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Experiment with Color Mixtures

Sally Drew Uses Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolors to Experiment with Color Mixtures

Experiment with Color

Get Acquainted with Your Colors
I use a twenty-four color palette, but since it is much too difficult to learn how your colors combine when you are starting out with so many different hues, I recommend adding colors gradually, through a series of basic palettes and colors exercises that will enable you to work up to the twenty-four color palette at your own speed. Each palette will involve its own set of mixing exercises that will help familiarize you with the colors. I call these mixtures "colored chickens."

Mixing Chickens
The standard way to make color mixtures is to make a vertical stripe of every color on your palette, then cross them horizontally with the same combination of stripes so that every color mixes at some point with every other one creating a little square where the stripes cross. I personally find this method a bit dull and scientific. Furthermore, it eliminates the exciting quality of working wet-in-wet because the first set of stripes is always dry by the time the second set crosses it. Therefore, I recommend mixing colored chickens instead.

To mix these color chickens, wet-in-wet on dry paper, we will be working with two brushes, one in each hand. I recommend the Daniel Smith 22-04 size 10 or 12. They are an inexpensive watercolor round with good loading capacity. Wet both brushes, dip each into a different color and, working from head or tail of chicken to center, let them meet in the "body" area. For example, take Cobalt Blue, rich in pigment, and apply it onto the dry paper with your left hand, working from chicken "head" to center, then with your right hand, put a rich glob of Quinacridone Violet on your other brush and with a quick stroke, work from the "tail section" into the center... and watch the colors explode!

You can make these chickens look abstract, just simply two strokes of color (more like wings than chickens), or you can experiment with some rather fancy chicken shapes. Experiment with different brushes, too! I find that the inexpensive Japanese horse hair brush work very well, or try any two medium-sized no. 9 round sable brushes, or the new nylon round brushes.

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Basic Palettes and Mixtures

Novice Palette No matter what your level, you will benefit from mixing these chickens and painting with these limited palettes for a while. You will be starting with a cool and a warm version of each of the primaries. The numbers in parentheses refer to their position in the twenty-four color palette.

Hansa Yellow Light (1A)...cool yellow--towards green
Cadmium Yellow (3)... warm yellow-towards orange
Anthraquinoid Red (10)... cool Red-towards violet
Cadmium Red (6)... warm red -towards orange
Cerulean Blue (23)... cool blue-towards green
French Ultramarine (21).. - warm blue-towards violet

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Mixing Primaries and Secondaries, Warms and Cools
From your first six colors mix all your cool colors with each other and then with the warm hues-you will get two sets of secondaries, one warm and one cool, for a total of twelve secondary hues. For example, you will mix warm yellow with warm red for a warm orange; cool yellow and cool red for cool orange-and continue the process for mixtures of yellow and blue (green) and red and blue (violet). Then you will mix warm yellow with cool red, and cool yellow with warm red and so on. For another set of mixtures-this time more grayed-you will also practice neutralizing your colors with their complement by mixing both your reds with the greens, both blues with the oranges, and both yellows with the violets.

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Intermediate Palette
When you have become completely familiar and feel comfortable using the basic palette of primaries and secondaries, you are ready to add several more colors to your palette-another red, another blue, an orange, four earth's, and two greens.

Cadmium Orange (5)
Quinacridone Rose (9)
Raw Sienna-or-Quinacridone Gold (11)
Raw Umber (12)
Burnt Sienna- or-Quinacridone Burnt Orange (13)
Burnt Umber (14)
Sap Green (17)
Viridian (18)
Cobalt Blue (22)

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Mixing Grays
Grays form an important part of your repertoire of colors. They can make your more brilliant colors sing in a special way...bright colors appear more brilliant when they are surrounded by gray tones. Grays will also tone down some of your brighter mixtures when added to them. But remember to keep your paper on a slant so your colors remain clean...and don't poke back into these wet-in-wet mixtures or they'll get muddy. The set of gray mixtures shown here, of three blues and three earth's, will start you on your collection of grays. As you progress, you will be making color-file pages of more grays from new colors and adding them to your palette. But learn these first.

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Water and Pigment
Work near a sink so that brushes and mixing bowl are washed clean after each chicken. Or work with two pails... a large bucket of tap water for rinsing your dirty brushes, and a smaller bowl of distilled water to mix with your colors. Remember, never mix anything but distilled water with your paints. Many areas have chlorine (a bleach) in their water, and several areas have acid rain, so rainwater is also not safe.

