Art-Post #6

Color Theory Lesson –
Primary Colors

In my earlier posts, I recommended that you paint with only three colors:

  • • Cobalt Blue
  • • Winsor Red, Naphthol Red or Pyrrol Red
  • • Transparent Yellow, Winsor Yellow, Cadmium Lemon, or Cadmium Yellow Light

Red, yellow, and blue are called primary colors because, theoretically, we can mix all other colors by using these three. This lesson will examine what we mean by primary colors and will explain how to use them. Working with primary colors is the first basic lesson in color theory and it is important to learn as much as you can about color theory in order to create successful paintings.

In the color wheel, notice how the primaries were used to mix the secondary colors: orange, green and purple. Although the primaries, with white and black, are used to mix all the other colors, the main problem is finding pigments that are true, pure, basic primary colors. This type of purity only exists as light and paint pigments and inks can never be true primaries. It creates problems for both the commercial printing process and for painting. Because of impurities, individual pigments behave and interact with each other in unique ways. Our computers can display over 16 million colors, but our eyes can recognize even more colors than our computers. We can see this as frustrating, or as exciting, and it forces us to make choices in the colors we use in our artwork.


images, the technique used to print the color images is “four-color” printing. Four inks are used and they are lemon yellow, magenta (a purplish red), cyan (a blue that is almost turquoise), and black. The best matches that we have on out palette for these colors are a lemon yellow (cadmium lemon, cadmium yellow light, or azo yellow), a purplish red (permanent rose or permanent alizarin crimson), and a phthalo blue like Winsor blue (green shade). In our paintings, we do not need a black pigment because we can easily will mix a dark, almost black color.

Look at the color chart below. On the left are the primary ink colors used to print color reproductions in books or magazines. The other colors shown are our watercolor pigments and you can easily see how difficult it is to match those inks. So you have just learned that yellow is not yellow, red is not red, and blue is not blue. That is because our pigments have what are called “hidden compliments” and another lesson will discuss what that means.


I highly recommend that painters, all levels, use limited palettes because it teaches us how to see and mix color. The colors won’t always be perfect matches to what you are painting, but limiting your palette helps you achieve color harmony in your painting. I also recommend that you do color charts so that you have an idea of how the paints will mix. The color chart on the left uses three of the pigments I recommended in earlier lessons.


When painting with a limited palette, choose your pigments carefully. Ask., what are the dominant colors in my painting? What color is my focal point? For the painting of the sunflowers, I only used three paints.

  • • Cadmium Yellow Light
  • • Cadmium Scarlet
  • • Winsor Blue (red shade)

I chose cadmium yellow light because I wanted to be able to mix bright light greens. Cadmium scarlet is a warm yellow-red. I used it instead of a magenta red because I wanted the sunflowers to be warm and bright. For a cool background, Winsor blue (red shade) is perfect because it is a cool blue and a very strong pigment. I mixed it with the cadmium scarlet to make it darker.

I have attached a drawing of a sunflower for you to experiment with. Have fun and experiment with different yellows, reds, and blues!

Sunflower in a Vase is a pen and ink drawing with watercolor by Joan Wolbier.

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Art-Post #5

Painting From Photographs

On a trip to the Olympic Peninsula in the Pacific Northwest, I was fascinated by the lush vegetation. Where I live in Colorado, it is much drier and seeing the greens and the many types of plants, I started photographing what I was seeing. I was especially interested in the ferns, the many types and the life stages of the plant. When I got home, I decided I wanted to paint the ferns.


Here are some of the photographs that I took. Looking at them, I had to decide which photograph to use and how to modify the photograph so that it worked as a painting. I use photographs a lot as sources for my paintings. I prefer to only paint from my own photographs, but occasionally I work from my husband’s if I was with him when he took them. I don’t just copy photographs. I make lots of modifications for several reasons. First of all, I am not a very good photographer so why copy something that is not so great to begin with. Also photographs often show too much detail or not enough. And a photograph doesn’t always represent what it is that I am trying to say in a painting.

