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Watercolor Paint​

I have drawers full of different colored tubes of watercolor paint – I’m a sucker for a new color, but I always come back to these four core colors. From them I can mix almost any color I need.


I used to include Art Spectrum Burnt Sienna in the list, but after they changed their formula to the more traditional chalky, opaque Burnt Sienna I stopped using it.

The secret with these four colors is the transparent yellow. It can be added to the darkest mixtures and will shift the color but not lift the tone. A transparent Yellow keeps mixed colors fresh and vibrant and avoids the creation of muddy mixtures.

Watercolor Paint Quality

Most watercolor paint manufactures produce several grades of paint. Always buy the best quality you can afford. Artist quality watercolor paints usually have a series number according to the rarity of the pigment – Series 1 being the cheapest and series 4 being the most expensive. Buying lower grade student quality paint is false economy and makes it difficult to produce good work.

Most watercolor paint manufacturers have data sheets describing the series, pigment type, permanence and opacity of their products. See the links below:

Winsor and Newton

Daler Rowney

Art Spectrum

French Ultramarine Blue

Warm Blue, tending towards violet, so contains some red. Non staining and sedimentary, so will lift off easily. Built up washes will clog paper texture after 3-4 layers, after which pigment will tend to lift off.

French Ultramarine is a higher series than plain Ultramarine, so is more expensive. It is however, a much stronger pigment and will out last 2 tubes of plain Ultramarine, so in the long run is better value and much better to use.

French Ultramarine Blue Watercolor



Art Spectrum – Good color, but too runny and soapy
Rowney – good color, good consistency
W&N – Good color, expensive in some countries
Holbein – Good color, good consistency
M Graham and Co (USA) – Good color, good consistency. They also make a color matched gouache.

Phthalo Blue ( or Winsor or Prussian )

Extremely strong staining Blue tending towards green, so contains some yellow. Difficult to lift off and will stain up through any colors applied over it. Produces an intense, raw green when mixed with Quinacridone Gold or Indian Yellow – generally too saturated for foliage without the addition of some Alizarin Crimson.

When faced with the choice, offered by some manufacturers, of red or green shade, opt for the green shade.
Very intense pigment – use sparingly!

Phthalo Blue Watercolor (Green Shade)


Art Spectrum – Good color, good consistency.
Rowney – good color, good consistency.
W&N – (labelled Winsor Blue)Good color (Green Shade).
Holbein – Good color (Green Shade), good consistency.
M Graham and Co (USA) – Good color, good consistency, They also make a color matched gouache.


Permanent Alizarin Crimson (or Art Spectrum Permanent Crimson)

Cool Red tending towards Violet, so contains some blue. Avoid the traditional Alizarin Crimson as it will fade over time – most manufacturers make a permanent Alizarin Crimson. It is a moderately strong stain, but can be washed back.

Permanent Alizarin Crimson 


Art Spectrum – (Called AS Permanent Crimson) Good color, good consistency.
Rowney – good color, good consistency.
W&N – Good color, expensive in some countries
Holbein – Good color (Slightly pinker and more intense than most), good consistency.
M Graham and Co (USA) – Good color, good consistency, They also make a color matched gouache.


Quinacridone Gold (or Indian Yellow)

Quinacridone Gold is available through Winsor and Newton, Daniel Smith or Golden Colors (Quinacridone/Nickel Azo Gold) – it is a very transparent brownish yellow that becomes yellower in dilution. Its transparency means it will not lift the tone of dark mixtures it is added to.
Mixed with permanent Alizarin Crimson, it produces a warm red approaching Cadmium.
Indian Yellow will do the same job as Quinacridone Gold. It is a slightly more saturated yellow. You don’t need both of these – either one will do.

Indian Yellow Watercolor


AS – Permanent Indian Yellow – Good color, slightly opaque.
Rowney Indian Yellow – Excellent color, very transparent, good consistency.
W&N Indian Yellow – slightly opaque, expensive in some countries
W&N Quinacridone Gold – Excellent color, very transparent, extremely permanent

Color wheel made from 4 colors.

