Watercolor Boat Painting Tutorial

boat reference photo
boat reference photo

Want to paint this watercolor boat painting? Follow the step by step instructions (including video at the end) and see how easy this can be!

I just can’t resist painting boats in watercolor. The colors, the details, the sun and shadow – all come together to make painting these watercolor boats so much fun. In this watercolor boat tutorial I break down all the steps and show you how you can paint this scene. Boat watercolor paintings can seem daunting but if you take things slowly it’s amazing how they come together.

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Watercolor Materials Needed

  • Mechanical pencil
  • Watercolor paper (I like Fabriano Artistco 140lb cold press)
  • Size 10 round sable or synthetic sable
    • Permanent rose
    • Vermillion/pyrrole red/naphthol red
    • Ultramarine blue
    • Cobalt blue/cerulean blue
    • Yellow ochre
    • Lemon yellow
    • Burnt Sienna
    • Black
  • Value Scale
  • Color isolator
  • Palette/paper towels/water pot
  • Small spray bottle of water

Watercolor Boat Drawing

Watercolor fishing boats drawing
Watercolor fishing boats drawing

The drawing for this painting is pretty important. Sometimes I won’t put much detail into a drawing and just indicate the main shapes. For instance a landscape with trees can be pretty sparse in the drawing. All the detail and texture goes in by eye with just paint. But for this scene there is a lot going on and we want to indicate the position of a lot of different things.

Using a Grid Helps With Drawing Accuracy

I did this drawing by eye but, if you’re not confident with your drawing, you can grid up your paper lightly with pencil and draw it square by square. That way you can be sure you’re getting everything in the right place. It’s not a foolproof method but it gives you far less room for error. I’ve included a gridded up version of the reference below.

Fishing boat reference photo with grid
Fishing boat reference photo with grid

The aspect ratio of the photo is the same as for a 10″x14″ piece of watercolor paper. If you mark your paper into quarters on each side and join them up to make a 4×4 grid you can transfer the drawing more easily onto your paper.

Take Some Time to Make a Plan for Your Painting

Before we dive into the painting it always helps to take a few minutes and plan out what you’re going to do. It can be hard to do this – we want to jump straight in and get those brushes moving and paint splashing around. But a few minutes thought at the start always makes for a better painting. We can spot possible problem areas and make sure we know roughly how we’re going to proceed.

Which Direction is the Light Coming From?

I first make note of where the light is coming from and where the shadows fall. In this case the sun is on our right and the shadows are falling on the left. This is always good to keep in the back of your mind. If the reference is unclear in some areas you can work out how the lights and darks should fall even if you can’t make it out from the photo.

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Where are the Lights and Darks?

The next thing I do is note where my lightest lights are and my darkest darks. Once we’ve located these then we know that everything else has to fall somewhere between those areas. In this case our lightest light is the white hull on the left boat. The darkest darks are in the shadow underneath the boats and possibly inside the cabins. I keep this in mind. Nothing else can be darker or lighter than these areas.

Where are the Main Shapes and Values?

This one is trickier but it pays off giving it some thought. Even though there’s a lot of detail going on in this photo I like to break it down into 4 or 5 main value shapes. In this case I would estimate (or measure using our value scale) the value of the following areas

This may seem like a lot to work out ahead of time but getting those big value shapes right is an enormous help getting a scene to hang together and getting it to be convincing.

Identify a Few of the Colors

Watercolor Color Swatches
Watercolor Color Swatches

Doing some test mixes of a few of the main colors can also be a good idea. It’s much easier to do this before the painting. When you’re in the middle of the painting there’s so much going on it’s hard to stop and think about this. It’s a bit like prepping for a recipe. Getting all the ingredients measured out ready ahead of time makes putting a meal together much easier. (Not that I ever really do that – but I should!) In this painting I mixed as I went along but it’s a better idea to try out your color mixes at the start. If you think you can’t remember how you mixed your colors then putting a pencil note next to the swatch is a good idea. It’s doesn’t have to be anything complicated – just a list of the colors is enough.

Watercolor Boat Painting – Finally we Paint!

So let’s start painting. We’re going to paint this in layers and build up the painting from light to dark. We’re first going to block in all the shapes with their lightest colors. Once those are dry we can go back in and add in the darks. This way of working takes a bit of getting used to. As we’re starting with the light colors of all the shapes things won’t start to look three dimensional until quite late on in the painting.

Finished pink carnation watercolor painting tutorials

I have many more step-by-step tutorials and videos!

We want things to look flat to start with.

If we put in too much value variation in the early stages then the darks won’t make as much impact when we put those in. In these early stages try and match the color and value as best you can to the reference. And, most importantly, keep these early washes even. Don’t be tempted to try and make things look right at this stage. It takes a bit of faith but once you get used to it it will all make sense.

Keep Going With the Light Values

Keep going across all of the main shapes of the boats. One thing to remember is that we’re putting in the light value of each different shape but these values may vary from shape to shape. For instance, the hull of the red boat is a bright orange-red in the light. The actual value of this is around a 5 i.e. mid-way down the value scale. If we compare this to the beige area above we can see that it’s a little darker. The beige area in the light is around a 7 but it’s still in the light.

