A Basic Primer on Watercolor Pigments, pt. 4- My Current Palette

 
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The Basics-

At the bottom of this post is a list of the pigments in my current palette, full of brands and pigments based on my own idiosyncratic painting process. My palette is composed of lightfast, single pigment color choices. I skip common “convenience mixtures” such as Sap Green or Hooker’s Green, etc. My opinion is that single-pigment colors allow for better prediction of color-mixing outcomes. Additionally, I only purchase paints in tubes, which I then distribute into the wells on my palette. My experience is that paint purchased in tubes (and applied while still wet) allows for a “juicier” application of paint when needed. This will let you get rich, pigmented darks and more chromatic washes with much greater ease.

What Details I’ve Included in the List, and Why-

Beyond those basic recommendations, please don’t feel I’m suggesting that folks use only these pigments or only these brands. Most pigment choice has to do with how we navigate the color wheel from hue to hue- not that each pigment or brand is essential (of course, there are exceptions, but that’s the gist of the idea). As such, I’ve included in the list below the alpha-numeric label for my pigments, so you can substitute alternate brands as needed, as well as some hue-similar alternate pigments, if you don’t care to use the exact pigments I use.

If you are interested in purchasing only a very few pigments to start off with, I’ve labeled what I view as “essentials” with an asterisk. These are spread around the color wheel, and with a bit of mixing control, you can achieve a very wide gamut of color with just 5-6 paints. The real goal is to make sure you have a good distribution of hues to allow yourself a wide color gamut for mixing purposes.

Finally, as an aside, I’ve noted commonly used hue-similar fugitive paints that should be avoided (how’s that for a mouth-full?!). Please don’t use these pigments. I’ll be frank and blunt- although people sometimes debate these things academically, in my opinion you’re giving watercolors a bad name by doing so. If you love watercolors, do the whole medium a favor, and only use lightfast pigments. Ok, PSA done. ;)

How Do I Choose What Goes on My Palette?

It’s probably also worth saying that I’m not one to buy a pigment because I find the color attractive (or unattractive, for that matter). And I never think, “Ah, this paint looks just like bricks, or beach sand, or pine trees, or sign posts, etc.” Of course, sometimes all of those things do happen, but truth is that I include paints in my palette because of how they’ll work with other paints. The goal is always to assess how your paints will work in cohort with each other. That is the most important point. Below, you can see one of my color doodle-sheets, where I explore different reds and how they mix with greens, to mute them, and how I might apply the red. From swatches and explorations such as these, I decide what to include in my palette-

 
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So, the introduction of pigments into my palette is all about finding good mixing compliments or creating mixing lines for hues I want to arrive at more easily. Paints never work on their own. I’ve always got some basic sort of plan for how I might use a paint, for what sort of subjects, and in conjunction with what sort of other pigments I have available. Even if applied straight from the tube, without mixing, they’re always a team once they’re on the canvas.

As such, I’ve included a short description with each pigment, describing why I have it on my palette, and what I use it for, what combos, etc. Just to give you a sense of what goes through my mind, and why I chose these pigments specifically.

(Interested in knowing more about how I approach and try to control mixing outcomes? Check out these posts on Color Mixing, Mixing Greens, and Navigating Color Space.)


The List-

*Cadmium Yellow (PY35), American Journey

Lightfast Alternate- Benzimidazolone Yellow (aka Azo or Winsor Yellow) (PY151 or 154)

Common Fugitive Example- Aureolin Yellow (PY40)

I mix a lot of greens with this yellow. I use Cad Yellow because it’s mildly opaque for a yellow, is a strong mixer despite it’s light value, and is relatively “pushy” wet into wet, and yet won’t explode across the page. It also works well with Dioxazine Violet as a mixing partner. I recently decided to give it two wells, because it’s my primary yellow mixer for a lot of greens.

Yellow Ochre (PY43), M. Graham

Lightfast Alternate- Raw Sienna (PY42 and PR101)

This yellow-brown is rather opaque and gooey, which has a use. It will hold it’s own spatially, and yet is inactive (inert), wet-into-wet, like Cad Yellow. This works great for muted greens, and makes nice browns with Dioxazine Violet.

Cadmium Orange (PO20), American Journey

Lightfast Alternate- Pyrrole Orange (PO73)

Redder Lightfast Alternate- Cadmium Scarlet (aka Cadmium Red Light) (PR108)

What can I say? I like clean oranges from time to time, and they’re almost impossible to mix. I don’t use this straight very much, but it’s a very useful mixing compliment. I use this to mix strange, warm greens and also to make browns get punchier and more chromatic.

