Things I Didn't Know About Color, Part One (It's Going to be a Long Series)

As I said, I'm a big dummy and there were several things about color, painting and watercolor specifically that I didn't know. Apparently these are all things that everyone else in the whole world already knew and took for granted, because when I would tell people that I had just figured these things out, they would look at me like I just said, "hey, I just realized that these hard white things in my mouth are for chewing food!"

So even though you all know all this stuff already, I will repeat it so you can get a chuckle out of what a dummy I am!

Get this - I never realized before that not all watercolors are transparent.

That totally blew my mind. I always thought that all watercolors were transparent and that all oil and acrylic paints were opaque, and that was one of the big differences between the different types of paint.

I will pause here and wait for the laughter to subside.

It turns out that not all watercolors are transparent at all. They all have different levels of transparency. I use Winsor & Newton Artists' watercolors, and they have an awesome chart on their website here that you can also download as a pdf. The great part is that if you click on a color, it will take you to another page that will tell you if the color is transparent, semi-transparent, semi-opaque or opaque (the four levels of transparency).

So why is this important? Well, lots of reasons, but mostly it's important when you're mixing color. This is because (I know, you already know this) if you mix two transparent pigments, you will get a brilliant result that is vibrant and still transparent (and long as you don't break one of the other rules, more on that in a later post) but if you mix two opaque pigments, your mixture is going to be pretty muddy and obviously not very brilliant or transparent. And if you mix three (or four) transparent pigments you will still have a transparent and colorful result (if you've chosen your colors right) but if you mix three or more opaque pigments you're going to have a muddy mess that isn't pretty at all. And there's all the ranges inbetween, like mixing one transparent and one opaque, etc. So there's a full range of results you can get, based on the opacity alone, not even considering the other properties of the colors.

Also watercolor pigments all have their own level of Staining ability, which means that if a pigment is one that tends to "stain" that you can't lift it off paper or canvas after you've laid it down. And also it seems to me in my limited experience that the pigments marked "Staining" are very intense and stronger than other colors and tend to overpower them in mixes. So it's helpful to know all of that stuff about each color when you're trying to mix a certain color. Which is why it's always a good thing to keep as small a palette as you can know everything there is to know about the colors you're using, at least when you're first starting.

It turns out that the reasons behind these properties have to do with the pigments themselves, so the transparency qualities are true of not only the watercolor version of each color, but the oil and acrylic version of each color as well. For example, Alizarin Crimson is transparent as a watercolor and also as an oil paint and as an acrylic paint. And Cadmium Red is opaque as all three types of paint as well (and all Cadmiums are opaque, by the way, which has been helpful for me to remember).

Anyway, more of this drivel to come. For God's Sake, if some of you normal people read this and it turns out I'm wrong about everything, write a comment and let me know so I don't send the world's three-year-olds off on the wrong path!

I feel kind of sorry for all of you, because it's actually kind of nice to be such a colossal moron. Because I know so little about everything, I get to learn something every day that I didn't know before, and that's actually pretty cool. So in some ways it must suck to be a genius. I'll never know.

Now, I gotta go, the three-year-old down the street is going to show me how to tie my shoes! I'm so excited.