Similarly the red stripe on the left hand boat is around a 4 (i.e. darker than a mid-value) in the light. If you have a value scale and a printout of the reference you can measure the values directly. If the color is distracting (and it can be with bright colors like these) squint your eyes and it becomes easier to judge value.

Use the ChromaMagic Tool to Measure Color

chromamagic for fishing boat watercolor painting
chromamagic for fishing boat watercolor painting

Alternatively you can load up the reference in ChromaMagic and click on different areas. It will show you the three components of the color – hue, value and chroma. The color notation is part of the Munsell way of measuring color. It is incredibly useful in painting and makes color very straightforward to analyze.

Paint in the Sea in the Background

Add the sea in a fairly dark blue
Add the sea in a fairly dark blue

The sea in the background goes in next. This is a fairly dark blue and helps to tie the boats in the scene and give us some depth.

As you can see at this point the painting isn’t looking three-dimensional. Don’t panic! This is exactly how it should be looking at this point.

Paint in the Sand Around Your Watercolor Boats

Add a wash for the sand
Add a wash for the sand

Next we’re going to put in the sand. I really like this bit as we get to put in some texture with our spray bottle. One thing to be careful of – sand isn’t yellow. Or rather it is yellow but a very grayed out low chroma yellow. In this scene it’s a kind of beige so make sure you add in some black to your mix to take out some of the brightness. I’ve made the mistake of painting sand far too bright in color many times. Again mixing a swatch of color beforehand helps a lot as does using ChromaMagic for checking the chroma.

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Use a Spray Bottle to Add Texture

While your sand wash is still wet take a spray bottle of water and lightly spritz the surface. If the paper is the right level of dampness the water will add small sparkles and splodges in the paint. It adds some interest and texture to the foreground. This can take a bit of practice to get right. If the paper is too wet the water will just disperse and disappear. If the paper is too dry the water won’t do anything at all.

Watercolor Boat Painting – Add the Sky

Note: I’ve got the order slightly wrong here. I’ve already put in some of the darks on the boats before doing the sky. The order doesn’t really matter. You can put in the sky before the shadows and everything should work out fine.

Let’s put in some sky now. The reference photo doesn’t really have much in the way of clouds and I didn’t really want a big expanse of blue up there. So I’ve invented some cloud shapes. You have a lot of freedom here. Put in some blue around wherever you fancy the clouds to be. While the paint is wet take a clean (very clean) damp brush and soften the edges of the clouds. The blue pigment will diffuse out into the damp areas of paper making lovely soft and convinving clouds.

Watercolor Boat Painting – Second Layer Darks

Now this bit is where the painting starts to come to life. We’re going to put in the shadow sides of the objects and make them look three-dimensional. Adding in these contrasting areas also helps the visual impact of the scene and it will make the image more interesting as well as more realistic.

Don’t Add Color in the Light!

We’ve already painted in the light sides of our objects so we won’t be putting any color in there at all. We’re just going to paint in the shadow colors on mostly the left sides. Make sure your colors are at least a couple of shades darker than your light sides and things will start to take shape. When you get to the insides of the cabins we’re even darker as very little light is getting in there – you don’t need to paint things – just a few dark shapes at different angles will suggest a lot of detail.

Be careful with the shadow on the white hull. We don’t want to go too dark here and keeping that shadow light will really suggest strong sun.

Add a Cast Shadow to Anchor the Boats to the Ground

Finally add some cast shadows on the sand and right at the bottom of the boats. This will make the boats convincingly anchored to the ground.

The Magic Bit – Details on Your Watercolor Boat Painting

Details - masts and rigging
Details – masts and rigging

By this point you should have something that’s looking pretty three-dimensional. This next bit really adds sparkle and interest to your watercolor boat painting! We’re going to put in some lovely details. Put in the masts and rigging with a small synthetic brush. Make sure they’re not too dark – a mid value gray is plenty dark enough here. The other thing to take care with is not to make your lines too continuous. Leave a few gaps here and there as it will make the masts more convincing than if you carefully paint them in one continuous line.

Masts are put in lightly - not too dark
Masts are put in lightly – not too dark

Continue with the masts and smaller details. Add in a few lines for the railings and the ropes holding the buoys. A few light lines on the white hull will also suggest their structure. I hope everything is looking really good by now!

Flags and Signs

Final details in your watercolor boat - flags and signs
Final details in your watercolor boat – flags and signs

We’re right at the end now. A few red marks for the flags will add a pop of color. The signs on the boat go in with an almost black background. The lettering is suggested with a little opaque white.

Final Thoughts on This Watercolor Boat Painting

If you tried this painting I hope it turned out well. I would love to see your results – please feel free to send them to me. I have also videoed the whole process and you can paint along with the full painting.

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50 Easy Watercolor Ideas

Well actually only 15 so far. I will be adding to these including video in the next couple of months.