*Burnt Sienna (PBr7 or PR101), American Journey

Darker Lightfast Alternate- Burnt Umber (PBr7 or PR101)

An essential part of the Ultramarine-Burnt Sienna combo. Makes lovely natural greys. One of my most used pigments. This combo provides me one of my darkest, most versatile mixes. It gets two wells just to save time refilling them.

*Permanent Carmine (PR176), Winsor Newton

Lightfast Alternates- Permanent Alizarin Crimson (PR206), Quinacridone Rose (PV19),

Quinacridone Magenta (PR122)

Common Hue-Similar Fugitives- Alizarin Crimson (PR83), Rose Madder (NR9), Opera Rose (PR122)

The endless quest to find a replacement for Alizarin Crimson continues. I like this paint mostly because it mutes and darkens greens well. Other reds that are warmer (like Cad Red) make by greens turn brown. No way, Jose. Lovely in skies from time to time. Combined with orange, it also can mix a pretty good red if need be.

Dioxazine Violet (Winsor Violet) (PV23), Winsor Newton

Lightfast Alternate- Manganese Violet (PV16)

Dark as hell. A good darkener in general, and a good mixer with greens, to mute, darken, and cool them.

*Ultramarine Blue (PB29), American Journey

Lightfast Alternate- Pthalo Blue (aka Winsor Blue) (PB15)

The most useful blue, IMO. Good for skies and water, etc. Part of many mixing combos. Used to make greens, but also browns and cool grey-blue shadows. It gets two wells for a reason. Lovely granulation.

Cobalt Blue (PB28), American Journey

Similar in hue to UMB, but paler in value and slightly greener. Good for skies and water. A lovely secondary blue for me.

Prussian Blue (PB27), American Journey

Lightfast Alternate- Phtalo Blue, Green Shade (PB 15:3)

Not often used, but it’s also very dark, which can be useful from time to time. It makes great dark, dusty greens when mixed with Yellow Ochre.

Cobalt Turquoise Light (PG50), Winsor Newton

Lightfast Alternate- Cobalt Turquoise (PB36)

I use this sometimes to mix punchy greens. Has a nice, mildly opaque cast. Hard to mix the hue, so I keep it for very occasional use.

*Viridian (PG18), American Journey

Lightfast Alternate- Pthalo Green (PG7)

A dark, opaque green. Good as a starting point for many greens. I almost never use it on its own.

The Visitors-

It’s worth saying that I keep a little ziplock bag in my painting backpack that has a small variety of additional paints in it. I don’t keep them on my palette, but they’re useful to have around for certain subjects and effects. They include- Pthalo Yellow-Green (PY3, PG7), Quinacridone Rose (PV19), Titanium White, Perylene Green (PBk31), and Pyrole Red (aka Winsor Red (PR254)


Additional Good Lightfast Options- Cadmium Red Deep (PR108), Cerulean Blue (PB35), Perylene Maroon (PR179)

A Basic Primer on Watercolor Pigments, pt. 3- So What Should I Buy?

 
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Artist and Student Grade Brands-

There are a variety of artist-grade brands, and the truth is that despite the fact that they’re not all the same (pigments often handle differently or have a gently different hue in one brand versus another) they’re all, generally speaking, excellent. Daniel Smith is great, and Winsor Newton too. DaVinci, M. Graham, Holbein, and Sennelier are excellent too. Don’t worry too much on that account.

Each has a reputation for certain handling characteristics or brand details, with some grain of truth to the generalizations. Winsor Newton is more expensive, but the quality is almost always good and it can be found almost anywhere globally. M. Graham and Sennelier both use honey, and are goopier and runnier than other brands- they work very well in a studio but can cause sometimes problems in the field because they’re so gooey and active in the palette. Holbein uses a different kind of dispersant and tends to be more inert wet-into-wet. On and on. Many experienced artists often mix and match pigments between brands, as they come to prefer the characteristics of this or that specific pigment by a specific brand. There are no issues with doing that.

So, what about student grade paints?

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Historically, student-grade paints often featured both fugitive pigments and tubes that are less densely pigmented than their artist-grade counterparts. This is part of why they cost less. That is changing though. Two good quality student grade brands that I have experience with are Cotman’s (which is Winsor Newton’s student brand) and Van Gogh. Both currently feature generally lightfast pigments that are (yes) less densely pigmented than an artist-grade counterpart of the same pigment. However, it is worth saying that there are all kinds of student grade brands out there, and many of them are of highly varying quality. You’ve got to, oddly, know more about your paints to make sure you’re looking at an off-brand student grade paint, to make sure they’re lightfast, single pigment, etc. Many aren’t. But a big brand name, like Cotmans as an example, is generally very good these days (compared to the reputation they had, say, 20-30 years ago), and easier to buy without as much research or fretting.