The main problem with the lush, complex ferns in these photographs is exactly that. The photographs have too much information. Photo #1 has less information, but it is not a very interesting composition. Photo #2 is more interesting, but the many leaves have different colors and textures that don’t support each other or make sense. Photo #4 has some interesting possibilites, but is also way too confusing for my painting.

I decided to use Photo #4, but cropped in on a small section and then reworked parts to come up with a less complicated but more interesting composition.


To design the painting, I focused in on the one large fern stalk with the interesting leaves. It was the leaves that caught my eye. But the strong stem of the stalk created a compositional nightmare. It dominated the composition and I had to figure out how to balance it in the painting. Otherwise, the viewer’s eye would just flow right out of the top or the bottom of the painting. Compositionally, the dynamic fern stalk is balanced by the yellow and reddish-brown leaf about a third of the way down curling away from the stem which forces the viewer’s eye away from the stem to the left side of the painting. Here the viewer’s eye moves down the curling drying leaves on the left side of the painting and is then caught at the bottom by the yellow, reddish brown leaves to connect back to the stem. The viewer is drawn back up the stalk and the green leaves hanging down moves the eye back into the curling, drying leaves. There is a constant circle of eye movement.

Notice also how the painting emphasizes the leaves of the large fern by painting them brighter than the background leaves. The use of yellow and oranges in the bright greens bring them forward in the painting in contrast to the blueish green leaves in the background. In the photo the background leaves are much brighter and distracting. Using cooler or grayer colors forced these areas into the background. The photograph also has dark, almost black shadow areas but shadow areas are never truly black. There are details and color in shadows, so they need to be added into a painting. What is convincing in a photograph is not always convincing in a painting.


I started working on this painting with a detailed drawing and then transferred the drawing onto the watercolor paper. As demonstrated in my previous post, I loosely underpainted the leaves to determine the basic color scheme. I tested various color mixes on scrap pieces of watercolor paper and then carefully painted each of the parts of the painting adding glazes to adjust both colors and values. I spent a lot of time looking at the painting to determine where areas needed more color, more detail and also more darks.

Although I do not think of myself as a botanical illustrator, I love to paint plants. They are incredibly complex and always a challenge. I have to take a deep breath and tell myself to be very patient. I soon lose track of time and forget about the world.

Art-Post #4

Painting a Watercolor –
From Start to Finish

This lesson will take you through the process of how to paint a watercolor painting. We will start with a drawing of leaves, transfer the drawing, do a wet-in-wet underpainting, paint the leaves, paint the background, and finish by putting in some
details and darks to create drama.


Watercolor is a drawing based medium so start with a pencil drawing. You can draw directly on your paper, but only use a KNEADED ERASER to make any corrections. Other erasers will damage the surface of the paper.

A drawing of maple leaves for you to use for this lesson is on page 3 of the attached PDF. The drawing fits on about an 8 1/2 x 11 inch paper. Transfer my drawing or draw your own leaves. Use only the three primary colors you are already familiar with for this painting:
• Cobalt Blue
• Winsor Red, Naphthol Red or Pyrrol Red
• Cadmium Yellow or Cadmium Lemon

STEP 1 – Transferring a Drawing

I almost always do my drawing on a piece of sketch paper and then transfer the drawing. When you have finished your drawing, take a soft 7B or 8B pencil and cover the back of the drawing with pencil graphite. Tape your drawing on one edge to the watercolor paper. Redraw it and lift up the drawing to check how much has transferred. The taped edge will keep the drawing from moving.

Make sure your transfer is not too light or too dark. Too light and the watercolor paint will cover it. Too dark and the pencil marks will show up in your final painting. It is sometimes hard to get the pencil marks under the paint to erase.

STEP 2 – Underpainting

Decide what color you want your leaves to be. Are they summer green leaves or will you be painting fall color? My painting is of fall leaves so my underpainting will be with my yellow and red paint with a little blue in background areas. If you are painting green leaves, which colors will you choose?

Cover your entire sheet of paper with water using a flat brush or spray bottle. Mix up your paints using a lot of water. Loosely cover the entire surface of the paper letting the paint flow and blend. Start to plan your composition by where you place the color. Have fun!

