Monday, December 26, 2011

Watercolor Memories

Early in my grade school years, I got a 100 Colour watercolor set for Christmas. I don’t remember who brought it, Santa or my Dad or either set of grandparents or one of a large group of aunts or uncles. It came from the UK and may have been made by Reeves. The hinged-lid tin, an actual metal paintbox, carried a jolly cartoon scene of a circus with elephants and other animals and a little British flag. It spelled Colour fancier than Americans did, something that charmed me. It seemed more artistic to paint with Water Colours than ordinary watercolor.

Inside, as advertised on the tin lid, it had 100 colours in small rectangular hollows about half the size of half pans. Some of them were opaque. Sea Green, one of my favorites, blazed out of its pan. They were organized by hue systematically although at first glance it had gaps because at least a third of them looked black in the pan. The glorious brush was a size 2 or 3 or 4 round with a beautiful point. I think it was decent quality synthetic rather than cheap sable because it didn't shed like the cheap sable brushes and held its point.

I could not understand how the brush makers had managed to make all the hairs curve inward toward the point instead of turning this way and that. It didnt wobble on the handle. It didn't shed. Most of the brushes I had then shedded as much as my cat, usually right on the painting. Somewhere that tweezing the hair out would wreck an important detail like an eye.

Many of the colors had pigment names. That was also my "Swallow the Dictionary" stage of life so I memorized Raw and Burnt Umber, Raw and Burnt Sienna, looked them up in the encyclopedia and found out that pigments changed color when roasted. Also that “Dirt ground fine” was one of the main ingredients in paint and people would travel across several countries to find red dirt or green dirt.

I learned the difference between Vermilion and Viridian even if it took most of a year to be able to remember which was blue-green and which red-orange when I wasn't home to check the set. I’d write down my best guess during the school day when I thought of it, spell them right and check my beloved tin as soon as I got home.

I learned that Magenta wasn't just beautiful but essential. The color wheel mixtures worked if I used that for my choice of red. I learned that Sea Green was opaque while the "black" looking pans were very transparent colors. I learned that Alizarin Crimson used strong was exactly the color of those deep red roses I thought were so cool and could never paint properly. I learned that Ultramarine made violet with either of those and the blue-greens didn’t. I discovered Payne’s Grey was the color of storm clouds and giggled at the name.

I think back now and my joy wasn't just that my giant British monster set had 100 Colours. It taught me a lot more than I realized. I thought of it as silly for years, but writing about it now, that jolly tin with the elephants on it taught me so much about painting in any wet medium.

I also think that set was why I didn't give up on watercolor. All normal kid sets were immensely frustrating. Paper cockled, blunt annoying brushes couldn't get detail or work small and controlled, transparency stumped me, mud resulted even from simple two-color mixes. Opaque colors and white let me add light colored details after the dark areas dried completely. Combining them in the same set was brilliant on the part of that UK manufacturer. Up till then, I’d never even seen white paint in a watercolor set.

Between my good 100 Colour monster set and fine waterproof pen lines, I solved the problem of getting accuracy in watercolor by combining it with pen drawing. My dad gave me a Crowquill pen early on and eventually a real Rapidograph pen size 00 along with India ink that came in a bottle, dried waterproof and stained anything pure black. Once I looked at 19th century engravings and botanicals, I got hooked on pen and watercolor. Most of the giant 100 color set went into attempts at realism because I was small and had no interest in Modern Art whatsoever.

Today I can start out with a primary triad and produce a good painting. Back when my age was a single digit number, trying to do that resulted in unsatisfying browns and murky grays. I didn’t understand that sometimes gray grapes with brown leaves can be beautiful. That took much later practice and study.

I also got an actual wirebound watercolor pad with that lovely tin. It vanished rapidly even though I painted on the backs of ugly paintings. It cockled less and was wonderful to work on. I think that’s also where I got set in the habit of liking the sizing instead of stretching watercolor paper.

The last thing that gorgeous watercolor tin taught me was how to take care of pan watercolors. Up to that point I’d treated watercolor sets as badly as any kid. Lids broke and got cracked, colors mixed together inextricably, brushes got lost, I used them until they were unusable and then begged for pocket change until I could get another. The tin was special. It came from far away. It had colors that couldn’t be replaced even with birthday money. Sets with 16 colors were much more useful than the 8 color cheap sets with their orange cast reds but the grand British tin was something I’d never see again. When the Sea Green was gone, I’d never be able to use it again.

It took some practice to be able to clean out a pan watercolor set well enough that the staining colors scrubbed out of the palette surface and the spaces between the pans weren’t filled with mud. I paid attention to rinsing out the beautiful pointed round brush and for a long time carefully threaded it back into the little clear protective tube that slid over the hairs. I washed off the lid too, got everything as close to perfect as I could because that made it easier to use.

