Understanding Watercolor Handling Characteristics & Behavior

Understanding Color Characteristics: The Language of Pigment

As artists, to truly understand the colors in our paint palette, it is important that we see them as pigments.  By doing this we connect the appearance of our paints to the chemistry that comprises them.  

Each pigment has a unique chemical composition and origin, whether natural or synthetic, organic or inorganic, etc.  Different combinations of elements will exhibit not only different colors, but different behaviors.  Therefore, each pigment will behave a little differently from the next, depending on the elemental cocktail of which it is composed.

It is not necessary that you know a thing about the chemical formulas of your colors - only that each pigment has one, and will therefore handle differently because of it.

How a New Language Will Help You Identify the Color Characteristics of Your Pigments 

Now let's get into identifying how your colors act, i.e. defining their characteristics.  For this we will need a specific vocabulary.  Having the right words will not only help you notice and understand these characteristics, but it will also help you to use them to your advantage (rather than fighting against them or being surprised by them).  

The colors in your palette are really just tools of expression - the better you know how to use them, the more precisely you will be able to express yourself.  

Greenleaf & Blueberry Professional Handmade WatercolorsA color palette is not unlike a group of people, each with a unique set of quirks, behaviors, and traits that make up their personality.


Color Characteristics As Personality Traits

It can be helpful to think of color characteristics as personality traits.  Each color has a different combination of them, much like people.  You will soon recognize your favorite characteristics, as well as characteristics you find more challenging or less useful to your style of work.

As you become more aware of your colors' personalities, you will probably notice that you start to take that into account just as much (if not more so) than hue!

As you are learning these terms, it can even be helpful to personify your colors, using these terms as or equating them to personality traits.  For example: I equate flocculation to introversion and dispersion to extraversion.


Color Characteristics: The Vocabulary Of Chromatic Personality


The following are a selection of terms that cover a wide range of watercolor characteristics.  If you learn how to identify these characteristics, you will not only see your colors more accurately, but also understand the language of watercolor pigments.

Below, I define and explain the main watercolor characteristics, also providing a "nutshell" summary, "scale language" meaning how we describe these characteristics on our Overview of Pigments Chart, and the main watercolor techniques that are effected by these characteristics.



G&B MagentaHue Category: Red, Specifically Described: Magenta

G&B Quinoxalinedione YellowHue Category: Yellow, Specifically Described: Cool Yellow or Lemon Yellow

G&B MalachiteHue Category: Green, Specifically Described: Cool Green or Mint

G&B Ultramarine BlueHue Category: Blue, Specifically Described: Ultramarine


Hue refers to the appearance of a color - what a color looks like only, without further reference to chemistry or behavior.  Technically it is the more accurate word for 'color'.  It can be helpful to use hue categories (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Purple, Brown, Black) to start to describe a color, followed by temperature or color-leaning (for example: warm red or orange-red), followed by any other useful descriptors.

In A Nutshell:  Appearance of a color.

Scale Language:  Hue Categories: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Purple, Brown, Black, White

Main Techniques Effected: Color mixing, color matching, composition



G&B Phthalocyanine GreenHigh Chroma

G&B Green EarthLow Chroma

G&B Benzimidazolone Orange
High Chroma
G&B Orange Ochre
Low Chroma


Think of chroma as color purity or intensity, unhampered by black, grey, or white.  Colors can be described as 'high chroma' (intense, bright, or punchy) or 'low chroma' (dull, grey, muddy, or washed out).  Chroma is an inherent characteristic of a pigment.  It is an important factor to take into account when color mixing.  By adding Yellow Ochre (low chroma) to Phthalocyanine Green (high chroma), I can knock down the overall chroma of the mixture, thereby leaving you with a more earthy green for foliage.  By adding Ultramarine Blue to Vivianite, I can punch up the chroma.  

Chroma is different from (and often confused with) saturation.  Saturation is reduced when you dilute a color while chroma is not.  Again, chroma is about purity of color, or the absence of white or black from it.  If you dilute a high chroma color with water, the dilution will still be high chroma.  Whereas a low chroma color diluted will still be just as grey, but less diluted.

Often times, people can mistakenly conclude that they can make a color more intense by adding black, confusing "dark" with "chroma".  Similarly, people will add white to "brighten" a color, when they are really trying to punch up the chroma. Adding white will just give a color a more pastel effect, or make it more opaque.

