Colour, Pigments & Mixing

Equipment | Theory | Mixing | Shadows

Characteristics of colours

Watercolours have a unique ability to depict atmosphere and light with a magical quality. To be able to use these qualities to the full, it is necessary to 'get to know' the characteristics of the colours you intend to use.

Paint is made from pigments. Some of the pigments occur naturally and some are manufactured synthetically.


In the traditional English style of watercolour, white paint is not used, as the watercolour paper provides the 'white'. As watercolour paints are generally transparent, the reflective surface of the paper shines through the transparent colours. Different tints of a colour are produced by the amount of water mixed with the paint.

Some colours however are not truly transparent due to the nature of the substances (pigments) used in their manufacture. Such colours are termed 'opaque' though the term is used relatively as watercolours are used as a thin film of paint which will generally appear transparent.


Colours can be tested easily to show whether they have any opacity, by painting over a dry patch of India Ink. When the colour is dry, if it is visible on top of the ink it is opaque. The cadmium colours for example, are in the opaque category.

As the colours are generally transparent, when a new colour is painted on top of another (a glaze), the colour underneath will show through the second colour modifying its appearance (see opposite). The effect is similar to laying sheets of coloured glass on top of each other.

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Some colours have staining properties. This can be helpful particularly if you intend over painting an area as the colour will not lift as readily as a non-staining colour. However, if you need to 'lift out' colour it will be difficult to completely erase a staining colour so avoid using them if you plan to lift out as part of the painting process.
Most of the modern organic pigments are staining. e.g. Winsor blue


Granulation effect

Some pigments produce granulation effects which give a grainy or mottled appearance. This property can be used to provide texture to a painted area and is one of the unique qualities of watercolour. Granulation works best when the pigment is used with a lot of water with the paper surface flat. Mediums are now available which can further enhance the granulation effect in granulating pigments and can also make a non-granulating pigments produce the effect. Not all Artists like the granulation effect so they avoid these pigments or minimise the effect by paining dryer and/or use distilled water which reduces the tendency of a pigment to granulate.


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Paint Characteristics

The table below shows the characteristics of the individual colours of the paints in a typical landscape set of 12 colours

Colour Name Description Mixing Code Staining
Permanence Transparent
Cadmium Lemon Cold Yellow Yb S AA O
Cadmium Yellow Pale Warm Yellow Yr S AA O
Cerulean Blue Cold Blue By G AA O
French Ultramarine Warm Blue Br G AA T
Cadmium Red Warm Red Ry G S AA O
Permanent Alizarin Crimson Cold Red Rb S A T
Raw Sienna Greyed Yellow Ybr G AA T
Burnt Sienna Greyed Orange YRb AA T
Burnt Umber Greyed Red Ryb AA T
Payne's Grey Greyed Blue BRY S A O
Light Red Greyed Red Rby AA O
Winsor Blue (red shade) Cold Blue By S A T
Key: S = Staining, T = Transparent , G = Granulating, AA = Extremely Permanent, A = Permanent
Data in last 3 columns by kind permission of Winsor & Newton
Data Sheet by Winsor & Newton: 'Perfecting the Fine Art of Water Colours' - available free of charge from your local Winsor & Newton stockist.


Colour Mixing Chart

The colour chart below shows the two colour mixes for the typical landscape set of 12 colours.
The colour patches have been reproduced from scans of actual mixes but they should be used only as a guide due to the limitations of equipment used to copy the colours and the differences in monitor colour reproduction.
The colours used are from the Winsor & Newton Artist quality series.
The intersection of each two colours shows the resulting hue.

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Interactive Colour Chart


Let the mouse hover over the colour patches to see the mixing colours:

