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Greens in autumn trees, Airedale

A friend (and reader of this blog) recently asked me about my greens. She very kindly said she thought they were delicious – which is a really lovely compliment – and asked if I could share something about my choice of pigments and mixing. Of course! I said.

It’s true that artists, and particularly watercolour painters, get more wound up about green than any other colour. Depending on how things are going, I feel this way too – excited one minute and then despairing the next. (But that’s watercolour for you.) These days I spend more time drawing and sketching rather than exclusively painting, so colour mixing isn’t quite the all absorbing preoccupation for me that it once was. But if you want to use colour at all, you do need to spend time getting familiar with the paints you’re using, and that means playing around a bit and finding out what works for you.

Colour mixes sketchbook page

Every now and then I do a page or two of colour mixes in my current sketchbook. If this sounds boring, it’s not – in fact it’s a very relaxing thing to do and since I love doing it I really should do it more often. It somehow manages to be calming and exciting at the same time, and it gets a background understanding of pigments into my head so it makes decisions about mixing much easier and quicker so that everything flows more smoothly. I don’t think it matters much exactly how you do these colour mixing charts – the important thing is just to be methodical and work out a way that feels enjoyable.

Where greens are concerned I like to start with a yellow that makes good mixes, and lately most of the time I use Transparent Yellow (Winsor & Newton). Starting with this and adding just one other pigment at a time in different quantities gives a huge range of mixing possibilities even with a very limited palette (and I never have more than 10 or 12 colours in my tin – mostly I use just 8). The pigments I most often add to yellow are Ultramarine Blue, Phthalo Turquoise, Winsor Green (blue shade), Paynes Grey, and Winsor Violet -Winsor Violet with yellow gives lovely complex neutral tones. Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine are my favourites for greys and neutrals. For really strong neutrals I go for Burnt Umber and Paynes Grey, and for really deep dark greens I sometimes use Burnt Umber and Winsor Blue or Winsor Green. Occasionally instead of Transparent Yellow I use Olive Green as a start and add variously to it – it’s not a green I especially like on it’s own.

Obviously sometimes I mix more than just two pigments – but rarely more than three, and I try to use mostly transparent colours.

Being a transparent medium watercolour relies on transparency for its luminous glow, and some pigments have more of this quality than others. Some are less transparent and some are opaque. So mixing two transparent pigments keeps a colour transparent, and the more you add semi-transparent or opaque pigments, the less luminosity you acheive. If you mix two opaque pigments together you end up with something dull. (Helpfully, all pigments are marked on their manufacturer’s colour charts with symbols that tell you what qualities they have.)

A note of warning – following what colours other people use can be helpful, but everyone has personal preferences and I’ve occasionally made the mistake of buying a slightly unusual colour just because someone else has said it’s a great favourite of theirs, and discovering I really hate it! I’ve found by experience that it’s better to get very familiar with the colours that you have, and then gradually experiment with others. I have a number of pigments that I rarely use but then re-discover, and others that are core essentials that always stay in my tin. As for the tin itself, that’s a whole subject on its own – I have three, in various sizes – but to round up, here’s a list of the pigments I always have available:

Transparent Yellow, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber, Paynes Grey, Winsor Violet, Cobalt Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Windsor Green, Permanent Rose, Windsor Red.


Someone asked me the other day which medium I like using best. It’s a hard question to answer, but I think whatever I’m currently using I’d probably say that’s the one I love most, (though ask me that again when I’m immersed in jewellery making, or when all I want to do is stitch fabric, and it’ll probably be a different story). At the moment it’s watercolour, and drawing and watercolour painting are both equally important for me but for rather different reasons.

Actually watercolour has characteristics that make it easy to get obsessive about. Some of this has to do with the paint itself; it’s so enjoyable to mix and dilute and load onto a brush and to watch what it does when it get on to the paper – whether it’s a wet wash that runs and soaks in, or a dry swish of colour put on with the side of the brush, or two colours put on wet next to each other and allowed to collide and then merge and mix on the paper to create fluid explosions of new colour between them. I could do this for hours, and sometimes I do just this and nothing more – simply mix two colours in varying proportions.

I try to look closely at something every day, with complete attention, for several minutes – and though drawing inevitably means doing this, sometimes it’s more a matter of simply soaking up the experience of the moment and doing something like quietly mixing paint, thinking of absolutely nothing else. I have certain colours that are old friends – like aureolin yellow and cobalt blue which make lovely greyish greens, or cobalt blue and burnt umber, which make beautiful subtle greys – that I return to when I need consolation and some peace and stillness. After a while nothing else matters, and at the end of a day when I’ve painted like this the colours I’ve been mixing stay in my subconscious mind so that I see them when I fall asleep and sometimes they fill my dreams.

Returning to watercolour painting after not having done it for a while can be a pretty horrible experience though, because it is so unpredictable and demanding. Throw yourself into it without having mind and heart prepared and without imposing some sort of discipline on yourself, and the day is doomed. This is the side of watercolour that is not what people expect when they think they’d like to take it up, but it’s the flip side of the coin; get the practice right, and it’s the most fulfilling and rewarding form of art practice that I know, even more than drawing. I like the fact that it requires me to slow down and collect all my attention, to be in harmony with myself and to be focussed in the right way, and that if I’m not, all of that will be immediately and horribly obvious right there in front of me on paper. It’s what makes the expression art practice really mean something.