Generally, synthetic pigments and the most prized natural pigments (Lapis Lazuli) are the highest chroma colors on the artist's palette.  Indeed, high chroma colors have historically been the holy grail for artists because they cannot be mixed while low chroma colors can.

This can be a confusing concept at first, so here is a hack:  If it looks like a color Lisa Frank would use, then it is high chroma.  If there is anything grey, earthy, or subdued about a color, it is lower chroma.

In A Nutshell: Color purity or the absence of black or white in the appearance of the pigment.

Scale Language: 
5: Very High Chroma (very intense pure color)
4: High Chroma (intense color, but either slightly greyed, washed out, or mixable with other colors)
3: Moderate Chroma
2: Low Chroma (very earthy colors that lean very brown or grey)
1: Very Low Chroma (grey, black, or white)

Main Techniques Effected: Color mixing, color matching, color composition


Transparency (& Opacity)

G&B Indanthrone BlueVery Transparent

G&B Quinoxalinedione YellowSemi-Transparent

G&B Yellow OchreModerately Transparent

Transparency refers to how easily you can see through a layer of paint to what is beneath it.  Different pigments are naturally more transparent than others.  This can be a confusing characteristic because watercolor is a medium that is almost by definition transparent.  So, the important factor here is degree of transparency.  Transparency can of course be adjusted by diluting with water (which is completely transparent), however that will effect saturation and hue (diluting a color has the effect of washing it out).

Understanding how transparent each color is will allow you to make informed decision about which colors are best for layering and glazing and which are best for coverage.

Opacity is the opposite of transparency.  As a color becomes less transparent it becomes more opaque.  Generally speaking, gouache is opaque watercolor, and degrees of opacity are measured, whereas in watercolor degrees of transparency are of greater interest.  It's a bit of a semantics issue, but can still shed light on a working understanding of the two terms.

In A Nutshell: Coverage.

Scale Language:
5: Very Transparent (line is clearly visible at all points)
4: Semi-Transparent (line is covered a small amount at most concentrated point)
3: Moderately Transparent (about a quarter of the line is covered)
2: Semi-Opaque (line is about half covered)
1: Very Opaque (most of the line is covered.)

Watercolors aren't assessed on a scale of completely transparent to completely opaque, because really no watercolor is completely opaque.  

Main Techniques Effected: Layering


Value Range

G&B Potter's GreenNarrow Value Range

G&B YInMn BlueModerate Value Range

G&B Dioxazine VioletWide Value Range


Value refers to light and dark, from white at the lightest to black at the darkest.  A watercolor with a wide value range will be black - or nearly so at its most concentrated.  Watercolors can all reach the lightest end of the value range since they are diluted with water, which is transparent, and generally painted onto white paper.  

You can more or less instantly determine if a color has a wide value range, just by looking at it dry in the pan.  Colors that appear black or very dark, will have the widest value range.  Think of a pan of paint as about 1,000 layers of that color painted at high concentration.

Noting a color's value range will help you make good selections for creating the lights and darks of your composition, and keep your colors looking the way you intend.  You can certainly add black to a color with a limited value range to make it darker, but you will be making a chroma sacrifice as well as it will grey considerably.  A color with a naturally wide value range will maintain much of its intensity at its most concentrated.

In A Nutshell: A color's range of darkest to lightest translated onto a greyscale.

Scale Language: 
5: Complete range (color reaches to very near black at mosts concentrated)
4: Near complete range (at most concentrated color is quite dark)
3: Moderate range
2: Very limited range 
1: No Range (whites)

Main Techniques Effected:  Color Mixing, layering, composition


Tinting Strength

G&B LimoniteLow Tinting Strength

G&B Violet HematiteModerate Tinting Strength

G&B Phthalocyanine Green
High Tinting Strength

When mixing colors, you'll find that some "take over" the mixture very quickly, after only adding a very little amount - this is a color with a high or intense tinting strength.  Colors that leave you feeling like you have to keep adding more and more and more to make any visible difference in the mixture have a low tinting strength.  Colors that have to be built up slowly in layers to get any kind of saturation have a low tinting strength, while colors that you feel like you constantly need to water down or lift out have an intense tinting strength.  

Tinting strength is different from how quickly a color re-wets.  It has more to do with a color's speed of buildability and how it acts in color mixtures.

In A Nutshell:  How quickly a color will overtake or become overtaken in a mix.

