Color Curriculum

Color Diary

By Carolyn Payzant

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist – Volume 16, Issue 2


H ere is a trick question. When I ask, what is the personality of the pigments yellow or blue or red? I am sure many of you will respond happiness, serenity, and danger. As a watercolorist, perhaps your answer should have been: how do specific pigments interact with another. Let’s say that you have 10 friends (are you lucky or are you lucky!). There is no way you can treat any two of them the same: some are sweet, some kind, and some tough as nails. Each has a different life experience before becoming your friend. The same goes for pigments.  

Now let’s do an experiment. I know this one is extreme and you may think you are wasting paint. I assure you that you won’t. This experiment is a perfect example of what you should learn/know about all of the pigments on your palette. You will also discover why I recommend that you find your own personal palette; a palette that you know like family and dear friends. 

Let’s talk a bit about starting a Color Diary (CD). You all should have a CD and use it daily. Your CD should be created on acid free watercolor – WC - paper identical to what you normally use for a final painting. Keep pages in a 3-ring binder or you can have WC papers professionally bound in a spiral binder (services available at Kinko’s and other repro companies). Bring acid free watercolor papers you want them to bind so you get exactly the surfaces you want. 

Now let’s get started. As you complete each step please make careful observations and write down these observations on the acid free paper. You’ll need a clean palette, cerulean blue, lemon yellow, distilled water, two paint brushes (be sure to use your normal brushes that are old and won’t hold a point), and a CD.  

On opposite sides of a clean palette squeeze a dab of cerulean blue (CB) and lemon yellow (LY). Carefully add water to each until you get a creamy consistency. Don’t accidently mix the two together. Clean your brush thoroughly between colors. Now, note, which took more water to get to that creamy state? Write down the approximate amount. These puddles will eventually dry to a pigment skin that is – as you will find out - great to work with. 

Now for the fun of it, with two brushes, quickly (please don’t play with these pigments – let them interact naturally) make an X in your CD – one arm CB and the other LY. What happened when these wet paints met? Write down your observations. 

If your pigments have dried to a pigment skin carefully rewet to your original creamy consistency and paint a perfect 1x2” gradient wash in CB and then LY. What is the difference between the two? Write down your observations.  

Wash and dry your palette.  

Squeeze a nice size dab of LY onto your cleaned palette and bring this dab to the creamy stage. In a far corner of the palette squeeze a dab of undiluted CB.  

With the tip of your brush pick up a tiny bit of CB and thoroughly mix this bit into the creamy texture. In your CD paint a perfect 1x2” gradient wash. Do these exercises over and over until you have washes from pure LY to pure CB.  

This is your first exercise in your Color Diary. You will have about 15 to 20 different shades of flocculating green. Now, you can have fun and experiment with other colors, so that your CD is a standing reference on how you mix color.