In the middle of one of the best holiday seasons I’ve had in my life, with a long holiday call to my family, art supply presents sent back and forth, surprise gifts from friends and a humble but incredibly self indulgent holiday feast eaten with pure laziness, something reminded me of that perfect gift. I left behind my full range set of 72 Derwent Inktense when I moved. I finally spent some birthday money on a bundle with a 12 color tin of Inktense and a big multimedia journal after checking that yes, Magenta was included along with Violet.

A friend of mine surprise gifted me with the 72 color full range tin again. I opened the package with no idea what it was and that giant tin was even more special than ever. I feel the way I did when I first tore off the wrapping paper and saw my "100 Colours Watercolour Tin." Maybe it's "Big range, British, Fancy, In A Nice Tin" that's always led to an explosion of creativity!

My friend knew how I felt about big ranges. She knew how often I use Inktense pencils in my journal and how much I love vivid, strong transparent colors. Her gift was completely unexpected, just like the 100 Colours UK Elephant Set was and it expanded my vision just as much again.

If large ranges confuse you, relax about it. They’re freedom to experiment. Each pigment or mixed-pigment convenience color reacts a little differently in texture and mixtures, it might be more opaque or make brighter oranges or greens or violets. It might mute them while creating fun effects when another that’s exactly the same hue gives no granulation.

I’m able to create a good painting with a primary color triad now that I’m grown. Having a big set lets me do that with a wider variety of primaries to choose from, or even work with a secondary triad and have few or no pure primaries anywhere in the painting. The example pen and wash pieces at the top of this article were done with a tiny 8 color pocket set I put together with Daniel Smith favorites.

As you rest up from the holidays, play with your new toys and digest all those treat foods, say hello to your favorite mediums. Try something you haven’t done before or choose a different combination from the biggest set you have. It’s one of the best ways to feel like a kid again - in a way that makes you a far better grown artist.

Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Work and Play

Here's the quote from Harley Brown that inspired this entire essay.

At the start of my adult life, I felt like I was thrown into the middle of a lake and had to swim for shore. Any shore. No time to worry if people liked me or my art; or if what I was doing was "worthy." I'll tell you why:

There were two things I knew for sure: I wanted to be a full time artist for the rest of my life. And I didn't want to "work" for a living. Whatever else has happened, I've stuck to those very goals. Yet, I really don't give myself a pat on the back; there are many who've worked as hard but had tougher obstacles to overcome. Many of them, my heroes.

In retrospect, I did what I did with a naive young mind that didn't, (thankfully,) understand the Real World. I still don't understand the real world. Thankfully. Harley Brown”

Gee, that’s familiar. His words are different, but I could swear that came out of my old spiel when I worked as a street artist in New Orleans. I’d grin at the tourists and say “I used to work hard at a real job in Chicago, then I moved down here and decided I’d rather play all day and paint. Would you believe it? I eat better and I’ve got more actual luxury than when I was living on ten times as much, because I’m not blowing it all shopping in order to get over the stress.”

What happened to that attitude? What happened to that feeling that left me so crushed I literally didn’t want to draw or paint at all until 2004 when I decided I might enjoy it again if I kept it strictly a hobby?

I fell down and I couldn’t get up. I walked too far dragging too much stuff because I didn’t understand that all physical activity takes me five times the body energy. I moved too far from my setup spot. I dreamed of getting an electric golf cart or something as a convenience when that literally would have saved my career.

I also fell down emotionally the very first day that I had no sales at all. Up to that point, street art was self reinforcing. I trusted that I would get at least one or two sales every day I got out there. I could budget anything I wanted by how many days I wanted to work, versus stay home and do something else including loaf around. (Read, sick days that I thought I was just being lazy.)

This week I made a very minor mistake that brought up that big realistic fear - that if I don’t do this right, I will get back on the Boom and Bust cycle. Do my best, fall down flat and be unable to continue. As well as so burned out I don’t even want to draw a cat gesture for years.

Thursday my prints rack arrived. I got excited and overestimated how much I could do. I was so excited about having my license and everything I need to go out and do street art that I was also trying to get several days worth of preparation done by morning and then get a full night’s sleep. I got all worked up about it, Thrills and Chills, adrenaline can be read either as excitement or fear.

Well, when it's a mix of excitement and fear when both have good sound reasons, that can get a bit stressful. Stress + Fibromyalgia = Sick Day.

Instead of a full night’s sleep, I was too stressed to sleep at all and went to bed at six in the morning only to get up at nine in the morning unable to sleep. I didn't cut any mats because resting till I felt up to getting up, I stayed up too late to get it done and still sleep that night. So I had to call it off and reschedule. No deadline now. I'll go out when I have everything done.