Scale Language: 
5: Very strong tinting strength (color will need to be diluted first for most applications)
4: Strong tinting strength (restraint needed when using it in mixtures or applying directly to paper)
3: Moderate tinting strength
2: Weak tinting strength
1: Very weak tinting strength (great care is needed to preserve these colors if using in a mixture)

Main Techniques Effected: Color mixing, washes



G&B Phthalocyanine CyanStaining

G&B Brown OchreSemi Staining

G&B Potter's PinkNon-Staining

Staining is about how likely a color is to stubbornly cling to your paper.  Just like substances on clothes, some are easier to wash away and remove than others.  When you lift the color back off of your paper, the degree to which the paper has been stained will indicate whether that color is staining.  A color that is very staining will be difficult to lift and will not leave white paper behind, while a color that is not very staining will lift easily and leave your paper mostly white after it has been removed.

In A Nutshell: How removable a color is from paper.

Scale Language: 
N: No, does not stain
S: Semi-staining
Y: Yes, it stains!

Main Techniques Effected: Lifting


Dispersion & Flocculation 

G&B Soot
Very Dispersing

G&B Yucatan Mayan Blue
Moderately Flocculating

G&B Magnetite
Very Flocculating

Dispersion and flocculation refer to how much the pigment particles of a color want to clump together (flocculate) or push away from one another (disperse).  When you touch a color to a pre-wet area on your paper and the color seems to burst away from your brush in all directions it is dispersing.  When you are trying to evenly spread a color and it seems like it just wants to cling to your brush like a reluctant child it is flocculating.  

You may prefer to use a color that has a greater tendency to disperse if you are painting a wash with a smooth gradation in color.  For fine details, or especially or exercising some control of brush strokes on wet or damp paper, you may want to work with a color that flocculates more. 

Many people simply expect watercolors to disperse, though many only do with the addition of ox gall, which many paintmakers add to their formulations to achieve this characteristic.  However, excessive or extreme dispersion can make colors difficult to control, and leave painters relying heavily on tedious lifting to make adjustments and achieve their desired look.

In A Nutshell: Tendency of a color to shoot away from the brush or stick to it.

Technical Description:  How naturally attracted or repelled pigment particles are.

Scale Language: 
5: Very flocculating (color clings to the brush)
4: Moderately flocculating (color is a little clingy, but ignorably so)
3: Not more one or the other (paint goes where you want it to without spreading or clinging)
2: Moderately dispersing (color gently and easily moves away from the brush)
1: Very dispersing (color bursts away from the brush when touched to wet paper)

Main Techniques Effected: Washes, wet-in-wet painting



G&B Chromite

G&B Pyrrole Red

A granulating color is one that expresses the appearance of texture or a patterned, mottled look, especially in washes, and especially on textured papers.  Granulation is usually (but not always) the result of a combination of a range of pigment particle sizes, textured paper, and a tendency to disperse.  

A granulating color can be a frustration if it comes as a surprise when you were hoping for a smooth, even application of color.  On the other hand, it can be a very desirable effect that you plan ahead to incorporate into your painting to achieve texture, atmosphere, depth, or interest.

In A Nutshell: The appearance of texture.

Scale Language: 
N: No granulation
S: Semi-granulating
Y: Yes, it granulates!

Main Techniques Effected: Washes, color mixing



G&B Violet Hematite

G&B Red Ochre

This is when a single pigment color expresses itself in a range of two or more hues.  It will appear as if you are using a mixture of pigments.  This effect is most pronounced in washes, where the color has a chance to spread out.  Our Violet Hematite is a color that variegates, expressing warm violet, tones of plum, and even brownish-red.

Intensely variegating single pigments are not very common.  If you enjoy this effect it can often be achieved through the application of a non-homogenized color mixture.

In A Nutshell:  A single color that has the appearance of more than one color.

Scale Language: 
N: No variegation
S: Semi-variegating
Y: Yes, it variegates!

Main Techniques Effected: Washes


Pigment Particle Size (& Texture) 
 G&B Celadonite
Narrow Range: Large Particles

G&B Meteorite
Wide Range

G&B Indanthrone BlueWide Range: Small Particles

Pigment particle size can have a huge impact both on a color's appearance and how it handles.  Some pigments have a narrow range, mostly containing larger pigment particles.  This creates a velvety matte texture on the paper you can both see and feel.  Larger particles are noticeable in Gravity Washes by a textured appearance (a little different from granulation) as they catch and then pile up on top of one another on the textured papers peaks of the paper as the paint runs downward. 

Some pigments have a narrow range of mostly smaller sized pigment particles, which is recognizable through more even coverage. 