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15. Watercolor Elephants

14. Watercolor Lemons

13. Watercolor Lighthouse

12. Watercolor Fox

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11. Onions and Garlic

10. Fruit Watercolor Still Life

9. Watercolor Heron

8. Watercolor Sunrise Landscape

7. Watercolor Horse

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6. Watercolor Beach

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5. Watercolor House

4. Watercolor Fire Hydrant

3. Watercolor Shoes

2. Watercolor Cat

1. Watercolor Cupcake

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Watercolor Daffodils

Watercolor daffodils have been on the docket to paint for a while since the snow has departed. Yesterday’s version wasn’t successful and I pushed it to a mess. But today’s is much better. I’ll leave it on the easel and look at it with fresh eyes tomorrow.

Light and Shadow Were The Main Subject

The main star of the show isn’t really the daffodils but the creamer and the shadows. But I wanted to have the flowers in there for some value contrast and those wonderful subtle shades on the petals. The leaves especially give a strong dark vertical which sets off the very light values in the flowers, the creamer and the surface. The background shadows were a huge challenge. My first version had them far too dark and the washes were grubby and uneven. I vacillated a lot about the color of those back shadows. I didn’t want them to be too dominant but also didn’t want a dull grey back there. In the end I think the slight purple worked well.

Daffodils are Surprisingly Hard to Paint Well

I have to say daffodils are not the easiest of flowers. The colors of the petals are very low chroma and can be hard to mix in watercolor. But I think these work pretty well. I would have liked a little more contrast in the petals between light and shade but didn’t want to destroy the delicacy. But anyway – there’s plenty more in the garden so lots of opportunity to practice

Other Examples of Watercolor Daffodils

It is daffodil season and, although these are the first of this season I’ve had some pretty good success previously. Here are a couple of previous versions:

daffodils in glass vase watercolor
Daffodils with Paul Foxton
Watercolor daffodils in coffee pot
Watercolor daffodils in coffee pot

Both these paintings were from sessions with Paul Foxton. He’s a great fan of painting daffodils and it’s always worthwhile taking one of his workshops.


Vermont farm watercolor

Online Zoom Classes

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The Munsell Color System

Find out about the Munsell color system and how easy it is to use. Includes access to free pdfs and the online Munsell tool ChromaMagic.

It’s Live! The All New ChromaMagic App!

Brand new interface and lots of new features!

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How I Discovered the Munsell Color System

If there’s one thing that took my painting to the next level it was understanding and using the Munsell color system. I’d known about it for a long time but hadn’t really studied it in detail. To be honest I’d looked at it and thought ‘oh that looks far too complicated for my needs’. Reader, I was wrong. If I’d used this way of thinking about color years ago I would be far more advanced in watercolor painting than I am. There are a number of different color standards out there but Munsell is definitely the best one to study for painting.

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My Color Was All Wrong

Just before I really got into Munsell I’d been flailing around trying to work out why my color wasn’t working in my paintings. I knew something was wrong and I kind of knew what it was but I didn’t know how to fix it. My problem was that color wasn’t really working in my paintings. They were all coming out really garish and the colors weren’t working in harmony. I tried various things – really trying to get the values right, graying down all my colors so they were more muted, really trying to simplify shapes. A lot of ‘really trying’ but not a lot of ‘really working’.

Munsell to the Rescue

I knew my color wasn’t working and I knew that I wasn’t really seeing color as value. But I’d missed a big part of color and that’s where Munsell came to the rescue.

Munsell is Increasingly Popular Amongst Artists

A growing number of people are using or starting to use Munsell. Off the top of my head these include Kathy Speranza, Graydon Parrish, Anthony Waichulis, and Richard Murdock. But I want to give a shout-out to Paul Foxton. He introduced me to Munsell through his website and his fabulous YouTube videos. Especially if you’re an oil painter I highly recommend you check him out.

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What we’ll cover about the Munsell System

In this post we’ll be learning about color as defined by the Munsell color system. This breaks down colors into three components – hue, value, and chroma. We’ll be defining each one and seeing how they look on a color wheel and in individual Munsell color charts. We’ll then look at how we can use this to really sharpen our perception of color. This, rather than the application of paint to paper, was the thing that is transformational about Munsell.

History of Munsell Color

I won’t go into detail about how the Munsell color theory came about. There are some great pages elsewhere that can tell you much more than I can. They also have a set of Munsell color project stories about how different people have used Munsell.

What is the Munsell System?

Munsell gives us a straightforward, reproducible and easily learned way to think about color. It breaks color into three components and we can classify any color according to those components. This Munsell color notation lets us define almost any color we want. To see how this notation system works let’s start with the first (and easiest) component.

Munsell System First Component – Hue

In the Munsell color system hue is the first component. At its simplest this is the name of the color. Red, Yellow, Blue, Purple etc. There’s a slight wrinkle in the way Munsell denotes these that can feel a little weird to begin with. Instead of saying red – in Munsell it is R. Yellow is Y, green is G, blue is B and purple is P.

