Final Workshop of the 2018 Season- Continuing Wet-Into-Wet Watercolors


Just a quick post today to let people know that my final workshop of the season is coming around next week. It’s going to fun, playful, and intensive! If you’d like to join in, sign up through Arts Benicia, here-

The class is Th, Fri, Sat., October 11-13th, 930-330

Tuition is 295$

In this Continuing class, we delve deeper into how we think about painting. As always, we’ll be playing with some wet-into-wet techniques, but we’ll also be practicing techniques to help us bond shapes together and simplify our paintings. The goal is to learn how to break the subject into layers so you can control your edges and values. By the third day, the aim is to get people painting atleast a bit from their own images, and not just to be copying my demos. It’s the “thinking about it” that will really get you over the hump and into painting your own work— not technique.

Levels of experience vary, and thus the focus of the workshop shifts for everyone, but this isn’t an Intro class, so some previous knowledge of wet-into-wet work is presumed.

A Basic Primer on Watercolor Pigments, pt. 2- Reading Labels


How to Read a Pigment Label-

Pigment Naming Systems-

Pigments are labeled in three ways- with a common or marketing name, an alpha-numeric system, and with a more scientific “pigment name”.  As the marketing name can vary from brand to brand dramatically, it can either be very useful (if it follows a historic precedent) or could mean almost nothing (if it’s very poetic).  However, the alpha-numeric naming system is always consistent and is essential to understanding the type of pigment you are buying.  This is one of the most important things to pay attention to when buying paint. The scientific/ chemical naming of pigments is also very reliable, but often more difficult to remember or understand. 

Even then, pigments are manufactured in various ways and with various types of binders, depending on each brand name.  As such, this means that even pigments that have the same alpha-numeric pigment code don’t necessarily handle or look exactly the same.  They will be similar, but individuated, with each brand’s version of a pigment having a slightly different hue and/or handling characteristics.


Sometimes, the marketing name will feature the word “Hue”, along with the common historical name, such as “Cobalt Blue Hue”.  This indicates that the tube features a prearranged combination of (generally cheaper) pigments to arrive at a similar hue to the “primary” name.  The issue is that these mixtures almost never handle the same way as the single pigment does.  For mixing purposes, it is almost always better to purchase the single pigment.  This is one of the reasons why we always look at the alpha-numeric pigment name, and not the marketing name.

Letters and Numbers-

Somewhere on each tube or pan should be an alpha-numeric label.  It’s important to know how to read it.  Many labels will feature the marketing name combined with a tag that has the alpha-numeric pigment name, such as “Cadmium Yellow (PY35)”.  The pigment numbering system will always have a “P” (for pigment), atleast 1 additional letter (such as Y for yellow, Br for Brown, O for orange, R for red, V for violet, B for blue, G for green, etc.) and a number.  Each pigment in a color category gets a special number, only used for that pigment.  Thus, you always know, for example, that you’re getting Ultramarine Blue when you purchase PB29, or Viridian when you get PG18, regardless of mild brand variances.  If the label features more than one letter-number combination, then you know you are getting a multi-pigment mixture in that tube, and that may cause issues later on when you’re actually painting.  It’s good to know, and I generally (though not always) avoid multi-pigment tubes.

Lightfastness Ratings-

Unfortunately, this can be a little vague, as the labeling process varies from company to company.  Winsor Newton, for example, has a “Permanence” rating which is positioned prominently, with AA (the best), A, B, etc., but it’s unclear exactly how the rating is achieved or what it means.

Alternately, Winsor Newton also has a “Lightfastness” rating which is much less prominently placed, on the side of their tubes where it’s hard to see.  This label follows a consistent testing process run by the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials), and has a labeling system from 1-5, with 1 representing excellent lightfastness.  Many other brands follow a similar rating method, such as Daniel Smith and M Graham, where the system is 1-4, with 1 still being the best.  This is, in my mind, the number to look out for.

