Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Things I Didn't Know About Color, Part One (It's Going to be a Long Series)

As I said, I'm a big dummy and there were several things about color, painting and watercolor specifically that I didn't know. Apparently these are all things that everyone else in the whole world already knew and took for granted, because when I would tell people that I had just figured these things out, they would look at me like I just said, "hey, I just realized that these hard white things in my mouth are for chewing food!"

So even though you all know all this stuff already, I will repeat it so you can get a chuckle out of what a dummy I am!

Get this - I never realized before that not all watercolors are transparent.

That totally blew my mind. I always thought that all watercolors were transparent and that all oil and acrylic paints were opaque, and that was one of the big differences between the different types of paint.

I will pause here and wait for the laughter to subside.

It turns out that not all watercolors are transparent at all. They all have different levels of transparency. I use Winsor & Newton Artists' watercolors, and they have an awesome chart on their website here that you can also download as a pdf. The great part is that if you click on a color, it will take you to another page that will tell you if the color is transparent, semi-transparent, semi-opaque or opaque (the four levels of transparency).

So why is this important? Well, lots of reasons, but mostly it's important when you're mixing color. This is because (I know, you already know this) if you mix two transparent pigments, you will get a brilliant result that is vibrant and still transparent (and long as you don't break one of the other rules, more on that in a later post) but if you mix two opaque pigments, your mixture is going to be pretty muddy and obviously not very brilliant or transparent. And if you mix three (or four) transparent pigments you will still have a transparent and colorful result (if you've chosen your colors right) but if you mix three or more opaque pigments you're going to have a muddy mess that isn't pretty at all. And there's all the ranges inbetween, like mixing one transparent and one opaque, etc. So there's a full range of results you can get, based on the opacity alone, not even considering the other properties of the colors.

Also watercolor pigments all have their own level of Staining ability, which means that if a pigment is one that tends to "stain" that you can't lift it off paper or canvas after you've laid it down. And also it seems to me in my limited experience that the pigments marked "Staining" are very intense and stronger than other colors and tend to overpower them in mixes. So it's helpful to know all of that stuff about each color when you're trying to mix a certain color. Which is why it's always a good thing to keep as small a palette as possible...so you can know everything there is to know about the colors you're using, at least when you're first starting.

It turns out that the reasons behind these properties have to do with the pigments themselves, so the transparency qualities are true of not only the watercolor version of each color, but the oil and acrylic version of each color as well. For example, Alizarin Crimson is transparent as a watercolor and also as an oil paint and as an acrylic paint. And Cadmium Red is opaque as all three types of paint as well (and all Cadmiums are opaque, by the way, which has been helpful for me to remember).

Anyway, more of this drivel to come. For God's Sake, if some of you normal people read this and it turns out I'm wrong about everything, write a comment and let me know so I don't send the world's three-year-olds off on the wrong path!

I feel kind of sorry for all of you, because it's actually kind of nice to be such a colossal moron. Because I know so little about everything, I get to learn something every day that I didn't know before, and that's actually pretty cool. So in some ways it must suck to be a genius. I'll never know.

Now, I gotta go, the three-year-old down the street is going to show me how to tie my shoes! I'm so excited.


Peter Bangs said...

This is so cool. I've drawn and painted for a long time by instinct and the skin of my teeth. Never gave a thought to colour theory and the like. I think I'm going to enjoy this journey with you. It is great to be a moron at times.

Chloe Cumming said...

Though I knew that not all watercolours were transparent, it is still nice to read your enthusiastic learnings.

And like Peter, though I've painted and drawn, formal teaching about this stuff is scarce these days. I tend to go by instinct and feel with everything, it's nice to once in a while try to understand methodically how things actually work, it can give a new angle and encourage new approaches. Don't stop posting about colour. (Sorry for british spellings)

Julie Oakley said...

I do know now, but years ago I had no idea that different pigments had different characteristics. I couldn't understand why some colours had lumps of colour floating in them – I thought I had faulty paints instead of realising it was a 'flocculating' colour. For a fantastic website telling you about all the characteristics of different watercolour media you should visit http://handprint.com/HP/WCL/water.html

nana said...

Thanks for sharing this Mark. I've been interested in learning watercolours recently and I did not know this at all.
When I was younger I used to use watercolour very lightly in an illustrative way. In my most recent try I wanted to capture the colour and light of a flower that I saw in front of me and found myself absolutely mystified by the way the colours behaved when I mixed them I was always told that red and blue makes purple, yet when I mixed two of my colours together (can't even remember which they were now)I got this muddy mess.
Hearing this about opaqueness and the effect on mixing is really helpful. I know what went wrong now. Thanks again!

Ryan MCFC said...

Hey man, you are great. You do the hard work for all of us who never learned nuthin' technical. I use watercolors to color illustrations but I sure do not know what I'm doing, and sometimes it shows. Now I know part of the reason! Thank you for being a teacher. I've personally always felt the best teachers are the ones who are excited to be learning too. I am wary of any teacher who thinks they already know everything, because only a fool thinks that.