STEP 2 – Painting the Foreground Leaves

Let the surface of the paper dry a little. You can use a hair dryer to help. Then mix darker variations of your leaf colors and start to define the shapes of the leaves. You may find that the paint runs outside of the edges. Don’t worry if that happens. But to avoid it, make sure the paper is drier or mix less water into your pigment. Experiment. Try to make each leaf different from the one next to it.

STEP 3 – Painting the Background

This painting has a foreground and a background. The leaves are the foreground and around the leaves is the background. For my background, I will use the blue to mix grayer and darker colors that allow the brighter foreground leaves to stand out.

Use all three paints for the grayed background color. Start with blue, add a little red, then maybe a tiny touch of yellow to get a gray. Paint around the leaves, but you don’t have to be too careful.

STEP 4 – Making Adjustments

When the paint has dried, step back and look at your painting. The painting is at the awkward adolescent stage and you may think that now is a good time to throw it away. But hang in there, it needs adjustments. Let the painting tell you where it needs some brighter color, more detail, and darker color in the background. Ask yourself how you can make the painting more interesting?

STEP 5 – Finishing Touches

OK, it is almost there. What you need are a few final touches including shadows on the leaves, add the stem and veins of the leaves and punch in some darks. Paint cast shadows by loading your brush with dark paint, use the tip to paint along the edge of the leaf and then with a clean, damp brush, blend the edge of the shadow.

Look at your painting one more time and if it’s done, sign it. Voila!

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Art-Post #3

Basic Watercolor Techniques – Part 2

In Art Posts #1 and #2, we experimented with adding different amount of water to the pigments and learning that paint flows in wet areas, but not into dry areas. Here are a few more watercolor techniques for you to experiment with. Art Post #4 will teach how to paint a complete painting.


The most basic watercolor technique is the flat wash and can be used as an underpainting for more layers or over dry painted areas to adjust colors or values. When thin paint is painted over dry paint to darken and adjust colors, it is called glazing.

The most important thing about planning a flat wash is to have enough paint. So mix up a large batch of paint on your palette. If you have a really large piece of paper, mix up your paint in a cup or bowl. The worst problem you can run into is to run out of paint while you are painting your flat wash. Don’t worry about wasting paint!


  1. For a flat wash you can either work on dry paper or prewet the paper until you have a matt surface.
  2. Use a large flat wash brush and load it with the paint. Start at the top of the paper and paint a broad stroke across the paper.
  3. Tilt the paper so that the wet paint pools at the bottom of the brush stroke, load your brush, and paint the next stroke catching the bottom edge of the first stroke.
  4. Continue to the bottom of the paper and when you are done, lay the paper flat to dry.


A graded wash is painted the same way that you paint the flat wash. But instead of loading your brush with more paint, add water to your brush to dilute the paint as you work towards the bottom of the paper. How much water to add does take some practice, so don’t be discouraged. You can always layer another graded wash over the first one if you have to. Just make sure that the paint is completely dry and that could take up to twenty-four hours. Watercolor painting is not always fast, fast, fast!


  1. For a graded wash, it is often easier to work on prewet paper with a matt surface.
  2. Use a large flat wash brush and load it with the paint. Paint a large brush stroke across the top of the paper.
  3. Tilt the paper so that the wet paint pools at the bottom of the brush stroke.
  4. Dip your brush in your water, but be carefull about adding too much water. Now paint the next stroke catching the bottom edge of the first stroke.
  5. Continue painting to the bottom of the paper, adding more water with each stroke. When you are done, lay the paper flat to dry.


Glazing is a technique used in all the painting media: oil, acrylic, and watercolor. To glaze, you paint very thin layers of paint over paint that has dried to adjust colors and values. One of my favorite watercolor painters glazes over 100 layers of paint to get subtle atmospheric effects. And yes, this means it takes months to complete a painting. But you must make sure that the paint underneath is completely dry and for watercolors that may take 24 hours. Oil paint can take days to dry for glazing!