Still, other Artist Grade brands use other systems, some of it depending on where they are made globally.  For example, Holbein has a three star system, with 1 star being the worst and 3 stars being best.  How is it achieved?  I don’t know?  Are there standards they use in Japan to arrive at these ratings?  I don’t know.  Perhaps it exists somewhere, but it’s hard to find the info.  This gives me pause about using a lot of Holbein paints, even though many of them really may be perfectly fine.

What do I do then?  Stick to brands I know, that have an ASTM label or something an alternate rigorous system, and stick to pigments I know.  And, of course, I skip the worst offenders- Alizarin crimson, Rose madder, Aureolin, Opera Rose.  Those are the biggies.  But if I do buy a new pigment, I’m always hunting for the ASTM label, and I’m always looking up results on or elsewhere. 

If you’re interested in reading about Lightfastness testing and ratings, you can find out a lot here-

If others care to share more info in the comments, please do.  I’m happy to gather additional new info.

A Basic Primer on Watercolor Pigments, pt. 1


In anticipation of my upcoming mini-workshop on "Exploring Color for Watercolorists" (a shameless plug if there ever was one!), I've been writing up this primer.  Students will get it all next week, of course, at the class, but over the next few weeks I'll also be sharing it all with you here as well.

This primer is meant as a tool to help fellow artists understand some of the basic physical properties of watercolor pigments and how they are labeled for purchase, with the goal of creating more informed buyers and painters.  The way watercolor paints are physically constituted affects the way they act, both when wet and when dry.  It’s mildly technical, but this can be very helpful knowledge when we paint with them and, of course, when we buy them!

I’ve broken things down into three sections.  The first is a basic introduction to the physical properties of pigments.  The second goes over labeling practices so we can decode what we are buying!  And the third section features my personal opinions on purchasing paint- Student versus Artist grade paints, brands, etc. and my current, idiosyncratic list of pigments (with some alternates listed as well).  Based on an understanding of sections one and two, folks should be better able to assess some of the reasons why I use the paints I do in section three.


Physical Characteristics of Pigments-


How Watercolor Pigments Work Physically-


Pigments are made up of dry colored powder that is carried in a binder.  A “binder” is a substance that holds the dry powder of the pigment together.  Different mediums use different binders, and each binder dictates the handling, drying, and “suspending” attributes of that specific medium.  The binder used for a pigment is one of the most important elements of what makes a specific medium itself.  Gum Arabic is the most common binder for watercolors, and unlike the viscous binders used for Arcylics or Oils (which permanently suspend the pigment particles inside of themselves) binders used in watercolors disperse when applied with water. 

Once applied, watercolor pigment is then held in suspension, using the water as a vehicle for movement.  As the water evaporates the particles of pigment remain, which sink into the fibers of the paper.  This process affects all kinds of crazy stuff- how we apply paint, how we make washes, how we work we-into-wet, what kind of paint we buy, etc etc.


Drying Shift-

the in-process wet version

the in-process wet version

the slightly paler and less chromatic dry version

the slightly paler and less chromatic dry version

Pigments generally look more vibrant when wet than they do in a dry completed painting.  This is called a drying shift.  I actually did a whole post on this in the Spring.  This occurs because pigment particles refract light differently when seen through the lens of the water than they do after having sunk into the fibers of the drying paper.  Drying shifts can be expressed through a loss of value, a loss of chroma (aka vibrancy), or a shift in hue (aka color).  As has been said before, “If it’s right when you’re painting it, then it’s not right.”  Given the physical nature of how watercolor works, you need to expect and anticipate drying shifts of some sort or another.


Lightfast and Fugitive Paints-

what we now see on the left, versus the artist's original vision on the right

what we now see on the left, versus the artist's original vision on the right

Some pigments are “fugitive,” and over time (sometimes in as little as a year or two!) they can become paler and/or duller if left in the sun- even reflected, indoor sunlight.  Yellows can become brown, reds become pink, etc.  I did a post about this last year, featuring many Van Goghs, but you don’t have to be famous for this to affect you too!  A number of well-known historically-used pigments, such as Alizarin Crimson and Aureolin Yellow, are notorious for this, and it is this fact which has affected the public perception of watercolors as a transient medium.  With the currently available range of pigments, it’s entirely possible (and in fact quite easy) to paint images that will last for hundreds of years, using only what are called “lightfast” pigments. 