These four colors give a reasonably saturated spectrum of colors and, because of the transparent yellow, allow dark tones to be mixed in all hues

Paint Pigment Lightfast Test

I like to test any new painting product before I start using it. The test is simple, but takes 6-12 months.

A strip of each color (mass tone and diluted) is applied to a piece of paper. The paper cut in half, one half put away out of the light, the other half placed where it will receive maximum exposure to the sun (I tape the piece to be exposed to the inside of my studio window). After at least 6 months the two halves can be compared and any colors showing color shift or fading should be avoided.

Lightfast Test
Watercolor Lightfast Tests

These tests show the the effect of 12 months exposure on various products. You can see how some colors are noticeably effected, while others are unchanged. Fortunately, I have found most manufacturers are very accurate with their lightfast ratings.

Additional Non Staining, Transparent Glazing Colors


Cobalt Blue
Permanent Rose

Cobalt Blue Permanent Rose Aureolin


These 3 watercolor paints are very transparent, non staining and not sedimentary. They are great for building up glazes, either as under washes for a painting or to adjust colors once a painting has thoroughly dried.
Because they are not sedimentary, they can be built up layer over layer until the desired effect is achieved. Since they are not stains they can be easily washed back.
They are not strong pigments, so are not really suited to general mixing.



These swatches demonstrate the different effects achieved by varying the order of the three glazes.
(Note: first color in the list is final wash, second color is the second wash, third color, on bottom of the list is the first wash applied)


The swatches above show the effect of the order of application of these glazes. Notice how the first color applied (the name at the bottom of each combination) has the strongest influence on the final color.

“To The Sea”


Cobalt Blue, Aureolin, Perm. Rose, Ultramarine Blue, Phthalo Blue, Perm. Alizarin Crimson, Quinacridone Gold, Burnt Sienna Ink.

The sky and foreground in this painting were built up from pale graded washes of Cobalt, Auerolin and Permanent Rose. The result is soft, luminous gradations which contrast nicely with the areas of white paper and strong greens and dark tones made from Phthalo Blue, Permanent Alizarin Crimson and Quinacridone Gold.

White Gouache

White gouache can never be a substitute for the freshness of clean white paper contrasting with strong darks in the focal point of a painting. White gouache is useful for adding small contrasting highlights, fine lines of detail or soft passages of light in sky or water. White gouache can also be tinted with watercolor to add an opaque contrast to the transparency of watercolor.



Ultramarine Blue, Phthalo Blue, Perm. Alizarin Crimson, Quinacridone Gold, White Gouache, Charcoal Pencil, Burnt Sienna Ink.

The light in the sky above this old boat was made by wetting the area and dropping in white gouache. Once flooded in, the intensity was adjusted with a dry hake brush. There are also a few fine white marks of white gouache in some of the details on the boat.

Highlights of white gouache look better if the gouache is tinted slightly with a little Indian Yellow watercolor to match the color of the paper. Pure white gouache tends to be a little cool.

White Gesso

White gesso is an acrylic based white paint full of calcium carbonate and marble dust. Its main use is as a primer for canvas, boards or any other painting ground. The great thing about gesso is that when it is applied as a diluted glaze it dries to a milky white permanent haze that can be painted over with watercolor. If applied thickly watercolor will bead up and not adhere to the gesso (unless a special watercolor gesso is used), applied thinly, it will behave almost like paper.

"Last Bus Leaving"


The effect of dilute gesso can be seen in the top right of this painting. The original red roof has been pushed back with a thin glaze of gesso then the loose red lines were drawn over the top once it dried.


In this painting I left the gesso rough and scratchy, but sometimes a smooth, almost invisible gradation is called for. This is where delicate brushing with a dry hake brush makes all the difference.

Last Bus Leaving - © John Lovett

More information on Gouache or Gesso 

More information on Blue Watercolor

More information on Mixing Green Watercolor

More information on Yellow Watercolor

More information on Black Watercolor

More Information on Gray Watercolor



Author: John Lovett

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