Instead of my glorious debut on the Street Artist Program, I had a lousy sick day in which I did nothing but sit around fielding panic attacks over everything that could go wrong. Then writing an email to a friend and deleting it over and over for eight hours.

Doing that solved the problem. I did not bother sending her the 30,000 word long version. I needed to pretend that my sensible friend would read it in order to be "thinking it through from another person's point of view."

This is a comeback trail from the biggest failure of my life - something that I threw everything I had into getting past the obstacles and keeping it afloat. I was happy in that job but I hit too many crises and bang, down I went. I have spent all the years since then figuring out why I couldn't keep doing it.

I left out one of the big reasons. Stress + Fibromyalgia = Sick Days. Art does not sell on Sick Days. Or on stressful unhappy worried days. Street art sells best when I am happy to be there, thrilled to see a customer, delighted with my project, overflowing with real contentment. My art is happy and has affectionate undertones. My portraits, while not flattering in any technical sense are emotionally flattering. I look at the subject positively to bring out the best in their personality, so they come out looking good with every wrinkle and wart because those became lovable.

I have to actually feel like being with people and painting, even if what I'm selling isn't portraits.

I didn't take morale into account. Street Art was self reinforcing. Instant Cash doing something that's legal and fun, goofing off instead of actually working and being paid for it, what's not to love? That's a daily reward. If I got even one sale, walking away with more money than I went out with made me happy and made me want to do it again. Because I got that money for nothing. I did not need to suffer for it. I didn't have to Care About The Money. I wasn't doing it just to Plod Through a Hated Day Job.

I was goofing off having fun and getting paid.

Then I sold art to people who by their circumstances have up to a year's spending money in hand that is now budgeted for Have Fun and Goof Off. We are on the same wavelength, me and the tourists.

Half the natives I knew in New Orleans grumbled about "God, I hate tourists.” They always ask directions and assume you know, they don't dress or act the way you do. Heck, they're on vacation having fun while you're stuck working for a living and then they demand your time. Oh and they're rude too. (Some of that is "They're not from here and their idea of Polite does not match yours.")

I met a few annoying people but I didn't categorize all Tourists as Rude. Most of them were nice to me. They at least complimented my art. They looked at me like I was a tourist attraction same as the famous churchyard where duels took place. Fair enough, that's what I was doing! This was great and I loved them. It took genuine extreme bad mood behavior for me to dislike a tourist.

I didn't get mad at "Where is the Cafe du Monde?" when it was right over there in sight from where I was standing. They never saw it before. That's a reasonable question. Not everyone's eyesight is good enough to read a sign from half a block away.

Then came the summer bad season, when I had a hard time making my nut - earning out my necessities at the top of the month. Summers were when I had zero sales days. Some summers I didn't have many because I still had that morale. I blew it off as “well, this is the off season and I have to get out more days to earn enough to make it.” I just didn't get much beyond necessity and had to physically overwork in order to make it.

The year it started to take off, when my art was getting into galleries and I'd already put two years on the waiting list for an "A" license, I had a personal crisis with a family member. It knocked me back hard with fibromyalgia symptoms. I had too many sick days, so I was reduced to "force myself to go" on bad days during tourist season. Every time I got a zero sales day, it was harder to make myself get up and go. By the time summer came, I could not earn enough during the month to survive.

I moved farther away from my setup to have cheaper rent because I had less money. So I was putting in extra physical effort to get out and work with less joy in it every time after that crisis. I took in annoying roommates in order to survive because I wasn’t earning enough to live by myself. I didn’t have the physical energy to clean my apartment and got in fights with those roommates about housecleaning, when they included slobs.

Annoying things that had been tolerable, that I'd blown off as no big deal, became overwhelming depression. That became a vicious cycle. If anything bad happened, that day turned into a zero sales day. I was running on the edge in terms of physical energy and financial survival and I was way over the edge in terms of emotional resilience.

Friday was when I sorted all that out and figured out what happened.

I have figured things out like this before. I used to be able to live within my budget whatever it was, but never able to save up money either in general or to get something big that I couldn't afford on one paycheck or windfall. I solved that when I was living with Kitten in a practical way. I decided I wasn't going to buy any Terry Pratchett books - my favorite author - unless I put $50 into savings first. If I did, I could go to Amazon and buy a book with what, under $10 of my spending money?

The game worked. I lost my savings to using it for crises several times and would like to save up to the point where a crisis doesn't obliterate it. I'd like to have some savings beyond the "for emergencies" level. An arbitrary reward system does it.

I might not have been gradually demoralized by bad days or bad customers if I could have counted on a self set reward every single day that I had the will power to get up, grab my stuff and go do it. The natural rewards of "I get to paint in the pretty place" are real too but if I'm hurting for money, fear overshadows that simple pleasure. I have to make any no-sale days that are just Plein Air on the Wharf worth doing and play the averages between "good days" and "bad days" loading it for success.

