Today, Jessica of Greenleaf & Blueberry has a special treat for us: a comprehensive introduction to watercolors. If you’ve ever wondered about how watercolors are made, the difference between watercolor grades, and/or what watercolor paper to use, you’ll enjoy this post.
How I Got Into Watercolors: Jess’s Story
Hi, I’m Jess — and I have something to admit: I used to shun, nay, SNEER at watercolors. I had taken lessons and classes etc. As a result, I moved on to other areas of art-making. “Bigger” and “better” things like large-scale sculpture, metalworking, fiber work, and acrylic painting. But these endeavors all require luxuries like space and specialized tools. Those luxuries were absent when I moved to Washington state into a one room yurt at the foot of a mountain. (Yeah, my parents loved that.) I also had a boyfriend and a dog to share the space with.
I stubbornly continued with my large-scale art-making, producing concrete casts and a series of sculptural paintings. It wasn’t what I would call a comfortable arrangement. We had pots and pans and paintings hanging from the rafters. Oh, and did I mention we are also climbers? The gadgets and gear required for rock climbing and mountaineering can dwarf the stuffed studio of even the most determined artist packrat. Needless to say, our little dwelling was exploding with art and adventure. Bursting at the literal seams. Which, in a way, was great. But we were constantly battling the chaos that is living in a small space. So, when I saw a woman with an Altoids tin that she had converted into a watercolor set, it was like a warm ray of sunshine waking me from the darkness of artistic complication and cluttered spaces. (Seriously, this memory exists with a soundtrack of soft angelic chorus music. And doves.)
The woman showed me how she could fit all the colors she needed in the tin. Then, she closed the palette with a snap, slipped it into her purse, smiled, and walked away while I stood there gaping like a codfish. Seriously, this woman changed my life with her old Altoids tin. After that, watercolors were like a shiny new penny to me. They were portable. I had often lamented that there was no way to carry my acrylic paints with me on hikes and travels. And, needless to say, sculpting materials aren’t something you just throw into your airplane carry-on. So, watercolors have been my ultimate weapon of choice ever since, no matter where I may be. An unexpected side-effect of my obsession with watercolors is how consuming it has been for years now with no hint of letting up. So, as I sit here at home in my studio (thankfully, not in the yurt, though still happily in the mountains) surrounded by piles of paints, pigments, and watercolor sets, I will attempt to lay out the simple truths of the strange and wonderful rabbit hole that is watercolor paints.
What Exactly is Watercolor Paint?
In its most basic essence, watercolor paint is a combination of pigment and gum arabic. Every paint medium is a combination of pigment and a binder. The binder determines the category of medium, which is to say, what type of paint it is. Oil paint is pigment + oil, usually linseed oil. Encaustic paint is pigment + wax. Acrylic paint is pigment + acrylic medium. The binder, whichever one it may be, acts to hold the pigment to the surface on which you are painting. This is why you cannot paint with just pigment and water; when it dries, the pigment will simply blow away because there is nothing adhering it to the support.
In addition to the binder, there are all sorts of possible additives to tailor the paint for different purposes. There are humectants, fillers, brighteners, preservatives, plasticizers, moldicides, etc. Each pigment is unique from the next, so the requirements for ingredients differ from color to color. Also, each paint manufacturer has their own process and philosophy in regards to paint-making methods. Regardless, the pigments must be thoroughly suspended in the binder for it to truly become paint and not just a mixture. This integration is accomplished through mulling. Historically mulling was done by hand; today, all of the major paint manufacturers have machines that perform this step.
Why is the “Good” Stuff So Expensive? Is There Really That Much of a Difference?
When I hear questions like this, I start to reach for my soap box. However, I will attempt to withhold my rantings, ravings, and vituperations! There are many differences between the vast array of watercolor options available. Most of the offerings can be broken down into three main categories: Children, Student, and Artist. The main difference, besides the price, is the pigment content. Good pigments are not cheap.
Think of it like this: cheap things don’t usually do what you want them to do. They break, they tear, they wear out, and, if we’re talking about paints, they fade, aren’t as bright to begin with, or are some big mish-mash of who-knows-what.
You cannot have paint without pigment…
Pigments are very specific materials. When you start to get into pigments, you very quickly find yourself in the realms of chemistry and geology. For most new or casual enthusiasts, this means you are in for more than you bargained for when you first furtively poked at that Prang set. Pigments usually fall into one of three categories: inorganic, natural organic, or synthetic organic. And when I say “organic” here, think carbon-based — not Whole Foods.
Inorganic or Mineral Pigments
Inorganic or Mineral Pigments tend to be natural and historical pigments and were dominantly in use during the 19th century and before. When mixed, they grey a bit and thus are often used specifically for natural scenes today. These are your Cobalts, Cadmiums, Ochres (pictured below), Earths, Siennas, and Umbers.
