Creativity Workshop | Watercolor Techniques for Mixing Your Own Neutral Colors

By Bev Jozwiak

I’ve found that one of the easiest watercolor techniques for adding more color—and life—to my work is by painting an everyday object or scene with unexpected hues, and by using custom-mixed neutral colors. Instead of just recording what I see—especially when working from photos—I choose to mix my own neutral colors to make the subject pop.

Follow along in this watercolor tutorial as I paint using custom colors and neutrals—and one rogue out-of-the-tube color.

Step 1

I begin by painting with cadmium red in a toothpaste consistency for the rooster’s comb. I paint the color flat, much like I’d paint a wall in my home. I then move into the background to keep the rooster from looking cut out. To create energy in the background, I use a gestural stroke with thick paint, and then hit it with water, letting the watercolor work its magic.

mixing neutrals demo, step 1 | watercolor tutorial


Step 2

The area under the eye needed to be scrubbed out; I had inadvertently painted it red. I added darker shades of red (my cool reds) in the comb. In the background, I added alizarin crimson to my usual black mixture of French ultramarine blue and burnt sienna to keep the colors in the same family. I made sure to move my brush in the direction of the feathers. I then painted the dark side of the legs, being careful to leave one side light. Then I added the shadow in some of the same warm background color to harmonize and unify the painting.

Shadows often can read as colorless voids. Warming them up with reds can lend a happy, upbeat mood, while cooling them down with blues can create a more somber feel.

mixing neutral colors demo, step 2 | watercolor tutorial


Step 3

To create texture, I added thick gesso into the white feather areas. Next, I painted the orange feathers; the highlights were scraped with a palette knife, adding to the overall textural feeling. Each tail feather was added one stroke at a time. I applied pressure with a flat brush, slowly lifting and working toward a point. I varied the amount of water in each feather for diversity.

mixing neutral colors demo, step 3 | watercolor tutorial


Final Step

After the gesso dried, I added color to the shadow side of the white area. To finish the painting, I applied a layer of Pearl Ex, a powdered metallic, in duo blue-green, to the chest area and tail. Pencil lines suggest the edges of the feathers and legs for my painting, Attitude.

mixing neutral colors demo, final step | watercolor tutorial

Attitude (watercolor on paper, 19×19) by Bev Jozwiak


Try This At Home

Create a watercolor painting with your own custom-mixed colors and neutrals. Send a JPEG (with a resolution of 72 dpi) of your work to with “Creativity Workshop” in the subject line and tell us about your process. The “editor’s choice” will receive a copy of Splash 15 (North Light Books, 2014). The entry deadline is October 15, 2014.


Catch up on Watercolor Artist’s Creativity Workshop exercises you’ve missed for other watercolor painting ideas here!



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