In order to glaze your watercolor, first check to see if your paper is dry by touching it. If it is cold that means the paper is still damp and your glaze may pick up the paint that is already on the paper. You can dry it with a hair dryer, but be patient and make sure the paint is really dry and not just warm from the hair dryer. Often you will have to let the paper dry overnight for the best effects. Paint the glaze very quickly and it should not disturb the paint underneath. But if you overwork it, you may lift up the bottom layer of paint!


The last thing you need to do when finishing a painting is to add your darkest darks. The darks will create drama in your work. If your paper is dry, you will have the most control and your paint will stay where you put it. Plus any brushstrokes will have nice crisp edges. In order to make your darks, you will need sticky paint and paints with strong pigments. Here are three examples using the three colors that we have been working with. The top one is a cool dark mixing blue and red, with the blue dominant. The middle color is a warm dark with the red dominant. The bottom uses all three pigments, but only a touch of the yellow. That will create a grayed, neutral dark.


Dry brush is a method of creating texture in a painting. For example, it can be used to create moss texture on rocks or to mimic wood grain. When the paper is dry, mix up sticky or creamy paint. Dry your brush on a paper towel or a cloth and then load it with paint. Split the bristles apart, hold the brush at an acute angle to the surface of the paper, and pull it lightly across the top of the paper so that the paint catches on the top of the paper texture. You may have to experiment with the feel of this technique. I practice on a piece of scrap paper before I add the texture to a painting. Experiment with different brushes and on different papers.


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Art-Post #2

Basic Watercolor Techniques – Part 1

Now that you have experimented with paint/water/paper (Art Post #1), and have learned about sticky paint, creamy paint, and thin paint, here are a few more techniques. Have fun and experiment with your paints. Don’t worry about creating a finished painting. We will explore that in another post.


One of the easiest ways to control your watercolor paints is to control where you put your water. I have seen beginning students take a spray bottle and wet their whole paper. And then they find that their paint does what it wants, not what they want. The solution is to carefully wet ONLY the section that you want to paint. The paint will only flow where the paper is wet, but not into the dry area of the paper. This is tricky because we often want to paint in an area that is next to a wet or still damp area. Be patient and make sure that any adjoining areas are almost dry. You can tell if they are still damp by touching the paper. If it is cold, it is still damp and paint may bleed into that part of the paper.

In the small painting below, notice how the stems, leaves, and flowers all have clean, hard edges. Before adding the color, those areas were wet with clear water. The paint only flowed into those wet areas and bleeding of the colors only occurred in the wet areas.


Take a brush and using only clear water, paint an abstract shape on your paper. Make sure that you leave big dry holes in your shape and make sure that the wet areas have lots of water. Now on your palette, activate three colors with water and mix up some sticky paint, some creamy paint, and some thin paint for each color. Load your brush and drop the different paints into the very wet areas of your shape. You can tilt your paper so that your paint moves around the wet shape.
In the example shown, I put in the thin paint on the left side, then the creamy paint in the middle, and the sticky paint on the right. Notice how the wet paint bleeds more than the stickier drier paint. This is how to control your watercolors.

I used just three primary colors for this exercise:
• Cobalt Blue
• Winsor Red, Naphthol Red or Pyrrol Red
• Cadmium Yellow or Cadmium Lemon


The true beauty of painting with watercolor is that the colors are luminous, they glow. But this happens only when you “mix” your colors on your paper, instead of on your palette. Mixing colors on the palette can result in dull, muddy colors. But if you use the same pigments and drop them into a wet area, the colors will glow. This luminosity is one of the qualities of watercolor paintings and it is incredibly difficult to achieve it in oil or acrylic.


On your palette, activate the three primary colors and let them
flow into each other. Notice the many different colors that just
happen by the paints flowing into each other. By dipping your
brush into different sections of the paint puddle you get
different colors. Paint little squares of each color to see
how many different colors you can get.


  1. Start by drawing two 2” squares. You will be comparing two color samples.
  2. For your first sample, take your three colors and mix them all together on your palette until you get a brown.
  3. Paint a square on your paper.
  4. For your second sample, wet a square on your paper with clear water and then “mix” your three colors by dropping them into the wet area.
  5. Letting the three paints mix naturally in the wet area will give you a richer color. To get a brown control how much of each color you put in. But notice how the pigments separate out and the brown square glows rather than looking muddy. Watercolor pigments create a pointillist effect.