Literally the happier I am, the better my art is and the more customers buy it. There's something beyond just selling in an art career. Every sale is a thrill, a reaffirmation that “I’m an artist.” I'm sharing that thrill. Tourists who do something else for a living and did not spend years learning how to draw or paint have met a real artist. They saw me start from a blank piece of paper and create a beautiful artwork from scratch the way a master does anything well. They came into my studio. If they ever had any fantasy of learning to paint and asked questions, they became art students on the spot and got a lesson with their painting.

We, me and my client, are both enjoying ourselves in that moment. A warm human memory is going home with them along with the beautiful painting, which has an emotional undertone of "I love doing this and you are so awesome, you have great taste for spotting how cool this painting is. You bought real art instead of just going to the mall, so you're refined and sensible. This is real value, not junk. Also, you have talent. Keep sketching. Remember how I did that trick with the eye highlight. You will draw that well someday too whether it’s for fun or you want my job someday. The more the merrier."

All the good reasons why people buy art, from the fantasy of "I might have just got a pre-famous Van Gogh" to "God, that was fun" associate with something that's already beautiful in its own right. It’s a place or a face that they love. All my happiness in the process goes into the color harmonies and shape choices and what details I chose to focus on whether I’m conscious of that or not. So it’s a face or a place they love seen at its best on a good day. No wonder they fall in love! They were already in love!

I've never been able to do a Hard Sell, to put the money first. That's antithetical to why I'd rather paint and write than work. I can't "Close the sale" when a customer's not sure. I take no for an answer, that doesn’t work for selling insurance or encyclopedias or anything else I tried in pure sales jobs.

What I can do is a soft sell letting the real beauty and my real good mood turn into reality. They fell in love and when they get home it's still the painting they love, so they're happy. They got good value for what they paid and had a happy experience. I think sometimes I made their vacation, sent them off in a good mood that made the fancy seafood dinner taste better and the music at the blues bar more fun.

I have to care about the experience more than whether that customer buys or someone else does, trusting that if I'm having a good time someone will buy. A lot of times people want to and don't have the money. They went to a bar last night or they bought something in the shops first. They dithered and wished, wandered off and didn't come back. I didn't resent that. Heck, sometimes they rebudgeted and came back.

Putting those two things together, I’m going to manage my morale as much as my time and body energy. The “conditional self reward” system of Terry Pratchett books for savings worked. So I’m going to choose something small that I want to enjoy very often. It should be something I won’t get bored with.

So when I go out to sell art, I’ll budget five dollars for something from the convenience store. They have donuts and breakfast pastry, fruits, corn dogs, genuine Mexican Flan with Caramel Sauce in a little dessert cup, food treats. I can choose to stick the five bucks in my pocket if I’d rather eat hot oatmeal before going down and don’t feel like convenience food, that might stack up to pocket savings of another $10 Pratchett book.

Instead of making the treats specific, I’ll just budget some lunch money as a self reward. It also means that if I get hungry while I’m out there, a snack from a vendor on the spot to stay happy and have something to eat when I’m starting to get sick from hunger makes a sale later on a lot more likely. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt to also brown-bag it. If my sales even match what I did during the off season, they will become an important income stream to fund websites and self publishing and art supplies and business. If I like a restaurant down near the area I might save up my treats to eat out whether I sell or not.

I used to reward myself for good days by eating out before going home. I think that’s a good idea too. When I celebrated making my nut, I worked a little harder to get ahead. I did that as early as I could during the month so that I’d have the choice of either working harder for something big I wanted, or staying home to work on things that don’t pay as fast.

I honestly don’t know if I’ll “make my nut” within a month of starting the Street Artist program. It’s unlikely unless I count it by smaller goals. The first “made my nut” goal is “My license renewal is in the bank.” That’s minimal success for this season. Next level: business expenses and savings for contingencies at stepped levels. Then “a month’s rent in the bank,” and “rent plus bills in the bank” and eventually reaching the $2,000 maximum savings allowed by Social Security.

That is as much cushion as I can put between my leap to self employment and phoning up to quit my day job. It’s good for two months of minimal rent and expenses. Then either I’m making enough to live on every month and take the plunge, or I maintain that savings more or less around that level and keep throwing it into the business till I do earn enough to live on.

There are plenty of things I can invest in. A giclee printer and archival inks and paper, so I’ve got prints sales supplementing originals. Websites with affiliate links. Having my novels edited professionally before sending them to publishers or self publishing - a worthwhile expense either way.

I’ll decide the next milestones as I reach them, because I don’t know the details of my path to self employment. I’ll just keep moving in that direction until I get there and continue rewarding myself for every small achievement along the way. That will keep me going when the going gets tough and remind me why I love this lifestyle, why I’m goofing off for money instead of just going to work like a normal person.

