Color Mixes and the Secrets of Warm and Cool


I keep a journal of notes on my watercolors so I can look up mixtures and procedures. Also experiments, like the one I did on 10/17/97 :”Painted with food- coffee, wine, spices, eggs, salt, soy sauce…the only rules are: it can’t go bad, and it can’t attract ants”

One of the satisfying things about painting (as opposed to drawing) is how fun it is to play with one aspect of color: warm v.s. cool. There’s a particular push-pull that happens when you consciously use a warm color against a cool one. The warm comes forward and the cool moves back. Sounds so simple, right? It’s sometimes hard to get a concept under the skin until you do it ad infinitum (or ad nauseum, depending on your Latin). So I have to remind myself it’s a tool to be used. Use a warm reddish up against a cool blue and the plane turns under, like magic.


My old favorite brush: Winsor Newton series 680 One Shot 1 1/2″ flat, nylon bristles. You can load it up and it keeps a pleasingly sharp edge. I just ordered a new one, by the way.

Working today on the Painted bunting I played with simple color mixes in watercolor. Very satisfying indeed was the mixture of Brown Madder Alizarin together with Indigo Blue. Each grays out the other a little, but it’s a rich gray. When you skew towards more BMA, the mix is a warm beef color. When you lean into the Indigo, you get a deep blue-gray with hints of plum. The mix is all up to you; balance them any way you like. I used these two colors alongside another excellent mix: Ivory Black and Transparent Yellow (Winsor Newton). The black and the yellow put together produce a clear luminous spring green. Being transparent it can glaze without clouding the color below.


The Canna Bunting

In my left hand I keep a bouquet of brushes, each dipped in a different mix, and one large filbert loaded with clean water. This way I can switch to warm-cool-warm-cool and get that push-pull going. The big flats cut back and forth into each other’s path like a pair of razor blades, each color straying into and intensifying the other.


This is the Beanpole Bunting version.

I’m working on two paintings at once, putting one aside when it stops looking fresh and hopping into the other one. To add to the fun, this morning my friend Cindy called and told me how much she liked the version with the daylilies, so guess what? I pulled out that drawing and transferred it to watercolor paper, soaked and stretched onto a board where it waits for its turn in the queue, too.


Yet another version: the Daylily Bunting.

6 thoughts on “Color Mixes and the Secrets of Warm and Cool

  1. caroline crayon says:

    Oh, how much I enjoyed reading this post. I don’t know anything about color, I just slap it on my drawings. You make me want to take a closer look. The notion of keeping two paintings going at once boggles my mind. Exciting! Keep up the great work.

  2. 100swallows says:

    Your Canna Bunting is really beautiful. I hope you show us the Daylily version when it is colored. That’s such a good idea to have him so small on the branches, not the subject of the picture, as though only there to give it the right touch of color. It is the way he would really look when you spotted him, isn’t it?

  3. cantueso says:

    “ad nauseam…. ” it’s feminine, of course.

    You are always working on the original, aren’t you? If there is a little mistake or an accident, you can’t correct, can you? Or if you would like to have two versions? I have been told that somebody like El Greco often made several versions of the same subject. The same saint comes in blue and in green and in orange, for instance. But it looks to me that watercolours depend more on the movement of the brush, and so the second version would no longer look the same. Is that so? — I like the brown version best, the bird in your bean plants.

  4. zeladoniac says:

    How lovely to be compared to El Greco! I’m painting three approaches to this subject, all in watercolor. Each one tells a different story, and of course, only one will go on the cover. I can make corrections up to a point, but after awhile the paper begins to wear out. Sometimes you have to start over, but I was taught that you need to know how to save a piece before you start it. The second version will never look like the first one. If you’re lucky, it will be even better.

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