Cadmium Lemon Cadmium Lemon
Cadmium Yellow Pale Cadmium Yellow Pale Cadmium Yellow Pale + Cadmium Lemon
Cerulean Blue Cerulean Blue Cerulean Blue + Cadmium Yellow Pale Cerulean Blue + Cadmium Lemon
French Ultramarine French Ultramarine French Ultramarine + Cerulean Blue French Ultramarine + Cadmium Yellow Pale French Ultramarine + Cadmium Lemon
Cadmium Red Cadmium Red Cadmium Red + French Ultramarine Cadmium Red + Cerulean Blue Cadmium Red + Cadmium Yellow Pale Cadmium Red + Cadmium Lemon
Permanent Alizarin Crimson Permanent Alizarin Crimson Permanent Alizarin Crimson + Cadmium Red Permanent Alizarin Crimson + French Ultramarine Permanent Alizarin Crimson + Cerulean Blue Permanent Alizarin Crimson + Cadmium Yellow Pale Permanent Alizarin Crimson + Cadmium Lemon
Raw Sienna Raw Sienna Raw Sienna + Permanent Alizarin Crimson Raw Sienna + Cadmium Red Raw Sienna + French Ultramarine Raw Sienna + Cerulean Blue Raw Sienna + Cadmium Yellow Pale Raw Sienna + Cadmium Lemon
Burnt Sienna Burnt Sienna Burnt Sienna + Raw Sienna Burnt Sienna + Permanent Alizarin Crimson Burnt Sienna + Cadmium Red Burnt Sienna + French Ultramarine Burnt Sienna + Cerulean Blue Burnt Sienna + Cadmium Yellow Pale Burnt Sienna + Cadmium Lemon
Burnt Umber Burnt Umber Burnt Umber + Burnt Sienna Burnt Umber + Raw Sienna Burnt Umber + Permanent Alizarin Crimson Burnt Umber + Cadmium Red Burnt Umber + French Ultramarine Burnt Umber + Cerulean Blue Burnt Umber + Cadmium Yellow Pale Burnt Umber + Cadmium Lemon
Payne's Grey Payne's Grey Payne's Grey + Burnt Umber Payne's Grey + Burnt Sienna Payne's Grey + Raw Sienna Payne's Grey + Permanent Alizarin Crimson Payne's Grey + Cadmium Red Payne's Grey + French Ultramarine Payne's Grey + Cerulean Blue Payne's Grey + Cadmium Yellow Pale Payne's Grey + Cadmium Lemon
Light Red Light Red Light Red + Payne's Grey Light Red + Burnt Umber Light Red + Burnt Sienna Light Red + Raw Sienna Light Red + Permanent Alizarin Crimson Light Red + Cadmium Red Light Red + French Ultramarine Light Red + Cerulean Blue Light Red + Cadmium Yellow Pale Light Red + Cadmium Lemon
Winsor Blue (red shade)  Winsor Blue Winsor Blue + Light Red Winsor Blue + Payne's Grey Winsor Blue + Burnt Umber Winsor Blue + Burnt Sienna Winsor Blue + Raw Sienna Winsor Blue + Permanent Alizarin Crimson Winsor Blue + Cadmium Red Winsor Blue + French Ultramarine Winsor Blue + Cerulean Blue Winsor Blue + Cadmium Yellow Pale Winsor Blue + Cadmium Lemon


Hues & Tints produced from mixing varying proportions
of two near primaries:
Cadmium Yellow Pale (CYP) and French Ultramarine(FU)
CYP Hue1 Hue 2 Hue 3 Hue 4 Hue 5 Hue 6 Hue7 Hue 8 FU
Cadmium Yellow Pale Hue 1 CYP+FU Hue 2 CYP+FU Hue 3 CYP+FU Hue 4 CYP+FU Hue 5 CYP+FU Hue 6 CYP+FU Hue 7 CYP+FU Hue 8 CYP+FU French Ultramarine
Tint 1 Tint 1
Tint 2 Tint 2
Tint 3 Tint 3
Tint 4 Tint 4
Hues produced from mixing varying proportions
of two near complementary colours:
French Ultramarine(FU) and Burnt Sienna (BS)
FU Hue1 Hue 2 Hue 3 Hue 4 Hue 5 Hue 6 Hue7 Hue 8 BS
French Ultramarine Hue 1 FU+BS Hue 2 FU+BS Hue 3 FU+BS Hue 4 FU+BS Hue 5 FU+BS Hue 6 FU+BS Hue 7 FU+BS Hue 8 FU+BS Burnt Sienna

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The interactive chart above shows only one proportioned mix of two colours. A much greater range of hues for each combination is possible by varying the relative proportion of each colour and a wider range of tints is possible by the addition of more water. The next chart shows the result of varying the proportions of each of the two colours being mixed. The first example shows the effect of mixing two colours which are near to primary colours. It also shows the tints available by adding more water to one of the hues (Hue 6). The second example shows the neutralising effect obtained when complementary colours are mixed in varying proportions.

When mixing colours start with the lighter of the two colours and gradually add the darker colour until the desired tint is achieved. Mix colours by combining the minimum number of colours, two if possible, this way your colours will stay clean and fresh.


Get to know the properties of the paints you are using. Make a chart like the one below which shows combinations of your palette of colours with each other, this will save time and money in the future and will provide valuable experience in identifying the colours which you can achieve using your palette of colours - Use a maximum of 10 colours and stick to these until you become familiar with their properties, mixing abilities, granulation etc.


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Limited Palette 

Colour mixing chart

It's much better to start with a palette consisting of a few colours and mix others, rather than have a large number of ready made colours. In any painting it is also better to use only those colours that are necessary- usually no more than six or seven. This way the picture will have harmony as the resulting colour mixes will have a common theme. Many successful pictures are painted using only 3 or 4 colours e.g. French Ultramarine (blue), Light Red (red), Raw Sienna (Yellow) and Burnt Sienna (Orange). It's good practice to paint pictures with a limited palette such as this.




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Equipment | Theory | Mixing | Shadows