The Keys to Vibrant Watercolor

More than anything, I like color and light. The vibrancy in my paintings comes from thisi??and I like painting directly. The vibrant tones are more part of my personality, and that comes through in my paintings.

I don’t use earth tones like raw umber or burnt sienna. They are made of dirt and they look like dirt. One of the problems is that people begin to use them instead of mixing darks that contain color. The result is a lot of i??no colori?? color in the dark passages of a painting. Earth tone darks cause the most problems when a painting is built around a lot of dark colors framing a light or dramatic spot. You wind up with a dirty-looking painting.

The classic way to mix a dark color is to mix across the color wheel, using complements. You can take a color like violeti??a deep value statement to start withi??and mix it with yellow ochre, or an orange even. When you mix the cool violet with its warm complement or near-complement, you’ll find yourself getting a pretty strong dark. There are variations on this themei??if you take Prussian blue and introduce one of the warms into that, you’ll get a similar dark. Mix Prussian blue and alizarin crimson, and you make black. The most important thing is that the process will give you a dark that is made of color, and it showsi??it’s not just a dead black, or a colorless earth tone.

I like to see as much pure color laid down as possible, but at the same time I think one of the most important words in the whole field of art is contrast. It’s the whole yin yang principlei??the two parts that form a perfect whole. When I lecture on the laws of light in my workshops, I emphasize that there is only one device you can use to depict light, and that’s dark. In color, opposites are important, tooi??orange never looks as orange as it can unless it’s next to a blue or a blue green. It’s so important to maintain that element of contrast all the way through your thinking, whether you’re considering composition, color or value, or even paint strokesi??when you have to decide whether to lay down a sharp-edged, clean, clear calligraphic statement or a soft, wet entry. I cannot say it enough: Contrast is important.

When my wife (Jessica Zemsky) and I were teaching workshops, one of the things we emphasized was the importance of using quality materials. Any skimping on this, whether it’s brushes, paint, paper or whatever, is putting yourself in a severely penalized situation. It’s almost impossible to pull decent artwork out of trashy materials. That may sound simplistic, but it’s amazing how often we ran into problems with cheap materials when we were teaching. Students would show up at these workshops, having devoted themselves to all this travel and putting out all this money to get to these classes, and they would pull out cheap, student-grade materials! It would be a disaster. We always had to keep extra material on hand to fill in the gaps for people like that.

It’s simple: You have to use the best paints to capture color and light. The cheaper paint is so diluted down that the paint loses its ability to give you that quality.

Little Silver, New Jersey, artist Roberta Carter Clark has painted portraits and figures for more than 40 years in oils, pastels and watercolors. Her books include How to Paint Living Portraits and Painting Vibrant Children’s Portraits (both by North Light Books).

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