Do three rows of two-color mixtures... three across and three down... for a total of nine per sheet. If you have an orderly mind, you may prefer to keep separate pages for blue mixtures, for yellow, for reds, and so forth, and file them accordingly. I personally feel that if you have a variety of color combinations on a page, just looking at the page itself can convey a certain exhilaration... a stimulation for color. When you know how two colors work together, try mixtures of three and four colors, it is like moving from the subtle tones of a string quartet (working with a palette of four colors) to a full orchestra playing a twenty-four-color Beethoven symphony! Experiment. Practice. Try everything you can. This is how you become a colorist!

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The Robert E. Wood, made of white stain resistant plastic, has twenty-four spaces for your colors, and 2 large mixing areas. The top has four large mixing wells, and when not in use, fits snugly over the bottom, protecting your paints and aiding in keeping them moist.

Filling the Wells
Using the large palette chart as a guide for the placement of the hues marked for your specific palette, squeeze about a quarter teaspoon of tube color into each of the wells you will be using. Let your colors rest for half a day to harden them slightly, then dip your fingertip into a bowl of clean water and make a dent or depression in each color, cleaning your finger after each color. From now on, your colors are to get a drop of distilled water in this dent every night and each morning, without fail, so that your pigments are always gooey or tacky. This will insure a supply of thick, intense color...not anemic, tinted water...when you mix your hues.

Mixing Area
You can mix your colors in one of the large wells on your palette, butcher's tray, or on a large white dinner plate. If you want to try a dinner plate, choose a plain white one, 6" or 8" in diameter, with a flat border rim. Squeeze your cool and warm colors on either side of the rim (such as a blue on the left and an earth on the right), or around the rim if there are several hues involved. Your colors can either be mixed directly on the paper, one with the other as previously described, or premixed here in the center of the plate (or on your palette) for a different effect. If you are mixing two colors together on plate or palette, be careful not to overmix them. Pick up a color on each brush and mix them together in the center well of the plate or palette. Then clean your brushes and pick up a big slurp of the mixture and make a chicken. Finally, rinse your brushes in the bucket of water, wipe them on a clean rag, and wet them again in the smaller bowl of distilled water.

The 24 color palette, using a Robert E. Wood Palette. There is also a #10 Daniel Smith 22-04 round, a #4 Isabey Squirrel Mop, and a #10 Daniel Smith 75-01 synthetic round here too!

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For your mixtures, you can either purchase a good quality watercolor paper or use the backs of unsuccessful watercolors done on 140 lb. paper or heavier. Choose a paper with some rag content in it...you'll want it to last for many years. If you are using the back of a already used sheet, wipe off as much color as you can from the watercolor painting with a damp cloth then turn it over and use the clean side. Cut the paper into 8-1/2" x 11" or smaller pieces to fit your notebook, and hand-punch holes on the side with an inexpensive hole puncher, available from a stationery store. You will need a standard three-ring loose notebook, 8-1/2" x 11", in which to file your mixtures. This will give you a ready reference file so you can see in an instant how each of your colors mixes with the others. The loose-leaf format will permit you to remove specific pages for reference to solve a problem or to compare colors. It will also let you lay your pages flat, pull out a page or two to carry with you when sketching outdoors, or bring some blank pages for new mixtures when you're out in the field.

Identify this notebook with your name, address, and a reward for returning it if lost. Keep it in a clear plastic bag to protect it when traveling.

Advanced Palette
When you have mastered the novice and intermediate palettes, you are ready to work with the entire range of twenty-four colors. I have two variations of this palette. Most of the year, when I am working in cooler climates such as northern California, Boston, or Ireland, under more frequent gray skies, I use the palette listed below for my landscape, seascape, still life, and portrait paintings. But when I am painting under the brighter skies of tropical climates, and when I do florals, where intense and vivid hues are essential, I substitute Hansa Yellow Light (1A), Cadmium Red Scarlet (6A), Venetian Red (7A), Permanent Green Light (15A), and Ultramarine Violet (19A). (*Please see the "Color Substitution" note below. Five of the new Daniel Smith colors are not yet available.)