When it’s a job instead of a hobby, that kind of planning and maintenance is one of my tasks. I enjoy it though. Deciding what I’m going to do always gives me a sense of empowerment.

I always plan for the worst case and the best case. Reality usually comes out somewhere in between. What could go wrong in the best case? I could earn so much that I’m bang, off Social Security in the first month I do it having to deal with working out my taxes and withholding and recalculating and changing my life in a major way without being sure if that level of sales will continue.

If I want to be sensible, I’ll pay attention to the seasons and make sure to have $2,000 in the bank. That’s either two months of so sick I can’t do anything or tap it to make up the difference in slow times and restore it as soon as things are better. Loans to self are repaid at a level with immediate business expenses like getting more mat board or more paper when I run out.

Whatever I’m doing, whether it’s keeping up a Nanowrimo word count or cleaning my room or building my self employment, getting ahead makes me want to do more of it. Catching up if I’m behind is emotionally hard and emotions affect this job. So getting ahead and rewarding myself tangibly for every step toward getting ahead will be my best shot at my year-goal.

I want to be self employed again in 2012. I don’t have to be over the poverty line, that’s another milestone and will take some planning to be able to get medical coverage. In that time I don’t want to worry about rent, food, bills or business expenses. That’s the big goal. It’s not minimal. What’s minimal on the Big Goal is “Closer to it than I am now.”

I need to know this market and its seasons. I need to learn my pace in this better climate, how many physical effort days I can do in a month with the rollator, later with a power chair. I need to find out how to pace a week and develop habits that let me get a full night’s sleep the night before an outing.

Yeah, I’m scared. It takes more effort to get up and go on a comeback trail than it does to tear off into a new adventure that might be wonderful. That’s okay though. If what I wanted was to never worry about paying the rent and bills again, I’d hang it up. I’d donate all my paintings to various charities and any proceeds of any of my books and just live on SSI doing whatever I wanted.

That’s okay though. Thrills and chills are both adrenaline and moving around burns that into activity instead of backfiring as aches. By the time I get off the short bus at the lottery spot, I’ll be ready. This is going to be awesome!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Art Journals and Paint Charts

Art journals, especially on watercolor or multi-media paper, serve a greater purpose than just chronicling your life and creating an artwork that's a compilation. They do that too. They are to painting what sketchbooks are to drawing. With wet media, they're also useful as a concrete record of what your exact supplies do.

When you set out to do a serious painting, you'll be able to flip through your old watercolor journals or multimedia journals and decide whether you want to use acrylics thinned down till they behave like watercolor, opaque watercolor aka gouache, transparent watercolors, watercolor pencils. Anything you've ever tried, you can get a good idea how it's going to behave in your art journal.

Beyond that, devote some pages to charting any new paints you get. My examples are in watercolor. I tend to purchase a lot of different watercolors. Daniel Smith is always tempting me with new triads, then I see something else on sale, a friend gives me a present, funny how it mounts up. It doesn't help that I came to painting out of doing pastels and colored pencils when it really does matter to have a green exactly one step yellower and one step lighter and one step duller than the last one. Or three different greens that go in each of those directions.

With paint, you have a lot more freedom for what to work with. You can even start with three tubes of good artist grade watercolor and get a great result just with that. Wow! Hey! Watercolor's the way to go then, right? Lots cheaper! You don't even need white if you're using white paper and being purist about it.

If you do this, the colors to start with are Permanent Rose (or some other magenta sort of purplish bright red), Lemon Yellow and Ultramarine Blue. You definitely want Ultramarine Blue because that is the workhorse pigment. Ultramarine Blue mysteriously gets used up fastest out of all the watercolors I've ever bought. In pan sets, that's always the little half-pan that empties out first and gets refilled most often.

Those exact three colors by name from Winsor & Newton will give you a good three-color starting set. Add Winsor Yellow (or Hansa Yellow Medium if it's Daniel Smith), Scarlet Lake and Pthalo Blue Green Shade and you have a wonderful Split Primary Palette that will let you mix all the bright colors there are as well as any grays or browns. These are the exact colors listed by Winsor & Newton in their very useful guides to paints and pigments on, a site that has an enormous amount of information on painting.

But whether you go there or get the Daniel Smith Primary Triad or a Holbein starter set or any other brand, the first thing to do with your new watercolors is to chart them. Just like the image below.

Actually, since you haven't been collecting watercolors for years and testing them routinely, chart them a little more thoroughly than that. These are working charts, just the brand and color name. I'm familiar with all of these pigments since that little eight color set is something I threw together recently in my art journal. It's a reminder of the specific colors I chose to put into a little 8 color pocket set that I pried out the children's paint from to have something that fits on a keychain.

