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The first watercolours I used for urban sketching were by Winsor & Newton, a set of 24 Cotman colours. Since then, a lot of water – and colour – has flowed under the bridge. I have been through many watercolours, and I still get very excited when a new set arrives.
I would like to share with you the watercolours I use at the moment, and how I use them.
An urban sketching set of watercolours is not the same as one meant for “plein air” or landscape painting. As an urban sketcher you’ll find yourself needing psychedelic colours that just don’t occur in nature. I wish I’d known that when I started out.
(Note: If you’re looking for information on how colours behave, their technical properties such as transparency or lightfastness and so on, then I’m not the person to come to. I am less watercolour artist and more colour-in artist…)
I love using lots of pretty colours, and a quick glance through my sketchbooks will tell you that I love areas of pure, clean colour. Red, yellow, pink, lime, turquoise, jade. Intense colour. Art I love is always full of bright colour – vintage posters from the early 20th century, tropical scenes by the post-impressionists, Japanese prints, contemporary illustration.
So let’s get down to it – the watercolours I use today!
I use Schmincke and Daniel Smith with occasional watercolours by Winsor & Newton if I particularly like them. About a year ago I switched from half pans to watercolours in tubes, which I use to refill empty pans. I use a lot of paint, and I get much better value out of tubes of watercolour than a pan. It works just as well as a pan of dried paint. The wet paints dry nicely if I squeeze it in in a few layers and put it somewhere warm. In fact, I use a bread oven that my husband and I built into our chimney when we were building our house. You’d get the same result putting the paintbox into an oven at its lowest setting for an hour or so.
So what does my paint chart look like? Here are my watercolours in a swatch:
And how do my beautiful watercolours look in use?
I’ve chosen a few sketches from the past year which demonstrate some of my colours very well, and I’ve added colour notes to them to help you refer back to my paint chart easily.
1. Yellow, red and indigo
To achieve a clear, flat yellow, the first step is to use hansa yellow medium by Daniel Smith. I make sure to have lots of variation in the amount of water I use: less or even none near highlighted areas, and more layers where the yellow is away from the light. But I don’t stop there. When it is dry, I add a touch of yellow ochre in the darker areas, and where real shadows are cast, I apply a bold layer of indigo. (It makes it easier if you draw the line of the shadow first.)
The scarlet in the bag is unmixed here, which is unusual for me, as large flat areas of red applied meat make me uneasy. I am happier to mix in a little chrome orange or transparent pyrrol orange with red if it’s a larger area. It adds interest.
You’ll see that I used indigo for the black areas (like on the little coffee menu) and for any dark shadows. It was a happy accident that yellow and navy look so good together!
2. Fresh greens, orange, browns and blue
I really liked the combination of bright colours in this scene. However, I exaggerated them slightly because I preferred them that way – I always try to “turn up the volume” on colour.
For the green, I mixed lemon yellow with phthalo green for the lighter part of the boat, replacing lemon yellow with hansa yellow as the green darkened a bit. The base was done with the addition of olive green, which has been ejected from my paintbox for the moment, but the green apatite would do just as well. Remember, I’m not going for an exact representation.
The orange of the rib is a really good example of how I use a variety of colour where in reality there is none. I wanted to convey the intense orangeness of the rubber dinghy, so I exaggerated the contrast of lights and darks on the boat – transparent pyrrol orange at the bottom, lightening to chrome orange above. Indigo for the (black) seats made a lovely contrast.
I used ultramarine for the second rib: I could have done with a deeper shade of blue at the bottom of the boat. I haven’t tried delft blue yet but I think it might be a good halfway point between indigo and ultramarine.
I used yellow ochre for the heavily varnished wood at the top of the yacht, and Venetian red did the trick for the darker parts that were not highlighted.
This sketch is a great example of how indigo can be used on its own, to suggest shadow etc., depending on how many layers you put down. I couldn’t resist putting the shocking pink buoy in the scene too.
4. Ultramarine, Venetian red and yellow ochre
This simple sketch of some ceramics is a nice example of how ultramarine is sometimes the only blue that will do. I find if I am painting anything ceramic, ultramarine fits the bill nicely = perhaps because it reflects the original blue colour in “China” of old.
Yellow ochre works well here for the cork lids and for any wooden elements. A second layer with less water deepens the wood timbre.
I used Venetian red for the rich terracotta bases of the pots – I can’t think of a better option for this.
5. Yellow ochre, burnt umber, opera rose, chrome orange, lime green, acid yellow, transparent pyrrol orange
The most useful set of colours for last! To paint skin tones effectively you need to become familiar with browns. I chose to paint some olive-skinned holidaymakers on the beach. Sun on wet skin makes areas of bright white highlights, and these areas are left unpainted.
The trick is to look hard and identify the different shades of brown on the skin in strong sunlight. It looks complicated but it really isn’t. Just remember to let your paint dry between layers, but if you’re in the sun that will be very fast.
I often use a very tiny amount of opera rose on parts of the skin, especially on the nose and ears, but you don’t want pink to be too much in evidence!
I really set out to enjoy myself with the brighter elements of the sketch. I painted the bikinis and swimsuits in lovely acid and day-glo tones which threw the tanned skin tones into relief. The result is mutually complimentary shades.
Lime green: phthalo green plus lemon yellow.
Acid yellow: lemon yellow with a hint of phthalo green.
Orange parasol: a mix of chrome orange and transparent pyrrol orange left unmixed on the page.
You should practice skin tones wherever you are: don’t hold back, unless your subject is truly pasty!
This is just a taste of some of the colours in my paintbox. If you have any questions please use the comments box below – remember, I’m here to help with your urban sketching queries.