Outside of some notable exceptions, most yellows and oranges are lightfast.  Earth colors are almost always lightfast.  Almost all blues and greens are as well.  However, many fugitive pigments are in the red, magenta and purple color families, and in this color range you still have to be very selective in your choices.  In the third section, I’ll provide a list of lightfast pigments to choose from, and note various common fugitive pigments to avoid.


Pigment Handling Characteristics

Like us, different pigments have different personalities.  You can have two different pigments that happen to share the same hue, and yet… they can give you quite different results on the paper.  It’s the pigment that matters, not the hue!  You can even have two tubes of paint that are the same pigment but different brands, and even they can act somewhat differently.  How the paint is made (is it extra finely milled? What kind of dispersant does it use?) can affect its handling characteristics. 

There are, in my mind, 5 basic characteristics we can use to describe pigments- are they Staining, Transparent, Opaque, Granulating, or Active Wet-Into-Wet?  Or some combination of them?  This section is, by far, the hardest to nail down, but really the one that affects us the most while painting.  The goal is not just to label the paints as this or that, Opaque or Transparent, etc, but rather to build an awareness of the ways in which our paints act, so that we can intentionally play to their strengths or ease into their weaknesses.  Sometimes, you have to know what to look for, before you can begin to see it, right?

Each handling characteristic has its time and place when it can be of use, and different types of pigments play to different approaches to painting.  One type is not “bad” and another “good”.  Rather, much depends on how you paint, and the types of handling characteristics an artist wants may change over the course of their painting career as their tastes change and develop.

Codifying things can helpful, but please pardon the generalities I make in the descriptions below-

Pigments that are very finely ground (which can settle deeply into the fibers of the paper) are generally Staining and Transparent.  Often times the two go hand in hand.  Many modern pigments fall into this category. 

Other pigments are considered Opaque.  They tend to have “covering power”.  They can leave a glaucous cast when washed over other layers with too thick an application, and tend to achieve a dense covering consistency with greater ease than Transparent paints.

Granulating pigments are made up of a combination of particle sizes, which separate out as they settle down into the paper.

Active pigments travel rapidly when charged into a wet wash.  Many modern, finely milled pigments are also very Active wet-into-wet.  Inert pigments tend to stay put when you put them in a wash.  Many are also mildly Opaque.

It’s also worth saying that many of these characteristics have a lot to do with how you dilute and apply the pigment.  For sure, if you mix a Transparent pigment up into a thick, milky consistency, they’ll eventually get opaque.  Similarly, you can take an Opaque pigment, dilute it with water in a big wet wash, and end up with a perfectly fine transparent application.  Again, apply an Active pigment with a small, thirsty, nylon brush and it won’t spread much at all.  On and on it goes.  The goal is not to be “trapped” by the handling characteristics of our pigments, but rather to understand them enough that we can anticipate the personality of each pigment before we apply it.


Characteristics of Common Families of Pigments-

This is a simple list to help aide one in the understanding of pigment categories, by name.  I wish I had had this when I began, and it took some time (on my own) to learn the basic, common attributes of different “families” of pigments.

Cadmiums are lightfast yellows, oranges, and reds that are semi-opaque when applied thickly, but are transparent when diluted.  It is an old pigment group with larger particles that is “heavy” and doesn’t move very much when applied wet-into-wet.  They are mildly toxic if ingested in large quantities.  Whether this is a real-world issue in practice is up for debate.

Perylenes are a modern pigment group, in the green to red range of colors. They are, as far as I know, very lightfast.  They are a muted pigment group, featuring deep, dark hues that are commonly used to mute other mixes.

Quinacridones are warm in hue, and are mostly reds, magentas, and purples.  They are a finely ground modern set of pigments, and often aggressively disperse when applied wet-into-wet.  They are lightfast.