Nicole Kozak said...

you're far from being a moron - I spent thousands of dollars on tuition at art school and the extent of our color theory was, more or less, the color wheel.

this was a great post! i definitely learned a lot from it so thank YOU! :)

tiffannysketchbook said...

A great watercolor teacher, Charles Reid, teaches alla prima watercolor techniques. I do recall him mentioning transparencies and opacities in watercolor pigments, but he says he doesn't pay too much attention to it because he tries to do his paintings in only one or two washes. The more layers, the muddier things get. A great solution, but very difficult if you're not a master like him, but it's something to consider. I have way too many opaque watercolors because I bought them in a set, so I have no choice but to use them :)

Speaking of things I didn't know about color, Nana made a comment about mixing purples. This boggled me for a while too until I did more research. I think this is due to the fact that most painters are still using the RYB color model? Scientifically, in painting we should use the CMY color model as described here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subtractive_color
the RYB model "predated modern scientific color theory".
Add magenta to your palette and use this to make brilliant purples. One cavaet, magentas are among the must fugitive pigments. Make sure you buy the most permanent you can find.

Sorry for the ramble. Trying to be helpful :D

Deimyts said...

I did not know that stuff, and I've been wanting to do some painting for a while now. That kind of information can be really hard to find, just because maybe people assume everyone already knows it. Or, if you do find it, it's not nearly so well presented and analyzed. So thank you.

you might be interested in this: http://www.huevaluechroma.com/index.php

I found that site a while ago, and I think I need to read through it about fifty more times before I actually begin to understand it, but it goes about as indepth as you can go about the nature of color and its relationship to painting. It's extremely technical and difficult to understand (god knows I didn't), but I think you could probably get more out of it than I have so far.

Phil Willis said...

Well if you're going to be a moron - let's be morons together!

Brilliant post.

I came to art and animation through a software/technical background - so all of this color theory is brand new to me too.

Keep up these posts. I'm definitely learning stuff.

April said...

Thanks for sharing this. I've learned most of my stuff about color in paints through trial and error. I've known that certain pigments were transparent but i didn't know that mixing transparent colors stay brilliant and that mixing opaque gets muddy. Now things make more sense.

Anonymous said...

I learned a ton about color from a watercolor book called Making Color Sing, check your library

Cacodaemonia said...

Haha, well I'm right there with you in the idiot camp, then. ;) I didn't know these things about paints, either! I'm really looking forward to more of this series, as color is one of the things I struggle with the most. Thanks!

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Anonymous said...

Adding to the chorus of thanks. I'm not a painter, and while I understand color theory, I haven't the slightest idea how to actually mix paints. Thanks for being willing to share your discoveries with everyone.

mark kennedy said...

Peter - it should be interesting...I sure hope so anyway!

Chloe - it's true, formal teaching is scarce...I've found a couple of good books I'll mention soon.

Julie - thanks for the site, I'll check it out!

nana - yep, I know what you mean, and there are other factors as well, it turns out - more to come, and I can recommend some helpful books!

Ryan- great, thanks for the kind words and I'll try to keep it up...

Nicole - great, thanks, more to come!

tiffany - thanks, I wasn't aware, but glad to get more info!

Deimyts - thanks, I'll check it out!

Phil - great, more to come!

April - yeah, there's more to it too, I'm still figuring it out but I will share what I know...

Anon - that's a great book, I was going to mention it soon, and much of what I know I got from that book (in fact I'm not all through reading it yet)!

Cacodaemonia - great, more to come, glad it helped!

Dream World - um, thanks...?

Anon - sure, not sure how great it will all be, but I will do my best!

DmL said...

As someone who has been told he must draw and paint for a living, but who could never find (or afford) anyone who knew anything about that stuff to help him out, I appreciate these posts.

Don said...

You might consider looking through James Gurney's blog, if you haven't already discovered it. He'll soon be releasing a book on painting color and light, and he has been pretty generous with a lot of his material. He's also a very prolific blogger in general, so you never know what kind of helpful art-related information he'll post.

Rah said...

color and mixing paint and materials aren't always going to coincide. Like the English language, there are many exceptions to the rule depending on materials and mediums. I love your enthusiasm and since I, too am just learning about water colors and how to use them I appreciate your posts as now I know I'm not the only one who was completely surprised by a lot of this stuff! I've taken some books out from the library and read online how to watercolor but there's nothing like talking to others about their experience to enrich your own! Thanks!

David Clemons said...

A couple things I would mention in response: the main point about transparency in pigments is that the color will appear more saturated by how it allows the color beneath it to show through. If that is a color is lighter in value, such as the white of the paper, it will accentuate the intensity and brightness of the transparent layer you're adding. This effect works in all paint mediums. If you scumble an opaque mixture in sort of a dry-brush technique you can get a similar effect.

Also, the "muddy" mixture depends on the colors you're combining. The more complementary the colors are, the more they neutralize each other. If the blue you mix with red is more of a blue-green it will be "muddier."

Jokhang temple said...

whoooaaa!!! awesome!!! Amazing stuff :)What a great place to visit! These pieces of art are just too great.Thanks for posting it,I like to see different col-our combination.

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