So far so good. The intermediate hues which we might call orange, yellowy green, pink etc are denoted as follows:

  • Orange YR (Yellow Red)
  • Yellowish green GY (Green yellow)
  • Greenish blue BG (Blue green)
  • Purplish blue PB (purple blue)
  • Pinkish purple RP (red purple)

It takes a while to get used to this (especially the orange = YR) but becomes second nature pretty quickly. If we put them all in order we get

R – YR – Y – GY – G – BG – B – PB – P – RP

Munsell hue notation

I keep this Munsell color order in my head. The hues flow naturally from one to another so it’s good to memorize it. Let’s have a look at these main hues on a wheel.

Munsell Color Wheel – 10 Hues

10 hue Munsell color wheel
10 hue Munsell color wheel

You’ll notice that this differs from the traditional painters wheel. The traditional painters wheel is organized around the ‘primaries’ (red yellow blue) and the secondaries (orange, green,purple) and has the primaries opposite the secondaries.

Each Hue is Divided into Four

Now these main hues aren’t really enough for us to describe the colors we see. So Munsell color theory breaks each of these main hues into 4 and gives them numbers.

2.5Y 5Y 7.5Y 10Y

Munsell hue components for yellow

Each hue ranges from 2.5 to 10 and the hue changes slightly from each number to the next. So we end up with 40 different hues. Now, this seems like a lot. But in practice you really only need to remember the 10 main ones and just estimate whereabouts in that hue we are. For instance consider this color :

Example Munsell Chip
Example Munsell Chip

We can immediately see it’s an orange so we’re in the YR hue. But is it a reddish orange (and so maybe 2.5YR) or is it a yellowish orange (in which case we’d be maybe 7.5YR or 10YR)? That’s pretty easy to estimate so we can work out which part of the wheel we’re in quite quickly. In this case it’s leaning slightly more towards yellow than orange so we’re likely to be 7.5YR or 10YR (it is actually 7.5YR)

Painting From Nature is Concentrated in a Small Part of the Hue Wheel

In practice when painting (especially painting from nature) we spend a lot of time in a fairly small part of the wheel. The reds, oranges, yellows and greenish yellows and parts of blue are where we spend 90% of our time. If you’re painting flowers or a lot of manufactured things then we can venture into the turquoises (BG) and purples (P and RP).

So how do all of these hues look on the wheel?

Munsell Color Wheel – 40 Hues

Munsell Color System - 40 hue color wheel
Munsell Color System – 40 hue color wheel

Isn’t that pretty?

Munsell Color System Second Component – Value

So we have our hues but of course we don’t just work with these very bright colors. In the Munsell Color System value is the next component. That is to say how light or dark the color is.

Munsell Value Scale – Dark = 0, Light = 10

Munsell measures value in 11 steps where black = 0 and white = 10. For our colors that means we’ll have values ranging from 1 to 9. This is what they look like in gray.

Munsell Value Scale
Munsell Value Scale

We can change all our hues to have different values. Here’s what the color wheel looks like if we darken (value 4) or lighten (value 8) our hues.

Pretty cool yes?

Munsell Color System Final Component – Chroma

Now this bit can take a bit of time to get your head around. We can’t describe all the colors we see just by hue and value. There’s one vital piece missing and it makes a very important difference.

If you look at all the wheels we’ve seen so far the colors are all very bright. Even on the dark wheel they have a lot of intensity to them. But a lot (and it’s a LOT) of the color we see around us isn’t that bright. Let’s bring out an example:

Scene with low chroma colors
Scene with low chroma colors

Look at the sunlit beach, the beautiful blue sky, the intense blue sea. Surely all the colors in this will be as bright as we can make them? But no. I’ve isolated a few areas and extracted the colors. They’re pretty muted. In fact the brightest color in the whole thing is the sky (top right swatch) and even that isn’t close to maximum intensity. And this is a pretty intense scene! Imagine what a grey overcast day would do to colors.

Munsell uses Chroma to Describe How Saturated or Intense a Color is.

Hmm. So we need a way of describing how intense or saturated our color is. And Munsell quantifies this and calls this chroma. Chroma in color can be low or high. A low chroma color (chroma 2) is very desaturated and grayed out. A high chroma color (e.g. 12 and above) is very bright and saturated. And chroma 0 colors have no color at all and are completely gray. The chroma of color is easy to overlook but Munsell makes it easy to consider. Let’s see some more examples!

Sand is Not Bright Yellow!

Sand and sea chroma strips
Sand and sea chroma strips

For the bottom three colors in the beach scene I’ve taken the strip of colors at the same value from the relevant Munsell card. Each of these strips has colors at different chromas but the same value. In each case the colors are way down the chroma scale. Two are chroma 2 and the other is chroma 4. And yet they look pretty vibrant in the photo! We obviously need to pay attention to chroma.

