Watercolor is often viewed as an intimidating medium, and it can be intimidating if you are not prepared.  Much of that concern is caused because watercolor is transparent and very fluid, consequently it's easy to create ill-defined shapes and muddy colors...both of which can quickly lead to dull paintings and lack-luster compositions which lack 'punch.'  Because of its fluidity and transparency, unlike opaque and viscous mediums like oils and acrylics, watercolor can be 'unforgiving'...hard to overpaint and correct.

For these reasons, I developed an approach and exercises that started from the ground up.

I saw learning and mastering painting, and watercolor in particular, as similar to learning to play a musical instrument.  As learning scales and developing dexterity by practicing finger exercises are essential in playing music, so learning the principles of color and mastering a variety of techniques are, for most students, essential to learning to work with watercolor. 

There are three things that are essential in learning watercolor as well as in being comfortable with using it:

  1. Learning the principle of color mixing in order to avoid creating 'mud'.
  2. Learning basic techniques to control the application of the fluid medium in order to keep shapes crisp and clear.
  3. Learning a strategy for developing a composition from light to dark, and planning the placement of light, because the watercolor media does not accommodate over-painting unwanted areas to bring lighter colors back...those light areas have to be planned from the beginning.


I brought my own study of color into my watercolor class.  

Taking advantage of working at Flax's art materials superstore, and getting an employee discount, I had purchased a treasure trove of art supplies.  In the process, I bought tubes of about every watercolor pigment Winsor & Newton, the supreme English watercolor manufacturer, made.  I brushed stripes of each of those colors on a sheet of the very best d'Arches 300# rough paper.  I applied the stripes across one another so I could see the transparency and saturation of each color...

From this array of possibilities, I found which six colors would work to make the best primaries for a rainbow color wheel. 

While I was putting my watercolor course together, I happened to walk across the street from Flax's to my favorite haunt at breaks, Bretano's bookstore, and came across The Winning Ways of Watercolor by Rex Brandt.  I had been introduced to Rex Brandt's work by Yosh Nakamura while I was in his high school art class.  Although I always have thought the title was misleading...it seemed to imply a strategy for winning a competition rather than learning the basics...nevertheless, this book was a gem: one of the clearest and most concise manuals on watercolor I have ever come across.  I ended up using many ideas from that book in my teaching of watercolor and adopting many to the exercises he presented.

As Brandt had suggested, I reduced the choice of colors that my students would have to choose from and work with to six...a 'warm' and 'cool' of each primary.  You can make any color of the rainbow with just those six colors:

  • a 'cool' yellow (cadmium yellow light or cadmium lemon) and a 'cool' blue (phthalocyanine blue) make a 'secondary' brilliant green;
  • a 'warm' blue (French ultramarine) and a 'cool' red (alizarin crimson or quinacridone violet) make a 'secondary' vibrant violet; and
  • a 'warm' red (cadmium red medium) and a 'warm' yellow (cadmium yellow medium) make a 'secondary' glowing orange.
So, with just six colors, you can create a rainbow of primaries and secondaries.  And if you want to reduce the saturation of any primary or secondary color, you just add its opposite on the color wheel...its 'complementary.'  For example, if you want to 'gray' or tone down a red, you just add a little of its opposite...green, and so on.

Those six 'warm/cool' primaries thus simplified everything.  Rather than having to choose from an infinite array of colors, the students could quickly master color mixing and understand how pigments work together.

To get subtle grays, you subdue a saturated color...for instance, blue...with the color opposite it on the color wheel...its complementary color.  In the case of blue, this complementary is orange.  You can see that I mixed a color wheel that verges toward a neutral gray in the center as each color is gradually mixed with its opposite.  You can see (in the illustration above) that as colors move toward the center of the color wheel...towards their opposite complementary...the colors become increasingly less saturated until they reach a neutral gray.

I demonstrated this by creating color wheels in class and having the students create their own...which is not an easy task.  It requires patience and developing a sharp eye for the nuances of color.