Cobalts are lightfast greens, blues, and purples.  It’s an old pigment group that is granulating and “heavy”.  They are mildly inert wet-into-wet and are semi-opaque or “cloudy” when applied thickly.

Pthalos are very lightfast greens and blues.  It’s a modern group, is finely ground, and is very active wet-into-wet.  Pthalos are highly staining.

10 Tips to Help You Improve on Your Own


In a recent workshop, I gave a talk about the methods one can use to improve learning on ones own.  Not "what makes a great work of art", or "how to judge your own paintings" or anything as high faluting (and important) as that.  Just, "How can I get myself to improve more, more easily, on my own?"  How can we facilitate our own learning experience?

Many of these tips are born out of my own learning process (and learning style!), so please take them with a grain of salt.  Others I've learned through teaching students.  Still others are thoughts and methods that I've picked up at workshops as a student myself, which experience has shown me really are true.  I've stolen and amended when need be.  Thought is free.

I've organized the sequence into 5 Big Ideas for 1-5, and 5 Little Ideas for 6-10.  The "Big Ideas" are strategic and global.  They're about your approach as a whole and what your mentality should be-- paint regularly; let yourself make mistakes; critique your mistakes and apply your critiques.  The "Little Ideas" are tactical and specific.  They're about the details of painting, and how to ease the learning process through simple tricks and methods-- paint smaller, use smaller photos, use free shapes, etc.  It's worth noting that I decided to focus only on painting.  There's nothing about drawing, for example, which is an essential skill (yes, dammit!), but should be addressed on its own.  The list is meant to be about painting.

As I began to write them up, I wanted something easy to share.  But I felt also each needed a bit of explanation.  Something to unpack it, give examples, and explain why this point should matter.  And so I have arrived at what I currently have to share.  I tried to narrow them down to a nice, printable one page doc.  :)  Please ask any questions you'd like, and I'll try and follow up in the comments.


10 Tips to Help You Improve on Your Own

1) Paint Regularly

A weekly practice at a special time will help your paintings be less “precious”.  You’ll learn faster if you know you’re painting again soon, because you’ll take more chances.  Repetition matters.

2) Don’t Let Success Stop You from Growing

Be gutsy.  Mistakes are good food.  You’ll improve faster if you deliberately stretch your limits. 

3) Take Profit from Your Mistakes

You must critically assess your paintings to apply them as learning tools.  Act like you are teaching someone else.  What sequence led to your mistakes?  What can you do differently?  When?  Be specific.  Harness experience so you can “think in reverse, but paint going forwards”.

4) Don’t Fix Paintings, Iterate Them

Spend more time painting and less time fixing.  If you’re not satisfied with a painting, restart the clock and apply your newfound knowledge.  Iterating (not repeating) a subject teaches you more about the Watercolor Clock and wet-into-wet timing than fixing a dry mistake ever will. 

5) Make a Gallery of Your Work

Find a place to tape up ongoing work.  It helps you see them more objectively.  Compare them to each other and assess your growth.  Note repeated problems or a hidden bias.  Share.

6) Set Up a Laboratory

Learn through play.  Create art experiments, and explore what paint can and can’t do.  When a “happy accident” occurs, try and repeat it.  Command it and it will become a tool.

7) Small Paper, Big Brush

Shrink your canvas (such as to 1/8th sheet) and use a brush that’s a little bigger than you think you need.  The combination helps you control moisture levels and simplify wet-into-wet shapes. 

8) Use Smaller Reference Photos

A smaller photo (like a 3” x 4” or a cellphone screen) can help you simplify your subject and “see the big shapes”.  Don’t get lost in superficial details.  They make the important ones not matter.

9) Use Free Shapes to Learn Techniques

Natural shapes (such as trees, mountains, lakes, etc) are easier to paint.  They are forgiving of mistakes and allow you to learn techniques without focusing as much on drawing skills.

10) Separate Skill-Learning from Application

Practice one technique and then apply it.  Don’t try to learn a technique while doing a painting.