Munsell Notation System

We have our three components of color but how do we represent them? The hue we represent by the number and the hue letter or letters. This means things like 10R, 2.5YR, 5PB. The value and chroma follow afterwards separated by a slash. So a high chroma mid-value orange could be something like 2.5YR 5/12. A low chroma low value blue would be something like 5PB 2/4. It takes a bit of getting used to how this color notation works but it’s so useful to be able to precisely define colors that it’s worth it.

7.5RP 8/6

Hue Value/Chroma
Vermont farm watercolor

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Hue, Value, and Chroma are independent

Now let’s say we have a bright red color (5R) at a value 5. If it’s a bright color (i.e. high chroma) it might have a chroma 12 say. If it’s a dull color it might have a chroma 2. But both these colors have the same value. We can keep the value the same and change the chroma. Let’s see some examples and check:

Munsell chroma strip for 10R value 6
Munsell chroma strip for 10R value 6
Black and white version of Munsell chroma strip 10R value 5
Black and white version of Munsell chroma strip 10R value 5

This can be a bit weird to get straight. It’s easy to think ‘oh I’m making this color grayer then it must be darker’. Not necessarily! We can absolutely keep the value the same and reduce the chroma. And a lot of time we need to if we want convincing color. Let’s see some charts to see how this works.

Full Munsell Color Chart – 5R

This is the full range of values and chromas for one of our hues 5R. I know it looks like a lot of information but these get very familiar very quickly. We have chroma going left to right (high chroma on the right) and value going up and down (high value at the top).

Munsell Color System - Munsell Chart 5R
Munsell Color System – Munsell Chart 5R

Now the first thing you notice about this is that it’s not rectangular! The highest chromas are in the middle and there are fewer high chroma colors as we go higher or lower in value. This is typical – high and low values have maximum chromas around 2 or 4. And the shape of these charts is not the same for each hue! Some colors have their highest chromas at a high value. For instance here is the 5Y chart:

Full Munsell Hue Chart – 5Y

Munsell Color System - Munsell Chart 5Y
Munsell Color System – Munsell Chart 5Y

Wow. So the brightest yellow we can get has the highest value! And as it gets darker it goes green!!! Yellow is a weird one I admit. Mostly the charts have their highest chroma around a mid value.

If we look at a few more charts we’ll notice something else. The highest chroma we can get varies between the hues. If we look at purple for instance we can get really high chromas but a blue only reaches an 8! Seems counterintuitive as blue and purple are pretty close on the color wheel but there it is!

Recap of the Three Components of Color

So for any color we come across we can define it in terms of 3 components – hue, value, chroma. We could do it in any order – hue, chroma, value or chroma, value, hue – but it’s generally easiest to go hue, value, chroma.

Hue – the name of the color
Value – how light or dark the color is
Chroma – how saturated or gray the color is

So how do we use all this Munsell stuff then?

Munsell Color System PDF


The conversion from screen colors (rgb) to Munsell notation is freely available online. The ChromaMagic team has generated a pdf from these that is available to download. If you sign up for these you’ll also gain access to the fantastic ChromaMagic Munsell tool described below.

ChromaMagic – Munsell Color System Online

ChromaMagic Munsell Tool
ChromaMagic Munsell Tool

It can be really useful as a learning tool and a checking tool to see which Munsell chips match different parts of a photo. The ChromaMagic tool is free to use and lets you upload your own photo to see the diffrerent Munsell notations. See here for signups and access.

Munsell Color System Book

The gold standard for Munsell colors is the Munsell color book (or the Munsell book of color). It is fabulous, contains 40 color charts with removable chips, and costs an eye-watering amount of money. I managed to buy mine second hand from ebay. The person selling it was a Canadian gemologist who was retiring and I was happy to take it off his hands. If you’re feeling flush then this is definitely the thing to get.

However, if you’re just getting into Munsell or just want to try it and see if you like it (you will!) there are other options. None of these are perfect but they will get you on your way.

Munsell Student Book

This is a great little book and has lots of exercises and history and stuff which is well worth going through. But the main reason for buying this is it has a set of Munsell charts for a subset of the hues. It has charts and chips for all the 5 hues (5Y,5YR,5Y,5GY,5G,5BG,5B,5PB,5P).

However, for these charts to be really useful you need some intermediate hues as well. I find that if you have the 5 hues and the 10 hues you can get a pretty good match to most colors. The 5 charts in the student book aren’t quite enough to work with. But it will get you a long way and definitely be useful. Again older versions sometimes come up on ebay and can be pretty cheap.

Paul Centore Book

Paul has done a lot of work producing a number of products that are very useful to us Munsellites. His value scale is well worth getting even if you have no interest in Munsell color. He’s also worked at getting the best printed version of Munsell color charts and has produced a binder of all 40 charts. The caveat is that printing will never get you perfect matches to paint colors.

The big Munsell color book has painted chips and they are guaranteed to be accurate. I’ve compared Paul’s chips to the Munsell book chips and they’re very close. And for the price it’s a really good option. The only thing is you can’t remove the chips like you can in the big book and the student book. You could laminate the pages and cut out the chips by hand but that may be overkill.