Below are examples of the demonstrations of color properties that I presented in class.  They were all done with just six colors...a warm and a cool of each primary (cadmium red and alizarin crimson, cadmium yellow and cadmium yellow light, French ultramarine and phthalocyanine blue).  On the top left, you can see the overlap of colors which demonstrate which pigments are transparent and which are opaque, as well as which pigments stain the ones below and which ones don't...

Seeing the vibrant results that come from mixing just three primaries shows that you can create a rainbow of color from just those six (a warm and cool of each primary)...

We are taught early on that you can mix the secondaries (orange, green, and violet) by just using three primaries (red, yellow, and blue).  That is the case with regard to colored light (which is light additive), but not with pigments (which are light subtractive).  If you mix blue and yellow together...using a warm blue and a warm yellow as pigments in order to get a vibrant green...you will be disappointed.  Instead, you'll get a muddy, mossy green because you are using a blue and a yellow that are moving in the wrong directions temperature-wise.

This concept, along with others that I brought into my teaching, changed my own approach to painting and opened new creative doors.  Over the years that have followed, these six warm/cool primaries have remained at the core of my color palette. 


Having introduced the students to the endless possibilities of warm/cool primaries and to ways of avoiding muddiness of color, I then introduced the students to the various ways the watercolor medium can be used and applied.


The most basic technique in applying watercolor is the flat wash.   A 'wash' is simply a thin layer of paint.  The challenge is to get a completely uniform layer of color on the paper.  This is tricky because if you apply it too slowly the wash will streak.   The speed and touch of the application have to be just right...and this takes a good deal of practice.  Next, I introduced the glazing of transparent layers of flat washes.  'Glazing' is applying transparent layers of paint over a base color.  This technique creates beautiful layers of color...like stained glass.   The exercises created two particular challenges: 1) putting a layer of paint down without picking up paint from the previous layer...which creates muddy color, and 2) painting around shapes...like letters...and yet creating perfectly uniform color washes (below, my demos)... 

In order to get an even wash, it is necessary to apply the paint with the painting tilted at a slight angle so that the pigment gathers in a bead at the bottom of each stroke, and then pick up the bead with each successive stroke.  It's tricky and takes practice.

The painter Paul Klee magically used these washes and glazes...

I produced demonstrations of flat washes which became realized paintings in their own right...


A graduated wash is applied the same way as a flat wash, with the exception that a little more water is added to the pigment mix with each successive stroke, which lightens the color.  To create a richer painting, graduated washes of contrasting colors can be applied in the opposite direction, or diagonally, by turning the painting upside down or to different angles...

After the graduated wash was mastered, the students would then put darker, silhouetted forms on top of the graduated washes to create contrast and depth...
This technique was a favorite of many students because the results are so satisfying and convincing.  Below is an example of one of my student's graduated wash study...

Below is one of my class demonstrations combining flat washes, graduated washes, and glazing.  It highlights the luminous, stained-glass effects that one can achieve with the mastery of watercolor.  To heighten the effect, I used deeply saturated colors.
As I was creating it, I must have been thinking of Paul Klee's magical watercolors.

To make more interesting and richer paintings, I added a variety of silhouetted shapes over the graduated washes...

I often took the ideas I had developed as teaching aids and created a series of finished paintings.  There came to be a back and forth between what I was teaching in my watercolor classes and what I was painting in my studio...apart from class.   What I was teaching affected what I was painting...and visa versa.   There was a kind of cross-pollination between the two.   It turned out to be a boon in both aspects of my life.  Below are a few examples of what I came to call my ‘Imaginary Landscape Series’…all based on graduated washes...

Watercolor is an incredibly versatile medium, capable of endless possibilities, and I wanted to convey this in my classes.

With these exercises in color theory and basic wash application having been learned, we went on to explore a variety of other watercolor essentials.


Copyright (c) Donald Archer 2020  All rights reserved


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