Lesson 5: Color

We will keep it simple again, I promise. So, no words like complementary, tertiary or analogous. They don’t add anything to your work and only give you a headache.

As I argued in my first book “Succesvol Aquarelleren” (“Successful watercolor painting” – not yet translated) we do need cohesion and variation in our use of color. A seemingly paradoxical demand, because too much variation leads to lack of cohesion, and vice versa. Hence, we have to provide a balance between the two.

You can achieve cohesion in color by using a mother color as a unifying factor. For example, when we take blue as the starting point, on the color wheel we can go via blue-violet and violet to red-violet. In the other direction, we can go via blue-green and green to yellow-green. This entire spectrum from red-violet to yellow-green contains blue. It is this blue mother color that ensures unifying cohesion.

A colored ground also provides cohesion. This can be colored paper, or paper to which you apply an underpainting. In that case you can save the whites, whereas opaque colors must be used for the lights when using colored paper.

Likewise, a thin glaze applied afterwards gives cohesion as well.

Always provide an echo in your use of color: repeat every color elsewhere in the painting, even if it is only a simple touch.

Two example sketches in phthalo blue and burnt sienna. In one of them blue is dominant, in the other brown. Never use colors in equal amounts
Also notice the mistakes in the sketches.
A fleeting overall impression is more important to me than a realistic pretty picture.

Variation in color comes down to warm versus cool colors, using the simplest possible palette. Just as two left-hand gloves don’t make a functional pair, some color combinations work while others don’t. But you have to try that for yourself. I am not giving recipes here, just a few personal tips. But remember, don’t believe anyone, not even me. Only your own experience will tell you if something works for you. A few simple combinations that I use sometimes are Paynes grey and sepia, or phthalo blue and burnt sienna (see example sketches) or, when I’m feeling adventurous, quinacridone gold, brown madder, and indigo. As you can see, a very limited color palette, which to me is a condition for a style characterized by a simplicity that seems almost banal in its austerity.

One more thing: use color expressively rather than realistically. This increases the abstract quality of the work. If you paint from a photograph, use a black and white copy.

To give our English speaking friends the opportunity to follow these lessons as well, Mineke Reinders is kind enough to provide the English translations..

Here an example of simplicity in value, color and details (you could do it in Paynes grey and sepia). Notice that alternation and contrast in tonal value (light/dark/light etc.) is more important than so-called “beautiful colors”. The work of beginners (i.e. not yours) often lacks sufficient light and – especially – dark tones.
(Edward Wesson)

Edward Wesson

4 thoughts on “Lesson 5: Color

  1. Needed to draft you one tiny remark to be able to thank you very much over again with your pretty secrets you’ve shared in this case. It was really open-handed of you giving easily exactly what a lot of people would’ve supplied as an ebook to help with making some bucks for their own end, especially seeing that you could have tried it in the event you wanted. The basics also served as the easy way to know that the rest have a similar interest much like mine to realize a little more on the topic of this condition. I’m certain there are a lot more fun periods in the future for folks who discover your website.

  2. Hi – enjoyed your book a lot, had to check out the web too. Ive painted for a long time and have quite a few pictures on other people’s walls. I’ve been on art educator for thirty years too. I’ve always held Eliot Ohara up as my ideal – but your philosophy is fresh and closer to today’s experiences. How to an essential idea down on paper using tricky old paint and water…thanks for a boost at a time when I needed one.

  3. Hallo, Herr van Aalst,
    planen Sie im kommenden Frühjahr und Sommer Wochenkurse durchzuführen ?

    Danke für eine Antwort im Voraus und viele Grüße vom Bodensee
    Cordula Link

  4. Hello, Kees, Your books, and now your blog, have been a HUGE help and inspiration! I always tell my watercolor students that if I had to choose only one watercolor book from the hundreds available, it would be “Realistic Abstracts” — you make it possible to understand and achieve abstraction (and color and design) better than any other teacher/writer. Many, many thanks…joan i.

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