Munsell Color Tree

Now I don’t own one of these but I have seen one at a workshop. It looks very cool but it does only have the 5 hues (5R, 5Y etc). I would suggest the student book or the Paul Centore book would be more useful. I will probably end up getting one though 🙂

Print Your Own Chips

I wouldn’t recommend this and there’s a catch-22 here. You need to cailbrate your printer to get anywhere near usable accuracy. I tested a page just with the default printer settings and the hue was off by a couple of charts which is huge. After calibrating (my printer is an Epson 7750) I got very close (as close as the Centore book) but here’s the thing. You need the real chips to compare to to make sure your printer is doing the right thing. And if you have the real chips then you don’t need the printed version.

How to Work with Munsell

Okay enough of the theory and charts and stuff. How do we actually use this to make our paintings better? This is the way I look at it and the way I use it. I use Munsell to analyze what I see and improve my color perception. When I start a new painting I identify a set of colors that will make up the painting, work out their Munsell colors and mix up swatches for each color. This may sound like a lot of work but even with a fairly complicated painting I don’t mix up too many colors. It’s usually around 6 or 7.

How to Identify a Color

If you’re working from a screen with a photo I would recommend using the online ChromaMagic tool. I prefer to work from a printout but either one will work. Of course photos don’t make the best paintings but for learning they’re the best method. If you’re working from life there are a lot more variables in play but practicing the process with printed or screen references will transfer over to real scenes.

Color Isolator

gray color isolator
gray color isolator

If you’re working with a printout and chips a color isolator is a handy tool. This is just a piece of value 5 card with a 1/2 inch square cut out. When placed over a section of a photo the gray surround isolates the region from its surroundings. This removes the effect of any surrounding colors and makes it easier for us to judge the color.

How to Practice Seeing Color Accurately

Take your reference and either load it up into ChromaMagic or print it out and have your isolator and chips handy. Follow the 4 steps for a variety of regions on your reference. You’ll soon find that some colors are much easier to match than others.

  1. Pick a spot on your reference.
  2. First estimate the hue.
  3. Estimate the value.
  4. Estimate the chroma

Check your estimates!!! This is the bit that really improves your skills. Once you’ve made your guess check it with your chips or ChromaMagic. You’ll probably be off and maybe quite a lot off when you first start. But the immediate feedback will improve your guesses really quickly. It’s the ability to guess and check in quick succession that hones your skills. You can use your own references for this but I’ve put together a set of exercises that will take you through a range of the hues, values and chromas.

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Brass Ginger Jar Oil Study

Brass ginger jar oil study
Brass ginger jar oil study

I’ve had this ginger jar in the cupboard for ages and have never painted it. Today was the day. And boy how I regretted getting one with all those divots on it.

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Here’s the painting station:

Brass ginger jar painting station
Brass ginger jar painting station

What Colors Make Brown?

What colors make brown? Find out many ways to mix colors for brown. One of these might surprise you. It certainly did me.

What colors make brown - ways to mix brown
What colors make brown – ways to mix brown

What is the color brown?

Now have you ever really thought about the color brown? To be honest until a couple of years ago I hadn’t given it much thought. I just really thought of it as another color. We have reds, yellows, blues, greens, purples etc and I tucked it in with all of those. But it’s not like those colors. We tend to think of it as a separate color. Personally I almost never find myself mixing brown paint. My color palette always contains burnt sienna (a close second behind ultramarine blue) which I use a lot. However, I very often use burnt sienna to mix colors and don’t use it straight from the tube. But back to our browns – if we’re mixing brown paint we need to know exactly what brown is before we can create it!

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Where is Brown on the Color Wheel?

Color wheel what colors make brown
Color wheel what colors make brown

So let’s take a look at our color wheel. Around the outside we have all our different colors (or hues). Where is brown? Hmmm it’s not there. But the color wheel has all of the colors so it must be there somewhere.

If we take a closer look at our color wheel all of the colors are very saturated. They’re the brightest we can get to in paint. We know that brown isn’t bright so let’s redraw our color wheel and darken each of the colors on the outside.

color wheel what colors make brown
color wheel what colors make brown

Aha! So there are our brown colors! And if we place the wheels together which color is it the darker version of?

Color wheel - brown is a dark orange

Orange! Brown is a dark orange!

Wow! I’d never thought of brown that way. Brown is a dark orange! But if you think about it it makes sense. We know brown is a ‘warm’ color so it makes sense it would be over near the reds and oranges. So now we know where brown sits on the color wheel we can answer the question ‘what colors do you mix to make brown?’.

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What Colors Make Brown? Orange and Black make Brown!

So one way to mix brown is to take an orange and darken it with a little black. Let’s try it.

what colors make brown - orange and black
what colors make brown – orange and black

Yup. That looks brown. And if we put it next to our trusty burnt sienna they look almost identical. Now in practice I would never actually mix brown this way. If I needed a brown the color of burnt sienna I would get out some burnt sienna. But it’s handy to know that it can be done.