I've got my Split Primaries, Sodalite Genuine because it's a mineral pigment about the color of Payne's Grey that I like for both monochrome sketching and as a cool darkener, and Quinacridone Gold, which is just useful. I could have substituted it for the Indian Yellow since it is a warm (orange cast) yellow when it's thin. But I decided I wanted the Indian Yellow in too. It gives me a bit more variety in mixtures to have three yellows, that's a personal choice based on the pigment qualities.

A thorough, first-time beginner's color chart should be sorted out with a lot more written detail. It helps to use a Pigma Micron or some other waterproof, permanent archival pen so that the information doesn't get obscured or smudged if paint goes over the labels and so that the whole chart remains easy to read years later when you go flipping through old journals for where you wrote that down.

Also, if you're a total beginner, don't bother with the cheap student paint at all. Definitely get good artist grade paints and settle for fewer colors. It's more important to learn to mix the colors you want. Not only that, cheaper student watercolors don't always mix well or predictably. You can be trying to make something work, do it right, get horrible results and think it's you when it's poor quality paint that's why it didn't come out looking like the example in the book.

Pigments behave in different ways. Let's go back to that basic color wheel thing you got in kindergarten, or at least I did. You start with yellow, red and blue. Your teacher merrily says "Mix red and blue to get purple." You do it with kid paint and get gray, because the kid paint has an orange-cast red and a green-cast blue so that mixes up to a mixture of all three primary colors. Most of the kids just do what they're told. You being a young artistic genius glower at the results and complain to the teacher that it's gray, not purple. She says it's the pigments.

"Then how come we didn't get the right pigments to have it come out the way you explained?"

"These are just children's paints. Those are the colors they come in. You could mix a little purple into it if you wanted to get it more purplish."

"Then why couldn't I use the purple in the first place?"

I was that kind of kid. Trust me. If you use Winsor & Newton Permanent Rose plus French Ultramarine, you will get a nice strong purple suitable for irises, shadows under trees, that lady in a purple dress, anything you want to use purple in. When you're painting landscapes, a good strong purple is your friend because bright lemon-and-blue greens look horrible without it.

Lemon Yellow is your greenish yellow. Pthalo Blue Green Shade is your greenish blue. Mix those and you will get anything from eye-popping lime on down to eye-popping turquoise. When you want the colors bright, choose the primaries closest to each other on the split primary color wheel. When you want them more muted, as in the greens of pine trees or sagebrush or wilting lettuce or lawns that have not been kept up as if a landscape service was involved with daily sprinkling, use the primaries that include a little of the third color.

Indian Yellow and Ultramarine Blue make a pretty nice foliage green range, one that doesn't scream "Pokemon" to those viewing the painting.

So, that's your hues. The ones to start with anyway. You can expand this to having Warm and Cool versions of the secondary colors too - a yellowish orange plus reddish orange, a red-purple and a blue-purple, a blue-green and a yellow-green. That gives you loads of possibilities and will result in many more pure spectrum tone possibilities. You can do the bright full saturated spectrum type of painting with a 12 color warm-cool palette in any medium.

When you want neutrals and muted colors, you have the choice of single pigment paints that aren't as spectrum-bright in themselves, like the Earths. Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre, Indian Red, these are all earth pigments. So is Sodalite Genuine, which is a single pigment color. Payne's Grey makes a lovely "blue" for an Earths Triad but it's a mix of black and Ultramarine. However, when I have a mineral that's actually that blue-black to begin with, I have fewer pigments in my mixtures.

That means less mud.

That's why it's a great thing to have the 48 color Lukas 1862 half pans set or the 70+ tubes of Daniel Smith that I collected as well as everything else. I don't use all those colors in the same painting. I choose what's going into the painting I'm doing by exactly how each of those pigments or combination paints behaves in mixtures and on the type of paper I'm using.

This can make "materials study" a lifetime hobby in itself. Or you can wind up choosing a half dozen or a dozen good paints and know them to the core and never bother with anything else or any brand but your favorite. Artists vary. I started in pastels and colored pencils so I'm a pigments collector.

Make your chart by drawing a line with a Pigma Micron or some other completely waterproof, permanent pen across the page. A Sharpie is another good pen for this, just let it dry thoroughly so it won't be smudged.

Look at the information on the paint tube. Get out a magnifier to read the small print and if necessary look up all the abbreviations on the manufacturer's website. Artist grade paint should list the pigment or pigments in that color, whatever the color name is, whether it's Opaque, Semi-Opaque, Semi-Transparent or Transparent and how lightfast it is. You would probably like at least your best paintings to last for centuries in museums, so choose good lightfast colors in the first place.

The original Alizarin Crimson is not artist grade lightfastness. It has a slightly different hue (actual color) than Permanent Alizarin Crimson, which is an extremely transparent purplish red.