Other pigments have a wide range of pigment particle sizes, and are recognizable in Gravity Washes through exhibiting effects of both above mentioned narrow ranges of large and small sizes.

This is a term that some people will use to describe the visual effect of granulation, however particle size and granulation are not directly correlated (as Ultramarine Blue & Chromite prove).  Colors with larger pigment particles will have a texture you can both see and feel (like very fine sand), and will have a more matte or velvety appearance on the paper.

Very generally, colors with finer particles are more staining (because they can more easily work their way down into the paper fibers), more dispersing, and have more even coverage, while colors with larger pigment particles can be more difficult to handle but have more unusual effects.

In A Nutshell:  Range of pigment particles sizes within one watercolor.

Scale Language: 
Narrow Range: Large Particles
Wide Range
Narrow Range: Small Pigment Particles

Main Techniques Effected: Washes, brushwork, fine details, lifting, opacity.


Color Characteristics Are Very Subjective 

There are absolutely no hard and fast rules about how to use these different characteristics, or what colors they apply to.  The most important thing is to learn what they are and how to recognize them so that you can make informed, intentional, and ultimately more creative decisions about how you paint with your colors.

Every color will have a different combination of these characteristics, each characteristic expressed differently on its range.

For example, Violet Hematite has a low chroma, moderate transparency, moderate-to-wide value range, intense tinting strength, is rather staining, disperses readily, a strong tendency to variegate, moderate-to-low granulation, and very little texture.  A whole cocktail of traits expressed at different places in their range.

Again, getting to know your colors is much like getting to know a person.  The more time with them the more you will learn their secrets.  

It is important to remember that these characteristics are highly subjective and relative.  Depending on which colors you are used to, you will assess things differently.  Two artists might have very different opinions on the same color!


Color Characteristics, Pigment Load, and Paint Quality Are All Very Different Factors

If you are used to using pigments with a high tinting strength and wide value range (like many synthetic pigments), you may mistake one with a low tinting strength and limited value range as inferior.  

Not fully understanding color characteristics can lead some to assume a color is of lower quality or low pigment content (this occurs more often when people accustomed to synthetic pigments are exposed to certain natural pigments for the first time).  

The truth is that colors with a high tinting strength and wide value range can carry much more filler without the end-user being aware!

Each of the characteristics listed in this post occurs on a spectrum and does not necessarily have anything to do with the quality or density of the pigment.  

So, how do you know if a color is "weak" because it has a low tinting strength or whether it is low quality or has been diluted with a filler?  By purchasing professional grade paints from a supplier you trust, you will be able to rely on receiving quality paints.  Also, take a look at the price - if it seems to good to be true, it probably is!  (Example: $10 "Lapis Lazuli" will either be very weak with lots of filler or mostly synthetic Ultramarine Blue.)


Using Different Paint Lines

Each paint line you encounter is formulated and designed a little differently.  Some are designed so that the colors act similarly and predictably.  Others (like ours) are designed to highlight the unique differences of each pigment.  There isn't necessarily a right or wrong approach, just options for each artist to decide which line and colors are the best fit for their practice.  However, if you come across a selection of different pigments that all seem to have the same handling characteristics, you can confidently assume there are a variety of different additives involved in directing their behavior.

 Greenleaf & Blueberry Professional Handmade Watercolors

How To Practice The Language Of Pigments?  Observation, Notes, Swatches.

These characteristics can only be of use to you if you understand how to recognize them, which is much easier if you can name each of them.  For that reason, I have created a free downloadable Quick Reference Guide for you to print out and keep handy while you learn.  (And it will save you the time of tracking down this post and scrolling through it.)

Once you have familiarized yourself with these terms, the most important thing for you to do is paint and observe.  Taking notes will help reinforce both the language and your powers to recognize each characteristic.  

Swatching your colors will help you isolate various characteristics for the sake of easier comparison.  Swatches are a sort of visual note-taking.  You can learn more about different kinds of paint swatches, how to paint them, and how to read them here.  There is a tutorial on how to paint the useful Combination Swatch that includes a free downloadable template here.  Adding handwritten notes to your swatches is best of all.

 G&B Quick Reference Guide

This is a lot of information, especially if you are new to the topic of color characteristics.  Try not to get overwhelmed!  Tackle one term at a time if that helps.  The best thing to do is just keep painting and develop an extra awareness.  Understanding characteristics is just another tool in your kit!


As always, wishing you happy painting!


Jess Greenleaf





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