Red and Yellow and Black make Brown

Now if orange and black make brown can we mix brown with red, yellow and black? We know red and yellow make orange and orange and black make brown so will this work? Let’s try it out.

red plus yellow plus black make brown
red plus yellow plus black make brown

Yes indeedy it works. Good to know but it’s a pretty roundabout way of mixing so probably not too useful in real life.

Are there any other ways to mix brown? Let’s go back to our color wheel and look again.

Join Colors Across the Color Wheel to Find Out What They Make

A good rule of thumb with color mixing is that if you have two paint colors around the outside or your color wheel and draw a line between them you’ll end up with the color somewhere along that line. It’s not a hard and fast rule as pigments sometimes interact differently when they mix together but it’s a rough guide.

What colors make brown - blue and orange
What colors make brown – blue and orange

So looking at the color wheel we should be able to mix brown by picking two colors across from each other that cross through the brown section. The first one we’re going to try is red + yellow + blue. We know red and yellow make orange and if we join orange and blue the line goes through the brown wedge. This is the ‘classic’ recipe for brown so we’re pretty sure it’s going to work and the color wheel also says this. How well does it work in practice?

What Colors Make Brown? Red Blue Yellow Make Brown!

red yellow and blue make brown
red yellow and blue make brown

Pretty good! Yup that’s definitely a brown mix and it’s pretty close to our trusty burnt sienna.

Orange and Blue Make Brown

Back to the wheel? What other combinations could we try. Well let’s try blue and orange directly. We’ve kind of done this already with the red + yellow + blue but let’s see if this will work.

What colors make brown - orange and blue!
What colors make brown – orange and blue!

Another brown!

Red and Green Make Brown

Red and Green Make Brown
Red and Green Make Brown

What else can we try? Taking another look at our wheel we see that both red and green are the same distance from orange. So according to our rule if we mix them they’ll meet in the middle and make brown. And they do!

Red-orange and green make brown
Red-orange and green make brown
What colors make brown - red and green
What colors make brown – red and green

Yellow and Purple make Brown

Yellow and violet make brown
Yellow and violet make brown

Now things get little weird. If we look at our wheel then yellow + purple shouldn’t really make brown. They should make gray as they’re almost directly opposite each other. But let’s try them and see.

Yellow and violet make brown
Yellow and violet make brown

Well. At first sight they shouldn’t make brown but they do. Another one for the list. Let’s think a little bit more about this combination. We’re using our wheel as a guide but it’s not perfect. If we were combining different colored lights (different wavelengths) then yes, we’d get a perfect mix. But we’re not – we’re using paint. Paint is made up of ‘stuff’ that absorbs some wavelengths of light and reflects others and it does it in different proportions. An orange paint in theory should only reflect orange light and absorb everything else. In practice it reflects small amounts of all colors of light. Our brains then interpret these different wavelengths and call it ‘orange’.

So pigment mixing is complicated. And the reason yellow and purple can make brown is due to the slight bias of the yellow and purple towards orange. If you take a greenish yellow and and bluish purple you won’t get brown you’ll get something slightly the other side of the wheel.

What Two Colors Make Brown?

So now we know. We have a number of answers to the question ‘what 2 colors make brown’. We have

Oh and for the answer to ‘what 3 colors make brown’ we have

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What Colors Make Brown – Different Shades of Brown

We’ve found a number of ways to mix a standard burnt sienna color but brown comes in many shades and variations. How do we mix those?

What Colors Make Dark Brown

Well let’s start with the obvious. Black is the darkest color so if you want to make dark brown then add some extra black. And this does work. Let’s try it with all our orange and black mix and our yellow and violet mix:

what colors make brown - vermilion and black
what colors make brown – vermilion and black
yellow violet and black make dark brown
yellow violet and black make dark brown

Yes that works. But black tends to gray down colors so are there other ways? What about our blue and orange combination? If we add a little more blue to our orange than before that should pull it darker. But our blue probably isn’t dark enough to make a really dark brown. What other blues could we try?

How about Payne’s gray? I know it’s called gray but it’s really a dark blue.

Orange and dark blue make dark brown
Orange and dark blue make dark brown

Actually that last one was a bit of a cheat. Payne’s gray is a combination of pigments – often ultramarine and black. That’s why it appears blue. So we’re really just using orange + blue + black for a dark brown. Just like we did in the previous section.

Similarly using a dark blue in our red+yellow+blue combination will also make a dark brown

red, yellow, dark blue make dark brown
red, yellow, dark blue make dark brown

What Colors Make Light Brown – Light Brown Color

That’s the darks dealt with. What about the lighter browns? In other words what colors make tan or beige?

For most of our mixes we should just be able to add water (for watercolor) or white (for acrylics or oils) to lighten all of our browns. With watercolor the color hue shouldn’t shift when you add water. With oils and acrylics adding white can push the color to a slightly different hue. It’s something to watch out for and can be quite noticeable if you’re mixing a very red brown. Here’s the results:

orange, black and water/white make light brown
orange, black and water/white make light brown

What Colors Make Brown – Gray Browns

We can think about color as having 3 properties. These are hue, value and chroma. I’ll describe these briefly below

Hue – The Name of the Color

The hue is the name of the color and corresponds to the colors on the outside of our first color wheel. These are generally the ‘name’ of the color red, green, yellow etc.