Natural Organic Pigments
Natural Organic Pigments in paint are rare because they tend not to be lightfast and fade quickly. They are derived from plants and animals, are carbon-based, and are more often found in dyes. This is why a pretty moss or a bright flower petal cannot be used as a pigment; the color is simply not permanent. Certain archaic historical pigments fit under this category: rose madder (plant roots) and cochineal (bugs). However bone black, carbon black, and lamp black are still widely used.
Synthetic Organic Pigments
Synthetic Organic Pigments are your modern, long and hard-to-pronounce colors that have only recently been invented, let alone come into use. They tend to be very lightfast and astoundingly bright. These are carbon-based molecules that have been manufactured from various chemicals through the application of intense pressure and/or heat. These are your Hansas, Quinacridones, Phthalocyanines, Perylenes, Dioxazines, Quinophthalones, Pyrroles, etc.
In sum, pigments come from a mine, from plants, sometimes animals, or a lab. They are commodities of a pure and particular substance that a lot of trouble went into procuring. Some of them are rare, some come from faraway or war-torn places, others are expensive to produce, and still others are complicated to handle safely. All of these are factors that go into the price that is eventually set for your paints.
That’s What is in My Tube of Paint. What the Heck is This Cryptic Stuff on the Tube of Paint?!
In a perfect world, the paint name on the tube would be the pigment name, therefore giving you a clear, informative, and immediate knowledge of what paint is in the tube you are considering. But this is far from a perfect world and each paint manufacturer has their own take. Paint names are confused by “Hue” added on here and there, historical whimsey, manufacturer’s special blends and names, etc. Example: Bone Black vs. Ivory Black. They are the same thing. Ivory Black was historically produced from burnt ivory. Trust me, no major manufacturer is doing that anymore. Today we just settle for burnt bones, hence: Bone Black. But the historical name endures on many paint tubes.
Pigment Index Listing
The best thing you can do to get a handle on what the paint actually is in the tube you are holding is to flip it over and read the fine print on the back. There should be a Pigment Index listing. Some brands will even do you the favor of writing out the actual pigment name along with the Index abbreviation. Example: “PB 29” is Ultramarine Blue. PB stands for Pigment Blue. 29 lets you know which blue. Is there a numerical, alphabetical, or easily apparent logical order to this system? Not really. But don’t let yourself get overwhelmed trying to memorize a cryptic color code or anything — it’s not necessary. It is just a clue you can use to make an informed decision about the paints you want to use.
So, when you pick up, say, Daniel Smith’s Cascade Green and go: “What the heck is that?”, flip over the tube and have a look! It says: “Raw Sienna PBr7, Phthalocyanine Blue PB15”. So, now you know it is a mix of two pigments: Raw Sienna and Phthalo Blue. If you have those two colors in your palette already, this is a color you can mix. If you really love it, you can buy the tube, pretty and pre-mixed for your convenience.
Seeing “Hue” after a paint name basically means it’s not what it says it is. It looks like what is says it is, though. It is also usually a cheaper option. For example, Cadmium Yellow vs. Cadmium Yellow Hue. If you flip the tube over, Cadmium Yellow should be Cadmium Sulfide PY37, whereas Cadmium Yellow Hue might be Nickel Titanate PY53, Quinophthalone Yellow PY138, and Hansa Yellow PY3. One is actually Cadmium Yellow, the other is a mix of colors that approximate the appearance of Cadmium Yellow.
Then there are the paints with the lingering historical names that I mentioned above. Take Sap Green; it’s not made of sap. Turn it over and have a look: Winsor & Newton’s Permanent Sap Green is Brominated Copper Phthalocyanine PG36 and Isoindoline PY110. It is a mix of Phthalo Green and Iso. Yellow. Sap Green is an extremely popular color because it is so useful as a natural green for landscapes etc. The important takeaway here is that it is a mix.
Each additional pigment in a mix adds a layer of complexity. Too many pigments at play can be the lurking reason behind muddy mixes. Knowing what is in your paint adds another facet to your expertise, another tool to your shed. If you mix two single pigment colors, you have only two pigments at play in your secondary or mix. This makes things very straightforward and clean. If you use two mixed colors, all of a sudden you have four to six pigments at play; this is how a poopy brown can sneak up on you.
There is Something for Everybody!
I am absolutely not saying that spending a fortune on artist grade paint is the only way — not a chance. Just know what you are working with and make informed choices. Do you dabble at watercolors here and there for solely your own enjoyment? Maybe you are one of those people who inexplicably burns their old sketchbooks (horror of horrors!). Perhaps you are new to watercolors and just want to dip your toe to test the waters and see if you even like it before you go investing a lot of money. In such cases, go ahead, buy the Winsor & Newton Cotman boxes or the other student grade paints. Have fun, experiment, explore!
If you are purchasing for a child, buy them children’s paints. There are real reasons why children’s paints are for children – you don’t want to eat artist grade paints. It would be unhealthy, not to mention a real waste. If you want to do something nice for your artistic child, buy them a decent brush. Often the brushes that come with children’s sets are unpardonably sloppy to use.
