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?