Selection of colours in a painting is dictated by the method of working. Colour can be realistic, adhering to nature as closely as possible; or it can be subjective, with the artist using a colour that feels right at that time.

Some watercolour books contain entire chapters on colour - its use, mixing, combinations and applications to specific situations. Several aspects of colour have special interests to the watercolourist.

Water-colour dries lighter and should therefore be applied a bit more boldly than other paints. Adding this ‘extra’ bit of intensity is called ‘charging’ the colour.

Often it is done by brushing colour into a wet colour area of the painting, giving it a chromatic boost. Wet a few squares and flow light washes into them, and then charge with intense colour, Mingle the colours but don’t overwork them. Overlaid washes often result in fascinating colour changes.

A colour can be, if it grayed too intense, by putting a complementary colour over it, or by mixing the two in the pallette. Don’t use black to tone down intensity. Many artists never use black in their pallette, preferring to make darker colours by mixing. Black in student colours, often has an opaque look and tends to seem foreign to the rest of the colours.

Most inexpensive colours are rather uninteresting in themselves, and need to be mixed to get satisfying results. This knowledge only comes from practice and experimentation with your set of colours.

Muddy colours result from over work (too many washes), from scrubbing (using the brush too much) or from using the more opaque colours. Such areas can be helped or saved by lifting some shape or line out of the area with sponge or a stiff brush.

Basic theory of colour

When I began painting as a student I bought the usual paint box with twelve colours. Whilst I was using small brushes it was fairly satisfactory. I soon found, as I began to paint more boldey using larger brushes that the paint box became completely inadequate.

I couldn’t get enough output from a student paint box or rich enough mixtures. The palettes attached to the boxes were also too small so I soon moved on to tubes, and a larger pallette to go with them, which gave me a complete new freedom.

The next vexed question is the difference between the very best and expensive artists’ quality paints, which most books insist you to buy, and the cheaper students’ quality ranges. So many people have the idea that the cheaper quality paints would somehow fade away.

Manufacturers, who of course make both ranges, say if you keep the permanent colours, they would both last equally long. The main difference in the two ranges is the time taken to grind a colour and, of course, some of the more expensive pigments in the artist’s quality are replaced by reliable modern substitutes.

The most important thing is to buy from a reputed internationally known firm as it is unlikely that such a manufacturer would ruin their name by selling poor quality fugitive paint. Let me say emphatically that I have nothing whatever against using artist’s quality colour except for that initial inhibiting factor which prevents so many people from actually squeezing out enough paint.

However superb the quality is if it’s not doing any good in the tube, use artist’s colours by all means. However, I do enjoy using my colours with complete abandon and love squeezing out plenty of paint, sometimes using it almost neat on wet paper to get exciting soft, rich reflects.

However, there’s no magic selections of colours. Whenever I paint the secret is to cut the number of colours down to the bone and then learn to mix instinctively, allowing the main part of your concentration to be devoted to solving the problems of the subject in front of you, not wondering which of your four yellows or three blues to use.

This is similar to your behaviour when driving a car your whole attention is devoted to the road ahead but at the first sight of danger your foot instinctively shoots to the right pedal without any thought on your part. Having said all that, I am still going to give you my own personal choice of colours, whether in a rainy or misty or hot sunny day.

Raw sienna

It’s an earth colour made from mineral oxides found in natural soil and is one of the oldest pigments known. Artists have used it throughout history. It looks a bit like yellow ochre but I prefer it because it’s more transparent. I use it in all sorts of mixtures and I feel it helps me to get a sort of unity in my paintings.

Ultramarine blue

I do, and stick faithfully to my ultramarine which is a permanent, warm, intense, blue with excellent working properties. Mixed with Burnt umber it gives a very wide range of greys by varying the proportions of each.

Burnt umber

This is a permanent earth brown, on the cool side. Again it is an earth colour.The only other colour which can be added to this brown is burnt sienna.

Light red

This is another earth colour and is extremely permanent. A sort of brick red which mixes with Raw Sienna to produce a lovely terracotta for tiles. With Ultramarine it makes a subtle mauve which is excellent for warm shadows.

Lemon yellow

This is a straight down to the middle yellow, slightly on the cool side and is again permanent.


Green range from nearly blue right through to near yellow. There are cool greens and warm rich greens. The first thing, before you even start to mix paint, is learn to compare the various greens with each other.

Most Artists including myself, work better with a limited number of colours. One soon gets to know them intimately and to know instinctively how they react with each other, rather like having a few true friends as opposed to many acquaintances.

Observe the painting titled ‘a sunny day’ I have done with limited number of colours. Mainly I have used green throughout the picture. Light and dark greens keep the eye moving back in the picture towards the focal point (the hut).

Every thing the sun hits becomes warmer and more intense in colour, whereas objects in shadow are correspondingly cool.

Note the white light reflecting on the hut. The joy of watercolour painting is that the white of the paper can play an expressive part the idea of leaving areas of the paper untouched.

Tissa Hewavitarane

Wednesday, 12 March 2008