Watercolor Characteristics is a subject that could be the love-child of Psychology and Geology. A perfect blend of the sciences of the mind and the Earth. Each color is not only a tool for your creative expression, but also possesses a history, chemistry, personality, and set of tendencies all its own. If you want your watercolor palette to be your friend and ally on your journey of expression, it makes sense to take some time to get to know and understand each individual color it contains.
Personification of the colors inside your watercolor palette is a natural extension of understanding your tools and learning painting technique. It’s also really fun. (And can be taken to some delightfully eccentric extremes.) It’s half science, half art- and just a pinch of whimsey.
There are certain technical terms by which colors can be characterized, described, and differentiated. However, it is important to remember that these descriptors are reasonably subjective and difficult to quantify universally. Every artist is a unique individual, with different experiences, preferences, styles, levels of expertise, etc. These terms can simply give you a basic language by which to better get to know your colors.
Now… I’m going to warn you: this is going to be a little geeky. But just remember- geeky is just another word for awesome.
Watercolor Characteristics: A Glossary of Terms
The following terms are a way of generally describing the visible result of the physical characteristics of the pigments in your watercolor palette. Pigment particle size and refraction and reflection of light play a huge role in perceived color behavior. For getting acquainted, it’s only important that you understand these underlying forces are in play and at work- you can save the nitty gritty for later.
Transparency- Refers to the coverage of the paint. Watercolor is a medium that is almost by definition transparent. Paint layers can be seen through. The more you can see through the layer of color, the more transparent it is.
Opacity- The opposite of transparency. If a color is opaque then you cannot see through that paint layer to anything beneath it.
Understanding Transparency vs. Opacity will help guide you in deciding which techniques are suitable to use for which color. A color that is opaque may not be the best choice to layer over another color, but it could be a perfect base color over which a more transparent color may be layered. (The technique of purposeful layering of colors is called ‘glazing’. It is an excellent way to make you make the colors on your paper appear to glow, and it is also another way of color mixing.)
Value Range- A color’s span, from most concentrated to most diluted translated in terms of black and white. If a watercolor at its most intense resembles black, it has a wide value range. (This is because nearly all watercolors can be thinned and diluted to the point of nearly complete transparency. Water, your diluent, is transparent and your paper is (almost always) white. So, the lightest end of the value range- white- is a given attainability for any watercolor.) Think of value range like the color equivalent of a gray scale: a gradation starting with black, going through each shade of gray in increasing lightness until you reach white. Value equivalency in terms of a color can be easier to discern if you squint your eyes. If you have a pair of 3-D glasses, look through just the red side and try to notice lights and darks instead of colors. Determining value is just about recognizing lights and darks. It can help to think about taking a black and white photograph. Only value is recorded- not color. Once you learn to take value into account when painting, a new realm of possibilities opens up for crafting your compositions.
Tinting Strength- Think of this in terms of color mixing intensity. There are some colors that you have to keep adding and adding when mixing- they just seem to get swallowed up. Then there are other colors of which you only need the smallest amount to influence your color mixture. The difference here is tinting strength. Do not confuse this with how easily a color re-wets when you first sit down to paint. Some colors, such as Green Earth, take a moment to rewet and also have a very low tinting strength, while others, such as Shungite, can take some effort to rewet, but are quite powerful once you get them going. Understanding tinting strength can aid you in making informed color mixing decisions, and also help to avoid going too dark to quick in your painting.
Staining- Closely intertwined with the technique of lifting, the equivalent of erasing when using watercolor. (Your brush functions much like a straw- pigment can be either sucked up or deposited. Lifting refers to the former action.) After a color has been lifted, it can leave a stain on your paper, depending on the color. Whether or not a color can be lifted largely depends on the size of the pigment particles. The smaller the pigment particles, the more likely they are to work themselves down into the fibers of your paper, making them, in some cases, exceedingly difficult to lift, thereby resulting in a stain. Taking this characteristic into account can allow you to use the white of your paper as a color in the painting. For example, dancing light on the water, the shine of an eye or on a piece of fruit, a fog settling on a mountain valley. If you have used a staining color, it will be difficult to return to white. (This can of course be combatted by the initial use of frisket or applying white gouache after.)