Looking at almost any standard 12 color pan set, you'll probably get Burnt Sienna and Yellow Ochre in there along with a dark brown. Burnt Umber is common for the dark brown, sometimes it's Raw Umber. The exact colors of these paints will vary with the manufacturer. But the first thing you'll notice with these Earth Colors in your brand-new 12 color field box of most artist grade brands is that they're opaque watercolors.

That is, they are opaque for transparent watercolor. If you want Really Opaque watercolor, go for Gouache. When you put the light colored or white Gouache over that black line, you can't see it. The white is like White-Out unlike the semi-opaque or semi-transparent Chinese White or Titanium Whites. If you try either of those, you'll find they are only opaque pure from the tube. Add any water and they start to show the black line through them.

You can still tint them with any of the other colors to get light colors.

Most of the acrylic colors are transaparent. Everything about Opacity, the Opaque through Transparent range, applies to acrylics, oils, every other paint medium as well as watercolors. So if you're kitting up in acrylics, do the same thing with the swatches but also buy some Titanium White, same with oils or any other paint, because you don't get the light colors without mixing some white with them. In fact, gouache is a good start for learning color theory and painting in general.


Messing with transparency is a pain! Learning to control transparent watercolor is the least forgiving, most difficult, most hair-pulling drive you to distraction insanity of any wet medium. However, it has these distinct advantages.

It's cheap compared to oils and most other paints. It's portable and compact. It doesn't take stinking up your house or having a lot of special mediums handy unless you start getting into special effects. It has a longer learning curve but it's also just darn handy, and any frustration you had with it as a child (all these things apply including "Your mom can clean it up just with water!") will give you an enormous soaring feeling of mastery once you can get it to come out the way you want it to. As an adult, or as a very well taught older child if you had good teachers or good supplies and online access.

I'd have killed to be able to paint that scene when I was a kid. You know what my kid paintings look like, you probably did some.

So. Back to charting your paints. Here's an example of a thorough chart. On the top are swatches of the same eight colors organized the way I would if I'd just bought them. Below are combinations of all three yellows with both blues and the blue-black Sodalite to make greens.

The stripe of black under the swatches will give you opacity. Now you're going to let it dry and take a wet brush and try to scrub out part of the stripe that's over the white part. I'm going to do the complete, decent version to test the eight pigments in my itty bitty kit as an example, but you should do this in a permanent record for every paint that you buy. Keep in mind that pigments come from different sources. The chemical ones get made in different batches with proprietary formulas and methods. The mineral ones get dug up in different parts of the world. They get milled to different sizes. The exact binder - what gums (usually gum arabic) and other ingredients (they can include things like honey) will affect how the pigments behave. The only way you can tell how your paint will act is to chart your paint.

Mark the brand along with the color name over each swatch too. Or at the top of the chart if all your colors are the same brand, as they are here.

Make the swatches long enough to give space to scrub out a patch on each of them and to fade out the test sample with more water toward the end. This group of colors includes Transparent and Semi-Transparent color, since I like having transparent colors for use with pen sketching. But if I went to a larger range, I'd probably have Raw Sienna or Yellow Ochre for an opaque earth red, might look for an opaque blue and Burnt Sienna, Indian Red or English red for an opaque earth red.

I have only one outright Staining color in this palette, Pthalo Blue Green Shade. I like being able to correct what I'm doing. Staining colors are rich and luminous. They give beautiful effects. Alizarin Crimson in either Permanent or original form is a staining color. You can have loads of fun washing it out of your cat's white feet when he runs through the palette of your oil paints leaving him three sky blue feet and one hot pink foot, the way I did back in New Orleans during an oil painting. If a pigment stains, it will stain in any medium.

This can be a very good thing if you want those stains not to move when you glaze other paints over them. Whatever the qualities of a given pigment, there are good uses for all of them. Problems come in when you wanted something smooth looking and the paint granulated, or you wanted a glaze but used a staining color, or you wanted transparency and the Yellow Ochre happened to be opaque. This palette is mostly non-staining, transparent or semi-transparent and I chose it for use over pen drawings as well as painting by itself. For other types of paintings I'd use other pigments.

You'll also notice that I have two different notes on "granulation." Daniel Smith lists Quinacridone Gold as a granulating color. Funny, it seemed pretty smooth to me on this paper, compared to how the Sodalite granulates. That's where your home tests really matter. I put "Except Thin" under it because for all I know, if I was using it from the tube instead of from a dried pan, it would granulate more. But these tests aren't from the tube, they're from the little palette with the dried patches. If I was charting these from the tube, the swatches might look different.

Definitely if I wanted to play with more opaque colors, I'd go for some Cadmiums. The thing about Cadmium Yellow through Orange and Red in their various incarnations is that the real ones are quite opaque, as opaque as transparent watercolor ever gets. In their time they were the strongest, brightest reds and yellows you could find too, they made a huge impact on a painting world that didn't have those screaming orange and yellow and red hues.