Cadmium Yellow Light and Chinese White* (1) (as a replacement for Naples Yellow) ... creamy, warm, opaque, unusual mixer
Hansa Yellow Light (1A)... cool, clear, brilliant mixer
New Gamboge (2)...cool, clean "cobalt yellow, "good basic mixer
Cadmium Yellow* (3)... warm, hearty, semi-opaque, great strength
Indian Yellow (4)... very warm, clear, unusual color combinations
Cadmium Orange (5)...a handsome, brilliant, opaque color
Cadmium Red (6)... a "basic" mixer, heavy, not clear
Cadmium Red Scarlet* (6A)... brilliant, opaque, selected mixer, be careful
Indian Red (7)...least opaque of the earth reds, good mixer, tone downer
Venetian Red (7A)... powerful, opaque, unusual color
Quinacridone Violet* (8)... this one is a sleeper, unusual mixer
Quinacridone Rose (9)...hot and sharp
Anthraquinoid Red (10)...cool red, clear, excellent mixer, rich
Raw Sienna- or - Quinacridone Gold (11)... a warm, clear, heavily pigmented earth color
Raw Umber (12)... a cool, neutral earth (my most used color)
Burnt Sienna-or- Quinacridone Burnt Orange (13)... hot, clear, medium granular, a good mixer
Burnt Umber (14)...cool, deep, with heavy granular deposits. Keep the brakes on this one. It can get your colors dirty easily.
Phthalo Green (YS) (15)... clean, bright, great summer color
Permanent Green Lt. (15A)... opaque, unusual mixer
Cobalt Green (16)... rare beauty, delicate, semi clear, pale mixer
Sap Green (17)... very clear, warm, stains nicely
Viridian (18)...cool, brilliant, mixes well, stays clean
Ultramarine Violet* (19)
Ultramarine Violet (19A)... clear, brilliant, mixes well, stays clean
Phthalo Blue (20)... clear, deep deep cool, use great care
French Ultramarine (21)... very warm, granular, mix with other granular paints
Cobalt Blue (22)... clean and neutral, the key to mixing many of your grays
Cerulean Blue (23)... cool, rather opaque, floats well wet into deep colors
Cerulean Blue (GS) (24)... very cool, unusual mixer, lively

*Note: Color Substitution: Some of the Daniel Smith colors are scheduled for manufacturing in the near future. We have substituted colors in the above list, but recommend using these colors as they become available. (1) Naples Yellow Aug.'94 (3) Cadmium Yellow Deep May '94 (6A) Cadmium Red Scarlet May '94 (8) Cobalt Violet May '94 (19) Manganese Violet May '94

Notice that the colors are arranged very carefully on the palette, like the keys on a piano, with each note in a predictable order so you can find your colors quickly, without hesitation. Always keep your colors in the same order. It's professional...and expedient.


Mixing Darks (Advanced)
How often do you hear painters ask, "how do you get really dark colors?" or "How do you keep dark colors clear?" Well, here are some really dark colors for your color file pages, and if you keep your paper at a slant as you apply them, your dark colors will remain clear as well as deep.

These colors are all very heavily pigmented (that is, loaded with paint) - You might experiment with lesser amounts of pigment to find out just how deep a tone you feel is really required in a painting because these darks are very intense and, seen out of context (that is, apart from a specific painting), it is hard to judge how they would look with the values in a particular painting. Whenever you add an accent to a watercolor, be careful that your color-values work in relation to the other hues. Too strong a dark will "punch a hole" in your painting. Test the mixture first on the side of your painting or on a piece of scrap paper... before you commit yourself.

Combining Strong and Weak Hues (Advanced)
As you mix one color with another, you will note that there is sometimes a chemical reaction between them. You might want to make a note as to which of the two colors in a mixture is the more aggressive or overpowering, or observe what happens when both colors of equal strength are mixed.

When two aggressive colors mix wet-in-wet, the result is almost like an explosion...a violent reaction. Combine strong colors in your more emotional watercolors, or wherever you want more vitality...more exciting brushwork. Your viewer will pick up this quality.

Experimental Mixtures
Don't stop with the mixtures I show here. Experiment, both in your studio and out in the field. Try oranges and yellows mixed with blues and greens when you're out painting foliage. Mix what you see, the local color...then try some unusual color combinations, the colors you don't see...for that is how you will extend your color capabilities. For example try Cadmium Orange and Cobalt Violet for that strange fall grass color that seems so elusive...or try Cadmium Orange with Cadmium Red, then Cadmium Orange with Quinacridone Burnt Orange...for the effect of leaves turning from sunlight into shadow. Also try some odd-ball combinations...like Indian Yellow with Quinacridone Rose.. .or Phthalo Blue with Viridian...or Anthraquinoid Red with Payne's Gray for that old faded barn color.

Materials List

Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolors

Watercolor Brushes

  • Medium-sized No.9 Round Sable brushes
  • Daniel Smith 22-04 Round Watercolor Brush No.10
  • Daniel Smith 22-04 Round Watercolor Brush No.12
  • Isabey Squirrel Mop No.4
  • Daniel Smith 75-01 synthetic round No.10
  • Daniel Smith Nylon Round Brushes

Additional Supplies