Many beginners understandable purchase cheaper student-grade paints. However, general advice is often that students should learn with artist-grade paints as early as possible, as the more densely pigmented artist-grade tubes can handle differently. This is true, in my opinion. Artist-grade pigments also often provide a richness and vibrancy to color application that can be difficult at times to achieve with student paints. As such, there can be a frustrating re-learning phase when a student switches over. But is it essential to use Artist Grade paints? Absolutely not. Are there some professional artists that use lightfast student grade paints, and make great work? For sure. Nothing is really dogmatic on this.

Having said that, my advice is to buy the best quality paints that you can. It’s better to purchase a smaller range of artist-grade colors in the beginning (distributed judiciously around the color wheel), than to buy a whole bunch of student grade paints that you’ll eventually discard or move on from. Still, even then, if one is just beginning to dabble in watercolors and is feeling frugal, I would recommend Cotman’s and Van Gogh as the best quality low-cost student-grade paints I have personal experience with. It’s cheapest to buy from an art store (online or in person) like Dick Blick, Cheap Joe’s, or Jerry’s Artarama. Common “craft” stores charge a premium for pigments.


Tubes versus Pans-

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Every once in a while, I get asked about this. What can I say? Every artist has a personality and approach, and, to me, it’s a clear recommendation for tubes.

The primary benefits of tubes are two-fold, as I see it. First, it’s far cheaper per ml of paint to buy things in tubes than it is in pans. Secondly, my experience is that its far easier to get rich juicy applications of color when you’re working from fresh blobs of paint from the tube. Some companies state that they put some sort of special humectant in their pans to make them rewet better than tube paints, but experientially, spritzing tube paints in a palette has been fine for me and many other far-more-well known painters out there.

The real benefit of pans, as I see it, is that they’re interchangeable and they’re hyper portable. When you squeeze out your paints into your palette from a tube, you’re sort of stuck with that paint in that well for a while. This is true. Tube paints can also get messy. Sometimes they move around in the palette a bit, particularly after painting when everything has gotten pretty moist. That’s a bummer, for sure. Pans are hard and compact and tend to stay put. So there are some logistical arguments to be made in favor of pans if you’re doing plein air work (although I still use tubes for plein air work, myself), but for studio painting… I can’t see why one wouldn’t just use tubes, all the time.

However, if you’re really interested in pans, I would suggest buying the little empty cubes and filling them up with tube paint and letting them dry, instead of buying the pre-filled ones. Like this-

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Then, voila- you have hard, portable, interchangeable pan options made using the cheaper tube paint. You have to buy a palette that allows this can of “snapping in” ability, but they’re out there. Here’s a link.

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This is a video on the subject-

I’ve read of artists who swear by this ability, so it’s a real thing. It seems awfully finicky to me!! LOL. But to each their own. :) However, it is worth saying that I understand that functionality and have an alternate means of switching up my palette for special subjects. I keep a little ziplock baggie in my backpack with alternate paints in it that I use only now and then. I squeeze out a little into the far side of my palette, in the big mixing area, and wipe them away later when I’m done with that subject. This approach is much like the benefit of having the “snap in” pans. So, it’s not like the issue isn’t real.

Even then, most pans, even the full-sized ones, are smaller than I want them to be. I like to use big brushes, and I don’t like to have to dig around in the well for paint. This is another minor but true selling point for using tube paints in palettes with bigger wells, versus using pans. But all in all, these are the personal elements of painting. Can interesting images be painted from a small palette with little ½ pans of paint? Of course! If you’re using good, lightfast pigments, the rest of these sorts of logistical details are often dictated by personal preference and style.


My Current Brand of Choice-

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For what it’s worth, I currently use American Journey paints when possible. Research suggests they are a rebranded version of DaVinci paints, marketed under the Cheap Joe’s label. They are lightfast, well pigmented, handle nicely, and are significantly cheaper per ml and come in huge 35 ml tubes. This is great when you know what you want and you want a lot of it. It’s bad for testing small quantities. The other major issue is that you can only get them online through Cheap Joe’s. If you are traveling and run out while far from home, you’re out of luck. For those who need an alternate good brand to pick up, I suggest Daniel Smith, Winsor Newton, or DaVinci, as all three tend to be well made and widely available.

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

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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-

https://artsbenicia.org/continuing-with-wet-into-wet-landscapes/

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

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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.

“Hues”-

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 handprint.com or elsewhere. 

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

https://www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/pigmt6.html#lightfast

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