Granulation- Refers to the visual appearance of texture- not the physical. This can have a correlation to pigment particle size as well. When there is a range of sizes of pigment particles, they have a tendency to settle over and into the little hills and valleys on your paper, and in doing so distribute themselves by size. Different sized particles can have slightly different representations of color- usually the finer the particle the lighter the version of the color. This is particularly noticeable in Azurite: the larger the particle, the deeper and more intense the blue. Flocculation shares a similar appearance with granulation, but the reason is different: paint particles, like other objects, can become electrically charged and have a tendency to clump together, thereby causing the appearance of granulation. For this reason, a color that does not naturally granulate can appear to.
Texture- Refers to the tactile quality of your paint layer. Here again, pigment particle size comes into play. The larger the pigment particles, the more you will notice a physical texture in your painting- it is a quality you can both touch and see. Think of sandpaper: there are different grits available depending on the size of grains of sand. Texture can visibly resemble granulation. Both are tied to the particle size of the pigment. Also, both of these terms are often used interchangeably. The term ‘texture’, especially in art and painting, is often used to describe only the visual appearance of a tactile quality on a surface. In watercolor, granulation covers that base, so ‘texture’ is used in a much more literal way.
Variegation- Describes an amount of different perceived colors visible in one color (or pigment). Some colors can manifest themselves in multifaceted (multicolored) ways, which can be surprising and even unpredictable initially. This is a useful quality to be aware of ahead of time, as opposed to trying out a new color in a painting and getting side-blinded. Again here we are dealing with pigment particle size. Different particle sizes of the same pigment can not only appear different in value range, but also in color. Epidote is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Epidote is a pistachio-green mineral. When ground coarsely, it is predictably the same lovely green. However, the finer it is ground, the more it resembles a swampy-brown. Often a single watercolor paint contains an assortment of different particle sizes of the same pigment. When used in a painting, a single pigment can manifest itself as several different colors.
Chroma- Refers to the overall appearance of a color and its position on the color wheel in relation to the center (brown) and its value range. ‘Bright’ vs. ‘dull’ would be a very crude way of describing high chroma colors vs. low. Think here in terms of contrasting Impressionist paintings versus those from the Renaissance. A Van Gogh vs. a Raphael. Bright, robust colors were center stage in Impressionist painting, while value range was the tool used to highlight color in the Renaissance. This is partly because of developments in pigment technology. The discovery and availability of cadmiums and ultramarine blue blew the possibilities wide open and ushered in a new era in painting. Previously, the precious higher chroma colors on the Renaissance palette, such as Lapis Lazuli (the natural form of ultramarine) and Cinnabar (the natural form of Vermillion), had to be savored and used sparingly, and thus were often incorporated into the focal point of a composition. Incidentally, this is why the Virgin Mary was so often depicted wrapped in blue: Lapis Lazuli was (and still is) more expensive and gold.
Beyond Personality Traits: Making Friends
You have just learned six terms to serve as a common language between artist and paint box. These terms will assist you in contrasting your colors with one another and learning in what ways each one is capable of expressing itself. The more you become aware of these color characteristics, the more unique each color will reveal itself to be. And the more they will become your friends, personalities gradually being revealed, and new potentials discovered.
For me, I like to think of my palette of colors as something of a motley crew. A rogue band of strange and eccentric pirates corralled on a pocket-sized art ship, always at the ready to accompany me on adventures and assist in pulling images from the place of dreams to a reality on a piece of paper. (Or to go marauding, though I don’t do much of that.)
Indeed, I did warn you that eccentric extremes could be a result of getting to know your watercolors. But this is a useful form of whimsey, and should therefore be encouraged.
Just like getting to know people, intimacy doesn’t happen all at once. There are several exercises that help, such as painting your own color chart, creating a mixing chart, and also making formal color swatches. In addition to making color swatches, taking notes can also be helpful because it makes you think in critical terms about the differences between both individual colors and their characteristics.
[The tools of painting tangled with the gear of rock climbing after a day spent in the desert.]
Creating Your Own Color Characteristics Chart
Now, because nobody likes homework, I have designed a complete printable color swatch table with characteristics gauges- no notes necessary. Filling out one of these tables is certainly out there in its own realm of geekery, but I promise- it’s a fun place to be. And it is a super useful tool, not only to make, but also to then have at your disposal as a reference tool.
What you will need:
Printable Color Characteristics Chart- (Available in our Etsy shop, or you can make your own!) Arches Cold Pressed 90lb. Watercolor Paper is an excellent choice (for either route). Any brand will do, but I recommend using a cold pressed paper for the texture. When printing: just make sure to cut your paper to 8.5″ x 11″ if it isn’t already and set your printer on a black and white or grayscale print setting. When making one yourself: make sure to use a black waterproof ink (brand recommended below).