BASIC COLOR THEORY!! Believe it or not, for this painting, I only used three paints, the three primaries that I recommend for these exercises­—yellow, red, and blue. The secondary colors—green, orange, and purple—are the mixes of the three primaries. Notice how many different colors
and variations I can get with just three paints.


To print a PDF of this lesson, select the download button below.

Art-Post #1


Welcome to watercolor painting! This is lesson that will help you learn about my favorite way to paint. Although I have painted in acrylics and oils, I love what I can do with watercolors.

Like all paint mediums, watercolor paints are ground pigment particles suspended in a binder. The type of binder determines whether the paint is an acrylic, an oil or a watercolor. Gum arabic is the binder used for watercolors and when you add water, the pigments disperse. The more water, the pigment disperses more and the paint color gets lighter. This is an important part of learning to paint with watercolors. You have to learn how to judge the pigment to water ratio because the water is your “white” paint. You have to learn to control how much water you mixed into the paint, how much water is on your brush, and how much water is on your paper. It is all “paint/water/paper.”

I prefer tube paint and recommend you start your adventure with just three primary colors:
• Cobalt Blue
• Winsor Red, Naphthol Red or Pyrrol Red
• Cadmium Yellow or Cadmium Lemon

Sticky Paint
When the paint comes out of the tube, it is STICKY!
Squeeze out a small amount of one of the colors and add just a touch of water so that you can paint with it. Paint about a one inch square and feel the resistance on your brush.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Learning to understand the water to paint ratio is often how it FEELS on the brush.

Creamy Paint
Now add a little more water to your paint so that it is the thickness of heavy cream. Paint a small square to see how the color of the paint changes. It will still be pretty dark, but a shade lighter than your sticky paint sample. Notice that there is less resistance on your brush.

Thin Paint
Now add lots of water so that the paint flows freely and looks like tinted water rather than paint. In color theory, colors mixed with white, or in our case water, are called tints. For example, red mixed with white or more water becomes pink.

Now do the same for the other two colors. Clean you brush by rinsing it in water and dry it on a paper towel. Clean your palette by spraying water and it and wipe it with a paper towel.

Squeeze out a dab of the next color and repeat the sticky, creamy, and thin paint exercise. Then paint the third color.

Notice how the color has changed from the sticky paint to the thinned paint, its tint. Sticky paint is used for intense color and rich darks. Diluted paint is used for under-painting washes and glazing. It also tends to dry lighter than it looks when applied.

The samples that you have just painted were all painted on dry paper. Everything can change when put water on your paper and that is what makes watercolor painting really fun!

So now we will play with the amount of water on your paper. Again you will be painting small sample squares, but make them about two inches so you have more room to experiment. Once you have wet the paper, experiment with the three thickness of your paint.

Very Wet Surface
Saturate the paper with lots of water so that it pools on the surface and forms a bubble that sits up on the paper. When you have this much water, you can really let the paint flow but you will have very little control. If the paper starts to dry, add in more clear water to create the maximum amount of paint flow.

Paint with all three colors in that very wet area and observe how the sticky paint, the creamy paint, and the thin paint behave. How much control do you have and how did the paint colors change?

Shiny Surface
Saturate the paper with lots of water so that it pools on the surface. Then using a damp brush, pull out the large pools of water. The surface will be shiny, but you won’t have big puddles and you will have more control of the paint. This is often the best surface to paint on, but the paint will bleed.

Paint with all three colors in that very wet area and observe how the sticky paint, the creamy paint, and the thin paint behave. How much control do you have and how did the paint colors change?

Moist Surface
As the paper continues to dry, the surface will lose its sheen. It will be damp and cool to the touch, but not look wet. The paint will work beautifully on this surface, but it still may bleed into areas where you don’t want it. Often in watercolor you have to wait until your paper is completely dry to have complete control.

Paint with all three colors in that very wet area and observe how the sticky paint, the creamy paint, and the thin paint behave. How much control do you have and how did the paint colors change?


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