If you want to keep your paintings, especially if you want to display your paintings, and IMPERATIVELY if you consider yourself a professional or are selling your original paintings, you must pull up your grown-up panties, bite the bullet and buy the artist grade paints.
Now, it doesn’t have to be as expensive as you might at first fear. There is usually a price range for any artist grade line of paints; it is usually broken down into series numbers or letters. You can get a full palette of colors all in series 1 (the lease expensive) and keep things relatively affordable. Admittedly, when you get into Cadmiums, Cobalts etc, it gets more expensive. Invest slowly. Experiment. It should be fun!
You Get What You Pay For
Decades ago, I started off in watercolors with the 16-color set of Prang watercolor paints pictured above. With those, I learned the basics of color mixing and watercolor painting technique. Today I make my own paints by hand and work with a select palette of artist grade paints spanning several different brands. I have also inherited my great-grandmother’s tin of watercolors in which I saw firsthand why pigment knowledge is so important. Each color is labeled neatly, but therein were certain anomalies: why did the color labeled “light red” appear to be black? I have since accumulated a small collection of vintage watercolor sets and it is shocking how many of them appear to be comprised of only browns and blacks.
So, now I urge you to go and get your hands dirty! Head in to your local independent art supply store, pepper the staff with questions and rummage through the aisles of paint tubes. (A hint here: do NOT open the paint tubes when browsing; the wet color will tell you very little, you will likely make a big mess, and anger the staff whose assistance you should be attempting to procure.) Also, if you haven’t already, try making your own color chart of the paints you have – it will help you get to know your palette more intimately. Go ahead and mix your colors, try different combinations, make a color wheel, make a mess! Whatever you do, investigate what you’re working with, immerse yourself in curiosity, and make some damn art!
My favorite paint brands by category:
Winsor & Newton Cotman
Greenleaf & Blueberry (that’s me!)
M. Graham & Co.
Winsor & Newton
Lindsey again, here. After reading this post, I had a couple of questions for Jessica that I thought you may have as well:
1. Why do people use wet watercolors?
Why buy tubes of wet watercolors? It seems to me that the palettes are so much more convenient because all the colors are just laid out for you; no having to mess with squeezing out colors. Is there more vibrancy if you use liquid watercolors?
Answer: Tubes or wet watercolors are a great choice for larger scale watercolor painting and heavy reliance on washes. In both of these instances, simply more paint is required than it would make sense to rely on small pans to supply. You can move more color around more quickly with a lot less wear and tear on your brushes when you use it from tubes.
Think: tubes- large scale, pans- small scale. For most hobbyists, a set of watercolor pans is all they will need for a long time and the investment in a set of tubes is more than they want to bite off and probably more than they will likely use. Tubes just seem a little less accessible starting out. My own assumption is that it is easier and more cost-effective for manufacturers to produce tubes of wet paint than pans of dry. Paint for pans is either extruded, which requires a different process and some additional ingredients, or it needs to be set out to dry and then possibly topped off, which takes a lot of time and fiddling.
2. Which watercolor paper should I use?
Question: I usually use cold-pressed 140 lb. watercolor paper. Does it make a difference really? Are there some papers you absolutely should not use? Why hot press vs. cold press?
Answer: Typically, people use 140 lb. cold press paper for watercolors. It has good absorbency and a nice texture. Of the available categories and options, the ranges fall like this: 90 lb., 140 lb., 300 lb., and 400 lb. Each of the different weights (90 being the lightest and 400 being the heaviest) is available in hot press, cold press, or rough. Hot press is smooth, almost like bristol paper. Cold press is toothy, the texture of paper most often associated with watercolor. Rough looks and feels like a stiff handmade paper, a more extreme version of cold press.
Hot press is very useful for fine detail or applications where ink will be incorporated. Nothing eats up a fine-tipped pen more quickly than cold press paper. The texture of the cold press and rough often comes through in the paint. It can help to think about the wee little peaks in the texture of the paper as a miniature mountain range; there is greater surface area on these papers. The paint can pool in the valleys and will be thinner at the peaks, giving colors a granulated or variegated quality.
I like using 90 lb. paper for sketching practice, and it is also the paper of choice in my little hand-bound field books. So often watercolor journals use 140 lb. paper, so you don’t end up with very many page faces to work with, but you still have all the bulk of a full journal. Often sketchbooks aren’t for finished work, so the 90 lb. seems just perfect. 140 lb. paper is great for finished work. It is also flexible because it can easily be torn down into whatever size you want. 300 lb. is very stiff. It will likely crack and break if you fold it, so it is more difficult to tailor the size of it. 400 lb. is very heavy indeed and is almost like using watercolor board; it is also rather uncommon.
Thanks so much to Jessica for this fantastic blog post! You can find Jessica on her website or on Instagram (@greenleafblue).
Happy painting and thank you for reading!