Making Colours Pop – As Easy as 1, 2, 3

Making Colours Pop – As Easy as 1, 2, 3

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Do you look at other people’s watercolour sketches and wonder how their colours look so intense? So bright and clear? In short, how they POP?

It’s not hard to make colours shout out from the page with intense vibrancy. You just need to learn a few very simple tips.

People ask me a LOT how I make my colours so intense. They even ask what medium I’m using. I suspect they don’t associate strong colours with watercolour – but actually, if you use good-quality artists’ paints, you can get deep, vibrant and very intense colours with watercolour.

There are a lot of watercolour sketches that are drawn with competence, but are somewhat let down by weak, wishy-washy colours. It’s a pity, because it’s an issue that is SO easy to fix. So easy, in fact, that you’ll be able to really master the skill of making something look “real” out there on the street, with no need to touch up back home. In fact, it’s a very common misconception that you can take a photo and finish off painting away from your location. You can, but it won’t have that magic sense of “being there” that only comes from painting your subject directly.

I’m going to tell you how I make my subjects “pop” in three steps – it’s as easy as 1,2,3. Of course, I can only tell you how I paint, and strong colour is my style. You might prefer a more subtle look – pared-back isn’t really my style.

There’s a sort of personal story behind the mugs I painted in this tutorial. My parents had a beautiful apartment in the Russian Quarter of Nice, in the south of France, and my family and I holidayed there quite often over the years. We loved exploring the beautiful city and its beaches on sunny mornings and sweltering, lazy afternoons.

From the first time I went to Vieux Nice – the old part of the city – I was enchanted. I loved the narrow, twisted streets, the stalls selling pizza and ice cream, the shops with embroidered linens and lavender soaps outside, even the crowds. I came across L’atélier des Cigales on my first visit to Nice in 2008. It’s on the Rue de Collet in Vieux Nice, close to the Promenade des Anglais and the stony beach of the Baie des Anges. The owner is an attractive woman in her forties or fifties, voluptuous, with blonde hair piled up in an artfully-dishevelled way and huge, pretty brown eyes. Her name, I later discovered, was Agnès, and her shop is a cornucopia of beautiful pottery from the region, featuring cicadas, octopuses, flowers and olives.

On my second visit in 2010 I immediately fell for a blue mug with a cicada pattern on it. I bought it on impulse for my husband Marcel, even though I knew he prefers mugs that have parallel sides. He loved it, and used it every day for his wake-up tea in bed (he’s thoroughly spoiled), until one gloomy morning when he knocked it off his bedside table and it smashed. He fixed it, but not invisibly, and I decided to buy a replacement when I got the chance.

So I bought my next mug in 2014. It was dark brown, but no one really took to it. In 2016 I bought a lovely light green one, with myself in mind. “Thank you, honey,” said Marcel when I showed it to him. “I love it.” “Actually, it’s for me,” I said, as we both looked at the pile of nice things I’d bought myself, and the empty space where his pile should have been. I had no choice but to hand it over.

I determined to buy two mugs for myself the next time I was in Nice. I would have a yellow one and a red one. I rang Agnès to order them, but in true French style she was non-committal. “I never know what is going to arrive in a consignment, Madame,” she told me. “You just have to call in from time to time.” I explained that I lived abroad and didn’t get to Nice very often. In the end I rang so often that she would say, “Yes, I remember you,” but never had the colours I wanted. Then one day she told me she had a yellow mug and a red mug put aside for me.

In the summer of 2017, I made the most of what would be my last visit to Agnès’ shop. My parents sold their apartment in Nice, and I suspected my visits to the south of France were coming to a close. Agnès fetched the nugs she’d put aside for me, and I bought another blue one while I was there.

I’d always meant to paint my beautiful collection of Provençal mugs, and last week I did.

Painting and Photo of Provencal mugs, watercolour by Róisín Curé

So…if a painting doesn’t pop, why not? Here are three things to think of if you want vibrant results:

Step 1: LOOK at the subject closely, carefully and honestly.
Step 2: SQUINT so you can see lights and darks clearly.
Step 3: APPLY enough layers of paint.

In the following section. I will elaborate on what each of those subjects actually means, and by way of illustration I painted the mugs in stages. Where something is really important and applies across every painting you make, I will call it a Top Tip.

I chose a subject that has lots of colours, as different pigments behave differently, somewhat annoyingly! I will give you a run down of the colours used for each mug.

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