In her new book, The Artist’s Color Guide: Watercolor—Understanding Palette, Pigments and Properties, artist and best-selling author Hazel Soan explores each color of the rainbow—chapter by chapter—to help you select, mix and combine color with confidence to create your own radiant watercolor paintings.
Here she shares how she employs blue and a less-is-more approach for painting the coastal landscape of sky and sea.
Practically every watercolor that I paint contains some blue. Of the three primary colors, it covers the widest tonal range—from a pale diluted tint to a deep, intense dark, making it ideal for monochromatic paintings. Frequently found in shadows, the sky and the sea, and essential in the making of blacks and often used to mix greens, this hue is employed in greater quantities than any other color in the palette.
The exact blue of the sky isn’t as important as the coherence of the painting, so choose your blue to suit the rest of the color scheme or for the need to lift or stain. Look for the temperature bias you need, cool or warm.
The maxim, “less is more,” definitely applies when creating atmospheric sky washes. Wetting the paper helps to hold a large sky together and prevent seams. When applying color, start at the top so that as you approach the horizon, the offloading of pigment from the brush echoes the gradual lightening of tone in the sky.
Play close attention to tone: Skies are usually paler than the landscape and are in the distance, so may not benefit from being too strong or too busy. Cool temperature bias and opacity help pale tints retreat. If the sky is the first wash painted, plan for the landscape below; if some area in the foreground is lighter than the sky, allow for this by leaving it untouched by the wash (See Image B).
In most cases, once the sky is painted, it will need to dry before you can continue. If time is short or the atmosphere humid, consider whether the sky needs painting first or indeed at all. If it’s light, it could be left as white paper or later tinted with a glaze.
Although the sea is often seen as blue, that’s largely because it’s reflecting the color of the sky. In general, all you need to do to suggest a wet surface is to tint the area with the tone and color of the sky or feature above it. Sometimes, however, the sea appears to be a completely different hue than the sky, in which case you need to bring cohesion to the painting by introducing the sky color somewhere in the water.
Large masses of moving water benefit from flecks of untouched white paper left within the wash, and ripples are often best indicated by linear streaks of untouched paper. You’ll find masking fluid, wax resist and scratching off to be useful allies here. Once again, less is more; the less overworked the water, the fresher it will feel. To suggest reflections, either touch the color into the wash while it’s wet or let it dry and then rewet it before brushing in color. A reflection is positioned directly below that which it reflects, but it need not be highly accurate in length or shape to be convincing.
The paper is wetted all over. A gentle tint of Indian yellow imparts a glow above the horizon. Ultramarine (green shade) is brushed from the top right, leaving areas untouched for the soft white feathery clouds and allowing the blue to waft gently into place.
Cumulus Clouds and Thinking Ahead to the Foreground
The paper is wetted nearly all over but stops short to account for the rounded rock forms in the foreground (which on the lit side will be lighter than the sky). It’s dabbed dry at top right to enable crisp edges to the tops of the voluptuous white clouds. Yellow ochre tints the lower clouds before the ultramarine is brushed into place.
In Neptune’s Lace, below, the blue sky and ocean background are painted with ultramarine. The green breaking waves are painted with viridian. To forge the link, viridian is laid in a tint over the distant sea, and the blue is brought into the foreground.
MORE RESOURCES FOR WATERCOLOR ARTISTS