Today's Cadmium hues range from semi-transparent to transparent. I have yet to find one that's as aggressive in mixing or as opaque as the real Cadmiums. How you can tell if a color's aggressive is in the mixing. This is sometimes called tinting strength and isn't always listed on the tube. It's something you find out when you put one drop each of those colors together and let them mingle.

Pthalo Blue has an insanely high tinting strength. All three of the Pthalo Blue mixes I created look a bit stronger and darker because the blue was so strong. Even when I tried to use just a little dab with lots of yellow, I sometimes had to put more of the yellow in - like the top with the Quinacridone Gold, that odd effect is that I put more Quinacridone Gold in on the left while the patch was still wet.

Compare that with how the Sodalite or the Ultramarine reacted with those same yellows. I've basically got three yellows, three blues and two reds in that set. I might section off the middle with some dabs of glue to add two or three more color dots, if I do I might add a yellow earth and a red earth color to have three Earths for a muted palette.

If I wanted to put in a green neon sign in a cityscape, I might want that bright combination of Hansa Yellow and Pthalo Blue. But if I wanted sagebrush, I might use all three yellows and the Sodalite to have a nice variety of muted greens. When I want browns, I might add a bit of either red to those green mixtures.

You can do the same kind of paint charting with casein, oils, acrylics, any other kind of paint you have. If you are using student quality paints, the charts become even more important because that's how you can identify where mixtures don't come out the way you expected. A color can look like a perfect mid-blue to the eye and have enough yellow in it to give you a nasty surprise when you mix it with what looked like a mid-red.

Sometimes you want those muted colors. Very often landscape painters avoid using the purple-cast reds and lemon yellows so that the whole painting doesn't come out screaming bright neon green. Greens can be overwhelming in large areas. It can be a lot of fun to try different primary triads, or even substitute a black for the blue as in the Zorn Palette and other red-yellow-black primary palettes.

One fun exercise to do is create a simple still life or landscape scene from a good photo, one object or one tree, paint it small, and then using the same subject, redo it in several different color harmonies. Try this. It's one of the fun things you can do to make your art journal a good permanent reference for how your paints behave. Then when you're out there in the field doing a Spring Landscape Morning After Ice Storm, you'll be able to mix your colors with confidence and know which colors to bring in the first place when you glance out the window.

The other big advantage of watercolor journaling is the same one that daily sketching gives you. Paint small and often. Try everything and write copious notes in the text around the little paintings. I learned drawing first, that's just my particular path along the learning curve. You might decide you want to learn to draw by painting and keep a wet journal going right alongside your sketch journal, or do all your sketching in watercolor and gradually learn form, line, value, composition and all those things with a brush before you bother to pick up a stick to make marks with.

A good balance of both can be had by using watercolor pencils in a multi-media or watercolor journal, along with a waterbrush like the Niji, Sakura or Derwent waterbrushes. I've mentioned these before. They make watercolor sketching very easy and you can use your pencils like they were pan watercolors. Or just scribble out patches of pure color on the side of the page and treat those as pans, that's one way some artists avoid having to carry a paint set. Just put in the swatches before going out and bring the waterbrush.

When you do, chart them. Many watercolor pencils lean toward being opaque colors or semi-transparent instead of very transparent - they still function as colored pencils. The swatch tests over black will help you understand how they'll behave when you layer light color over dark. Glazes of pure color building up your darks can create a gorgeous, luminous effect. Transparent colors won't obscure your pen lines as much either. While you're at it, test the pens you have by dragging a wet brush over them to see if they dissolve, how much and what color the ink is when it's shaded out. Sometimes using watersoluble pens and a brush can give a lovely look too.

The cat sketches in my first illustration were done with a roller ball pen that I thought was waterproof. It wasn't. The soft brown that I mixed with Quinacridone Gold, a little Quinacridone Fuchsia and a touch of Ultramarine turned into a very grayish brown after I dragged color from the pen lines in. So I tried the pen without the paint and got a pretty good wash just with water. That's the sort of thing that I'm glad I discovered in a little cat study than if I was doing a street scene that I wanted to have bright colored elements standing out.

Have fun with it, paint often and do systematic tests of all your paints. That saves a lot of headaches in big paintings and it can give you all sorts of serendipitous results. Black and yellow do usually make some variety of olive green and when what you need is a good olive green, that's a reason to have some version of black in your paint box.

That was another kindergarten discovery, one that same harried teacher had no way to explain at the time. She couldn't explain why the blue, violet, black and green pans looked black in some watercolor sets and looked their real color in others. I know the difference now, it's called "Masstone" and refers to how the paint looks when it's laid on quite thick. Paint is fun. The best way to learn it is to chart the paints you have and then test them in various combinations and small paintings till your favorites start to emerge.