How to use color thumbnails to change mood

Recently one of my students painted a nice watercolor seascape. Her reference photo was of a coastal scene at Port Macquarie, NSW, Australia. It was of a bright day and her original painting reflected this. However she wanted to change the mood of her painting and was not sure how to go about it. So I suggested that she creates a series of watercolor thumbnails to find the color combination that would provide the mood she was after.

Obviously there is a lot more to changing mood than just changing color, such as varying edges, adjusting areal perspective, even textural effects. However this is a simple way to make “a change” in the mood of your painting. For example,changing a sky color from blue to red or vice versa immediately alters the mood and feeling of your painting. I will write more about painting mood and how to change it, with other techniques, in future articles.

Reference photo

Port Macquarie coast. Photo my Michael Ng
Port Macquarie coast. Photo my Michael Ng

Original watercolor painting by Margaret Ng

Original watercolor seascape painting by Margaret Ng
Original watercolor seascape painting by Margaret Ng

After producing this painting, Margaret now wanted to paint the same scene but with a different mood.

Painting mood, color selection

Because she tended to put in too much detail when doing this type of exercise in the past I had her paint her 2” x 3” swatches with a large brush (size 16 round). This stopped her from getting too detailed and let her free up and play with various color combinations. Students usually find this exercise quite fun as they can play with the colors rather than getting bogged down in detail.

Below is a photo of the various color combinations she produced. As you can see the swatches are all quite small so she was able to fit quite a few on a quarter sheet of watercolor paper ( 14.5” x 10.5”).

Painting mood can be changed with color, watercolor swatches about 2" x 3"
Watercolor swatches about 2″ x 3″ Painting mood can be easily changed with colors.

After picking the color combination that best represented the mood Margaret was after (second from the right, top row) she did a larger sketch of the scene using these selected colors.

The image below is the result. This time she included more details. The bulk of the painting was done with a size 16 round brush with a good point. However for some of the details she used a size 8 round watercolor brush.

Seascape small watercolor sketch
Seascape small watercolor sketch 6″ x 4″

She was now able to confidently move on to her final painting. The result is the watercolor painting below which was a very good result.

You can apply this technique yourself anytime you are unsure of how to proceed with the colors for your painting.

When doing this exercise, it is important not to allow yourself to tighten up by using too small a brush. You are not trying to create tiny works of art but just looking for color combinations you can use in a larger finished artwork.

So next time you are stuck with what colors to use for a particular mood you are trying to achieve with your painting why not give this a  go.

Coastal Seascape watercolor painting by Margaret Ng, new color scheme
Coastal Seascape watercolor painting by Margaret Ng, new color scheme

Earth watercolors and color mixing

Using Earth Watercolors

The earth watercolors are already a mix of the three primary colors, however each leans a little towards one primary or secondary color. For instance, Burnt Sienna has a strong orange leaning, Raw Umber has a slight greenish tinge, Raw Sienna is a yellowish brown with a slight greenish tinge, while Yellow Ochre is obviously a Yellow with a slight red leaning.

Looking at these earth watercolors this way explains why French Ultramarine (primarily a blue) when mixed with Burnt Sienna ( Orange = Red(R) plus Yellow(Y)) gives you a beautiful dark color, almost a black at times, depending on the relative amount of each pigment mixed and the quantity of water used.

French Ultramarine + Burnt Sienna = (B + r) +(R + Y) = B+Y+R = Strong dark color.

French Ultramarine mixed with Burnt Sienna gives a strong dark color
Figure 6: French Ultramarine mixed with Burnt Sienna gives a strong dark color

French Ultramarine + Raw Umber = (B + r) +(Y + b) = B+Y+r = dull green color.

French Ultramarine mixed with Raw Umber gives a dull green color
Figure 7: French Ultramarine mixed with Raw Umber gives a dull green color

Full list of colors in my palette along with their color bias (leaning)

Here are the rest of the water colors in my Winsor and Newton palette for reference:

French Ultramarine: Warm blue =  B + r

Cobalt Blue: Almost a pure pigment not warm nor cool = B

Cerulean Blue: Cool blue = B+ y

Alizarin Crimson: Cool red =  R + b

Cadmium Red: Warm red = R + y

Cadmium Orange: Warm orange with a lot of yellow and some red = Y +  R

Cadmium Yellow Pale: Warm yellow color with a little red = Y + r

Aureolin: Cool yellow = Y + b

Cobalt Turquoise: acts like a cool greenish blue, has lot yellow in it = B + Y

Earth colors

The earth colors are more complicated as they already have some of each of the three primaries in them. Effectively they are already greys (colors made when you mix three primaries together) which lean towards one or more of the primaries. The indications after the equals sign ( = ) refer to the colors the brown leans towards.

Burnt Sienna: Orange brown earth color, can be treated as a dull orange = R + Y

Raw Umber: Slightly greenish brown earth color = b + y

Yellow Ochre: Warm Yellow earth color = Y + r

Hopefully this information about earth pigments and their component colors will help you to become more confident with your own color mixtures.

