When I replaced some of the colours in my Winsor & Newton bijou watercolour box last year, some of the original selection weren’t available so I thought that it would be worth doing another set of swatches to familiarise myself with the new palette.
I’m always impressed by the variety of colours that can be mixed from such a small selection; basically a warm and a cool version of the three primaries with a few useful secondaries, such as sap green and my go-to colour for so much natural history, yellow ochre. I find neutral tint useful too; more versatile than black.
It’s always good practice for me to paint swatches, and to try and hit that midway point between the two colours that I’m mixing. It’s also rather therapeutic to settle down for a while, listening to Radio 3 as I mix colours.
After thirty years, it’s time to upgrade my studio watercolour box. Most of the colours have dried out so I’ve given up on it over the past ten years, preferring to grab one of my more freshly stocked pocket-sized boxes.
I’ve been able to rescue a few of the colours that I’d refilled over the years and, thanks to a friend who spotted an unmissable bargain in a sale (thank you, Godavari!), I have a solid nucleus of Winsor and Newton artist’s watercolours new and unwrapped, ready to pop in.
But that still leaves a whole row of the box to fill.
Felix Scheinnberger’s Urban Watercolor Sketching prompted me to review my colour habits but for specific suggestions for natural history subjects I’ve turned to Agathe Haevermans’ The Art of Botanical Drawing and Drawing and Painting the Seashore.
My primaries are already pretty well covered so my additions fall into three categories; neutrals, violets and greens. Some of the violets, mauves and magentas are tricky – if not impossible – to mix so I’ve added several of those.
A Green Shade
Secondaries such as sap green and olive green aren’t strictly necessary because you can easily mix an approximation from various combinations yellows and blues but having them ready-mixed in the box can save a lot of time.
The darker perylene green might be useful for shadows and leaf veins, as might terre verte and opaque oxide of chromium, a colour that I’ve struggled to find a use for in the past, unless I’ve been painting lichens.
In The Art of Botanical Painting by Margaret Stevens suggests that you should treat every green individually;
‘. . . nothing beats making your own green shade card; I know from experience that if you give six people a palette each with a blob of Cadmium Yellow and Cobalt Blue you will get six different greens, since everyone will use varying proportions of paint and water. There is no substitute for experimentation and practice.’
She warns that manufactured greens can look harsh and inappropriate if taken straight from the tube. I remember viridian dominating my greens when I first started to use it and I probably wouldn’t have included it if I hadn’t rescued it from my previous selection.
In Botanical Painting, Margaret Stevens describes ‘botanical grey’, a transparent mix of light red and French ultramarine. Used well diluted, sometimes with a hint of a reflected colour, it can be useful when painting white flowers.
I don’t have a light red but I’ll experiment with my Indian red (another ‘rescued’ colour) and ultramarine. I’ve never tried Davy’s grey before, so I’m hoping that will prove equally useful.
Winsor and Newton
I’m keen to support my local art shops so I ring around a couple but they don’t stock my favourite Winsor and Newton artist’s colours. Should I go for Daler Rowney instead?
Time to phone a friend. Illustrator John Welding confirms my feeling that Winsor and Newton are about the best, although there are colours in the Daler Rowney range, for instance the warm sepia, which some artists prefer to the Winsor and Newton versions.
This gives Barbara and I the excuse to visit Huddersfield where Calder Graphics in the wonderful Victorian Byram Arcade stock W&N artist’s colours . . . and more, it’s an Aladin’s Cave for those of us who are hooked on artist’s materials, but, after spending £55 on a dozen colours, I resisted the temptation to browse pens and sketchbooks!
AFTER NINE YEARS of almost daily use my smallest watercolour box has been worn down to the metal on the outside, like a battered old ammunition box.I decided that it was time to treat myself to a new one, although I’m keeping the old one so that I don’t have to keep transferring the new box from one art bag to the other.
The new Winsor & Newton Bijou box has the advantage over my old unbranded version, which is exactly the same size, in the arrangement of the half-pan watercolours; I can get an extra two colours in it.
I decided to go with the selection of eight that comes with the box – scarlet lake, permanent rose, Winsor lemon, Winsor green (blue shade), French ultramarine, yellow ochre, burnt sienna and ivory black – removing the tiny brush from the central section to add four extras; cadmium yellow, permanent sap green, cerulean blue and raw umber.
I’m surprised how well ivory black mixes with other colours (the far right column and the second row from the top in my swatches), for instance it makes an olive green when mixed with cadmium yellow.
Made in France and described as a ‘superior hand finished stove enamelled artists metal box’, it seems that unfortunately the Bijou has recently been discontinued but it’s worth checking your local art shop to see if they’ve still got one in stock.
GIVE OR TAKE a few colours that have been swapped around since, this is the box of Winsor & Newton’s artists’ watercolours that I took with me on a tour of England, Wales and Scotland, when I compiled my Britain sketchbook for Collins (1981). One review commented on ‘the brownish greenish charm’ of my sketches. That was partly due to my choice of colours, including so many greens and earth colours in my selection, but also because, in the mainly off season periods when I drew on location, Britain really does have a certain brownish greenish charm.
One of my favourite pages was a double page spread of Rannoch Moor, where I let heather, bog and misty hills fill the entire field of view. You can’t get much more greenish brown than that! The book was printed on slightly tinted paper which muted the colour still further.
I scratched away at brown watercolour washes to suggest some of the lighter stems of rushes and the wake of a Water Vole, swimming across a peaty pool. I’d forgotten that Water Vole until I took the book off the shelf just now.
I can see why these colours appealed to me at the time. If I was making up a similar box today, I’d definitely include a cooler red – alizarin crimson for example. I’ve just added four colours that I happened to have spare, to fill in a few gaps. I could take a guess at the names of most of the remaining original colours – sap green, sepia, burnt sienna and so on – but at least painting these swatches familiarises me with the general layout.
Why have I dug out this battered old paintbox from the back of the watercolours drawer? I’ve got 4 art bags and one art passport wallet on the go at the moment, with sketchbooks ranging from postcard to place-mat in size but it’s frustrating when, like Goldilocks, I grab a bag that is ‘just right’ for the location I’m heading for, then later realise that I’ve forgotten to transfer the watercolours. Hopefully I’ll end up with 5 bags with a reasonable box of watercolours in each.