Four Favorite Watercolors

The other day my beekeeper friend wrote a sidebar email to ask me “If you had to pick four favorite colors from your watercolor palette, what would they be?”

What a question (thank you!) – could I pick four?

I have two watercolor palettes. Both contain 24 colors but not exactly the same. The palette for large paintings leaves out what might be my favorites – because they have their own little ceramic bowl-like containers – the transparent triad: cobalt blue, aureolin (yellow), and rose madder genuine. Rose madder genuine I love best. It looks nearly black on the palette, but when wetted it releases a slight flower fragrance along with its unique pink hue.

Even when used full strength, transparents don’t give the oomph of staining pigments. So I have another triad – ultramarine blue, cadmium yellow (pale), and alizarin. Unforgiving – a mark with a staining pigment means commitment. They are strong-willed but vital. So are the Windsors – royal tones of green, purple, and red – clear and robust.

Then the cadmiums – the warm pigments you don’t want to accidentally put in your mouth or in your teacup – have opaqueness, making them seem thick and heavy. A sunflower calls for a variety of cadmium yellows – pale, medium, deep (it looks orange). The natural world needs their heft.

And I have to choose sap green, even though green isn’t my favorite to paint with, and I never use it alone – always adding a yellow or burnt sienna or umber or sepia.

You can mix a lot of colors, but some priceless ones you can’t – like a good green or cerulean blue, burnt sienna, ochre, or the so-valuable Payne’s gray, which supports all of watercolor’s color.

You avoid the threat of watercolor mud if you adapt Jeanne Dobie’s rule: never mix more than two colors. Another Dobie wisdom reminds that adjacent color makes a difference. The Dobie book I read often when learning is “Making Color Sing: Practical Lessons in Color and Design.”

If I choose by thinking of how the pigment behaves, asking which pigments I approach while thinking: “oh good I get to paint with ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­____,” cobalt blue stands out because it’s fun to pull the grainy texture across a page and watch what happens. Cadmium yellows hold out from the paper, and I brush them with pleasure. With pure and vibrant Winsor red, I must focus before I load the brush for tulips or an amaryllis or an apple. Perhaps flood water first and watch it disperse. Or not. Use it pure with abandon.

Permanent rose is beautiful – and so often flower petals seem already painted with it. A tiny bit of pure pigment at the end of a small brush pulled down with water makes a sweet pea petal. Once in a while a happy moment means cue the vermillion! Purest orange.

OK, four – I suppose the staining triad and sap green for a desert island – but could we negotiate for a few more?

8 thoughts on “Four Favorite Watercolors

  1. THANK YOU! I see now why that is such a hard question for you to answer.

    Green is Mean. It is such a necessary color yet seems to be the easiest for me to overwork. I can’t remember a watercolor with green that didn’t have at least one little overworked spot. I think “sap” is not the color description but more of a taunt.

    Rose madder is a favorite of mine as well although I confess to having never sniffed it…not even once. I bet I will today.

  2. I just got back from 3 weeks in Italy walking and painting. My new favorite green is pirulene (sp?) green. Was great for those vertical cypress in the hills of Tuscany. Never tried rose madder. You make me want to! Hugs. Carol

  3. Again I’m reminded how very much different watercolor painting is from oil painting. In oil paints the brand sometimes makes a huge difference in what colors become favorites. I have a favorite cerulean blue and a yellow ochre that I will only buy in one brand. I probably use more ultramarine blue and titanium white than any other colors. The cadmiums go a long way if you get brand with a good tinting strength. What I sometimes miss with oils is the transparency that comes with watercolor, and the light from the paper underneath. Color is wonderful in any medium. Hurray for color!

    • I love this pigment/color dialogue! I was trying to not to product endorse, but admit to being a total purist with my watercolors – they are all Winsor & Newton. It might be my familiarity with their behavior, it might be their long history and tradition. I like to think about Winston Churchill and Vanessa Bell having the same choices! Oh, and that rose madder has to be rose madder genuine which is sometimes in short supply because of limited world-wide madder root! Thanks to all you paintbrush we weilders (now there is another topic!).

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