The watercolor color mixing formula

Color mixing

We can create a very simple formula from what was covered in the previous segment on color mixing, that will tell us whether we will end up with a dull (tertiary – three primary colors) or more pure color (secondary – two primary colors) from the mixture of two pigments.

If we mix French Ultramarine and Alizarin Crimson we get the following:

French Ultramarine + Alizarin Crimson = (B + r) + (R + b) = B + R = Clean mix

French Ultramarine plus Alizarin Crimson results in a bright secondary color
Figure 2: French Ultramarine plus Alizarin Crimson results in a bright secondary color

If on the other hand we mix French Ultramarine and Cad Red the result is:

French Ultramarine + Cadmium Red = (B + r) + (R + y) = B + R + y = Dull mix

French Ultramarine plus Cadmium Red results in a dull tertiary color
Figure 3: French Ultramarine plus Cadmium Red results in a dull tertiary color

It is the addition of this tiny bit of yellow in the mixture (the third primary color) which results in a more subdued purple, than the French Ultramarine and Alizarin Crimson mix. When looking at color mixtures I am leaving out any effect due to the relative transparency or opacity of the particular pigment.

Why is the color mixing formula important?

There are a number of key reasons why this is import.

Firstly, if you cannot predict just what color you will end up with when you mix two pigments together it will leave you a little uncertain and this will impact your work.

The second reason comes from the knowledge that the further away an object appears from you in a landscape then the duller the colors look due to the effect of atmosphere between you and the object you are viewing. Hence, by using this knowledge of color mixing you can easily mix duller paint combinations to correctly place your objects in the various landscape planes e.g. distant, middle distance and foreground.

Now obviously, one can learn which colors mixtures of your various pigments will produce by trial and error, but hopefully with this knowledge you will be able to take out the trial and error and much more quickly learn how to mix clean and pure or dull and grey colors at will.

It also means then you have a tool to better judge whether the addition of a new pigment to your pallet will add to the range of colors you can currently mix.

Time spent really looking at your pigments and analyzing just what their component colors are will save you a lot of confusion and frustration later on. It will also boost your confidence while painting and this will show through in your work.

By the way, pigments with the same name but from different manufacturers do not necessarily have the same component colors. For this reason the examples in this article only relate to Winsor and Newton artists quality watercolor paints. I had a student trying to mix a particular dull dark green color for which I used Raw Umber as a component it is a yellowish brown pigment with a very slight greenish tinge, but the brand of Raw Umber my student was using was more of a red brown in color so no wonder her green mixes leaned further towards the red than mine.

Here are a number of other mix formulas for your reference:

Cerulean Blue + Aureolin = (B + y) + (Y + b) = B + Y = Bright Mix

Cerulean Blue mixed with Aureolin results in a bright green color
Figure 4: Cerulean Blue mixed with Aureolin results in a bright green color

French Ultramarine + Aureolin = (B + r) + (Y + B) = B + Y + r = Dull Mix

French Ultramarine and Aureolin results in a dull green
Figure 5: French Ultramarine and Aureolin results in a dull green

In the final section we will look at the earth colors and see how the watercolor mixing formula applies to them.

Continue to: The Earth watercolors and color mixing

Color mixing formula, how to mix bright versus dull watercolor colors

Color mixing formula

All too often students find themselves wondering where a particular color has come from. They set out to create a bright green with a blue and yellow watercolors but they do not quite get the color mixture they were after. Instead of a bright green they end up with one which is quite dull. To help understand what is going on we will talk about what I can the color mixing formula.

The cause of this is often a lack of understanding of the impure colors which make up most of our primary color (Blue (B), Red (R) and Yellow (Y)) pigments. Most blues are not pure blues, and the same applies to the yellows and reds.

Before we investigate this further, we need to remember that if you mix blue, red, and yellow you should end up with a dull grey to black color depending on the proportions of each color mixed.

Color mixing formula.Mixing a Blue, Red and Yellow will give you a dull grey to black color depending on proportions of each color mixed
Figure 1: Mixing a Blue, Red and Yellow will give you a dull grey to black color depending on proportions of each color mixed.

So whenever these three colors come together in your mix of paints your resultant color will not look bright but will instead look a little dull. If only two primaries are mixed together then a bright secondary color will result – it is the addition of the third primary which dulls colors off.

So what do we mean by impure colors. Well, it means that the main color, such as the blue in the case of French Ultramarine, has tiny additional amounts of one or both of the remaining two primary colors, in the case of French Ultramarine it is a small amount of Red. This is why it is called a warm blue. Because of this the trick to predicting your resulting color from your mixes is not just to think of your colors as one (blue, yellow, red) but to look at them as their component parts. For example, French Ultramarine is a Blue (B) with a tiny bit of Red (r), Alizarin Crimson is a Red (R) with a tiny bit of Blue (b). Here I am using upper and lower case letters to reflect the relative quantities of each Primary in your typical.

This way of looking at colors however would apply to all brands of artist watercolor paints.

In the next section we will look at this color mixing formula in more detail to see how it can help us mix brighter or duller colors at will.

Continue to: The watercolor color mixing formula