themselves, attracting and repelling depending on the characteristics of each pigment. If you get antsy, you can help them along by tilting the paper, adding more pigment or water, or by removing water or pigment with a thirsty, dry brush. You have just experimented with the wet-in-wet technique. It's a beautiful, loosely controlled technique that can loosen one's penchant for studiously building form. And did I say how deliciously fun it is!? Notice the glowing quality of these orange, purple and green colors that appears almost magically, when we pause and allow the colors to mingle.

So there you have a few ways to experiment with color mixing. Are you going to try them out with a little painting? How will you use the natural luminosity of watercolor to express what's important to you?


  1. This is inspiring me to clear a desk for watercolor painting already. Before I am left behind by your newer lessons. I know, the empty desk was posts away..

  2. I've only painted with acrylics and it seems the only way to really blend them effectively is to blend them on the pallete. I'm seriously considering trying out this watercolor thing:-)

  3. Dear Hadv and Melody,
    You inspire me! I'm so grateful for your interaction. Would love to see/hear more about what comes out of your brush. ~ Kris

  4. Khris, thanks for visiting my blog, and for your comment. So much from the heart, and so refreshing. What a gift to be led to your own blog! I so appreciate your journey, and its authenticity. That your watercolors are so luminous and beautiful is almost a bonus. The main thing that comes through is your use of art to be fully present, and mindful, and loving of your gift to others. Deep bow . . .