Watercolor Paints- You don’t need to own all of the Greenleaf & Blueberry paints, or even any particular brand to complete this chart. Just use what you have!
Swatch Brush- I use a Silver Brush Black Velvet 1/4″ Flat Watercolor Brush. It is a blend of squirrel hair and synthetic bristles. It is absorbent and lays the colors down nicely. However, you don’t have to use this brush. I would recommend at least using a flat, bright, or wash brush (rectangular brush shapes), but the brush you have is a brush that works!
Lifting Brush- I use a Princeton Summit 6100 Series size 4 Bright Brush. This brush features white synthetic sable bristles and is designed for acrylic painting, but it is my favorite brush to use for lifting. Again, you do not have to use this brush. The important thing to look for in a lifting brush is something that is stiff, while still being somewhat absorbent. Run your finger along the brush tip; it should feel like a cat’s tongue. The function of this brush is to remove the paint from the surface of your paper through abrasion and the absorptive (straw-like) action of the bristles.
Water and Water Container- Tap water in a mason jar is my go-to.
Paper Towels- For dabbing and cleaning your brushes.
Pencil and eraser- I’m a sucker for Blackwing pencils, always. Again, any pencil and eraser will due. This is for marking your initial notches on the characteristics gauges.
Black Ink Pen, waterproof, permanent- I recommend using the Sakura Identipen. It is waterproof, permanent, and has two different sized tips.
Ruler or Straight Edge- I find a clear gridded ruler most useful; it helps with positioning and stays flat against the page, as opposed to cork-backed rulers which leave a space at the edge. The one I use is by Art Alternatives.
Pad of Paper for Notes (optional)- I have found it useful to take notes as I work. There are a lot of details to take into account, and you can have little breakthroughs as you pause to write and reflect for a moment.
This chart is reasonably self-explanatory, so feel free to approach it any way you wish. The below instructions are recommended guidelines for getting an accurate representation of your colors. Please also keep in mind that this exercise has a moderate amount of subjectivity due to the fact that there are so many variables at work. Your conclusions will likely vary from mine and that’s okay. This is about creating a personal learning and assessment base. Your answers are correct because they are yours.
1.) The naked chart. Print (or create the layout for) your chart. For paper and ink suggestions, please reference above.
2.) Paint your swatches. Paint out each color swatch, one at a time, using the swatch brush. The color concentration should move from left to right, most intense to most diluted. The swatch in no way has to be completed in one swoosh. Feel free to ‘paint’ it. It takes some time to pile up a color to its most intense, some attention and restraint to keep it light and diluted, and then also some work to keep the gradation even. Be patient with yourself. Wait for all colors to dry before moving on to the next step.
3.) Draw your Line Over. Once all of the colors are dry, grab your ruler and Identipen and connect the triangles that you notice on each side of each row with a straight line. These lines will be parallel to the ones already printed in each row that are now beneath each color swatch. The line that you draw will go across and over the top of the color swatches. The purpose of this line is to be able to compare it to the initial printed one. It will help in determining the transparency vs. opacity of each color.
4.) The lifted line. Take up your lifting brush and ruler. Use the diamond shapes this time to guide your ruler placement (again, parallel to the initial printed line) and lift along the ruler, using it as a guide. First wet your lifting brush and then dab it on the paper towel. Keep cleaning the lifting brush to get as accurate a sense as possible as to the liftability of each color. This is where you will gather your information about staining. Again, wait for everything to dry before moving on.
5.) Assess the color characteristics. First use a pencil to go through and mark the gauges of each characteristic. I suggest you assess each characteristic at a time instead of going color by color. Once finished, grab the Identipen again and notch in your final color characteristic assessments. It is helpful to go through the entire process of assessing again, making your final decisions with the pen. You will likely draw conclusions that vary slightly from your original ones. Erase any wayward pencil marks.
Voilà! A handy reference tool has been created, and you have a set of paints with which you are now more acquainted.
Just keep in my through all of this formal-sounding talk of watercolor characteristics that the main point here is to better get to know your tools- not only to improve your painting skills, but also, and more importantly, to increase your enjoyment of creating. As more facets and details are revealed, there is more for your creative process to revel in as you work.
As always, many thanks for being here and wishing you happy painting!!