Value – How Light or Dark the Color is

Value is the name for how light or dark the color is. Conventions vary but I use the Munsell notation and measure value from dark – 0 to light – 10. You can think of this as how light or dark a color would appear if we viewed it in black and white. Black would be 0 and white would be 10.

Different Pigments have Different Values

Our colored pigments straight out of the tube don’t all have the same value. Some are very light. For instance yellow, even a very bright yellow is often a value 9. A blue on the other hand can be much darker. Ultramarine in watercolor is about a value 4. In oil paint it is even darker – about a value 2.

Chroma – How Saturated or Bright a Color is

This is the one that everybody goes huh? when we first encounter it. Chroma is how bright or intense a color is. A high chroma color would be something like a napthol red which hits a chroma number of 14 or 16. A lower chroma color would be something like yellow ochre which comes in around a chroma 6. And a completely neutral gray would have a chroma 0.

A Diversion into Defining Colors

I just want to take a minute here and lay something out. And this is the thing that takes a while to get your head around. But it all makes sense once you think about it for a minute.

Hue, Value and Chroma are independent

What I mean to say is that you can have a lower chroma color *of the same value*. You can gray out a color without it becoming darker. Of course you can also do both – you can lower the chroma and lower the value but you can do either one independent of each other. That was a confusing sentence – I think a picture is needed.

10R Value 4 strip
10R Value 4 strip

These red/browns in the strip are all a value 4 (there’s a black and white picture of them to prove it).

10R value 4 in black and white
10R value 4 in black and white

And they’re all the same hue (orange/red). But the chroma is changing from 2 to 12. And you can see that the color gets more saturated as it goes from left to right.

Low Chroma Colors are Very Common in Nature

This is important because in painting we often need lower chroma colors. A lot of colors in nature are low chroma – sometimes surprisingly so. An example I often come across is the color of sand. If you ask anyone what the color of sand is they’d likely say ‘yellow’. If you take a look at the picture below and ask yourself what the color of the sand is you’d also say ‘that’s yellow sand’.

how to make brown - the color of sand
how to make brown – the color of sand

But let’s isolate that color and take a look at it without its surroundings.

Color of sand is a low chroma yellow
Color of sand is a low chroma yellow

Hmmm. Doesn’t look quite so yellow now.

But it’s still a yellow! It’s just a very low chroma yellow. That’s our color of sand. It’s definitely in the yellow part of the wheel but it’s just very very grayed out (or low chroma if you want to use the proper lingo).

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Paints Straight From the Tube are Often High Chroma

Part of the reason I’m bringing this whole chroma thing up is this. A lot of the paints that we buy are extremely high chroma straight from the tube.

We need to be careful of the chroma when painting because our paints can be much higher chroma than the objects or scenes that we’re painting. We often need to tone them down (or lower their chroma) for them to be convincing.

You Can’t Mix Higher Chroma!

And all this was for this point.

You can’t mix a higher chroma color from 2 lower chroma colors

If you need a higher chroma color than you have on your palette you can’t mix it. (I’m sure there is an exception to this rule but it’s very rare and I can’t think of one off the top of my head) This is why all our favorite pigments have such high chroma. You can’t mix them!

Back to the Subject – What Colors Make Brown?

All that digression was for this: browns aren’t just high or low value – they can be high or low *chroma*. And we need them more often that you’d think. A lot of the colors we’ve mixed so far have been high chroma. But how do we mix the low chroma ones?

Complementary Colors

We know that if we mix complements (reds and greens, blues and oranges, yellows and purples) we should get a gray. We know that brown is a dark orange so we *should* be able to lower the chroma by adding in its complement – blue. Let’s try it – to the brushes!

Well. Yes it’s possible but it’s a bit hit and miss. Adding a complement in can swing the hue quite a lot and we probably don’t want that. Now don’t get me wrong using complements in painting is a great technique to have in your armory as they, well, complement each other. But we’re talking about mixing a specific color here and adding in complements can get fiddly.

Adding Black or Gray to Lower Chroma

We want to make a color grayer don’t we. So why not just add gray? If we have say a value 5 brown (like burnt sienna) we could add in a value 5 gray and it will get grayer yes? Sounds plausible – to the palette!

So we now can mix a whole range of low chroma browns!

Well that does work quite well. For the watercolor swatches we don’t have gray of course. I’ve added in a little black (which makes the color darker) and then a little water to bring the value back up again.

A Note About Primary Colors

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned primary colors, secondary colors, or tertiary colors. The standard thing that we were all taught at school is that red blue and yellow are the three primary colors. We then have the secondary colors – orange, green, and purple. And the tertiary colors are mixtures of all three. It’s the standard color theory but we don’t need to think about colors this way. There’s nothing special about red, yellow, and blue. They’re just light of different combinations of wavelengths.