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.

Finally…

Vermont farm watercolor landscape by Michele Clamp

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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.

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.

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 landscape by Michele Clamp

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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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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 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!

Where is Brown on the Color Wheel?

Color wheel what colors make brown
Color wheel wheres 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 – here’s 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
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?’.

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.

What colors make brown - yellow and violet
What colors make brown – yellow and violet

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

  • Orange and black
  • Orange and blue
  • Red and green
  • Orange and green
  • Yellow and violet

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

  • Red blue and yellow
Vermont farm watercolor landscape by Michele Clamp

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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
Add extra black to darken a brown
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
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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.

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).

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.

Carnation Watercolor

Watercolor flower painting can be so rewarding. And if you’re looking for flower painting ideas a carnation watercolor is great way to start. Such beautiful colors and lots of twiddly crinkly petals that catch the eye. However, it doesn’t mean they’re easy. As with all flowers we have to get the colors right both in the light and the shadow and we have to get the shadows in the right places. Maybe most importantly we have to pay attention to the edges. All those crinkles! We want to suggest them in our painting but not detail every last one. A perfect subject for a watercolor painting!

Watercolor Carnation Tutorial steps

This is one of my step by step watercolor lessons on painting a single carnation. When you start to paint watercolor flowers it’s good to take it slow and follow step-by-step. I take you through identifying the values and mixing the colors. We will then move onto painting the major shapes and then adding in the detail. A lot of the hard work is in the prep and mixing. If we get all that right the details often go in very quickly.

Materials Needed

  • Mechanical pencil
  • Watercolor paper (I like Fabriano Artistco)
  • Size 10 round sable or synthetic sable
    • Permanent rose
    • Vermillion/pyrrole red/naphthol red
    • Lemon yellow
    • Burnt Sienna
    • Black
  • Value Scale
  • Color isolator
  • Palette/paper towels/water pot
  • A solid resolve

How to start painting a watercolor carnation

So how should we think about this watercolor painting? I like to start by first looking at the overall shape and how the light falls on the flower. Which direction is the light coming from? Where on the bloom does it fall into shadow?

Simplify the carnation flower

If we ignore all the little crinkly petals a carnation is pretty spherical. It’s a lot simpler in structure than a watercolor rose (which is a whole different tutorial). And in our reference the light is coming from the left. So the left side of our flower is in the light and the right side is in the shadow. If we strip it back to this we have one color in the light and one color in the shadow. Of course there will be differences in the details. In the deep crevices of the petals it will go darker and some of the outer edges will catch the light. But let’s start there and get those colors right. When you’re working out how to paint a carnation simplifying the basic colors needed is a vital first step.

Use your value scale to find the values of the light and the shadow

We have a pink carnation and you can pretty easily see we have a light pink on the light side and a darker pink on the shadow side. But how light and dark are they? And how can we mix them? It’s a good idea to break out your color isolator and your value scale here.

How to make carnation watercolor
Identify the light value and color

If you’re working from a printed reference then you can place them directly over the print. I actually recommend this if you’re just starting out with painting or if you’re working on nailing those values. If you’re working from life you can hold them up in front of the flower but be careful! Make sure the light falling on your value scale or isolator is the same as is falling on your flower. If you have your flower backlit you won’t get an accurate reading.

Squinting your eyes helps with values

What makes this slightly tricky with a bright pink flower is that we only have a grey value scale. The best way to cope with this is place your value scale on your reference and squint your eyes. The squinting will take the color out of what you’re looking at and make it easier to judge value. Eventually you’ll be able to make a pretty accurate guess but it’s always useful to check. Move the value scale along the region you’re looking at (pick an ‘average’ region) and find the value where the edge and the region almost merge together. It probably won’t be an exact match but you’ll be able to narrow it down to within a step. Do this for both the light side and the shadow. For my reference I get a value 6 in the light and a value 2 in the shadow.

Make some color swatches

Now I’m going to say something heretical here. Don’t sweat the precise color of the swatches you’re going to make. But really sweat the value! Try and really nail that value.

How to mix pinks in watercolor

So where do we start with color. We know our flower is pink and we have a pinkish red on the palette. I always start with which color on my palette is closest to the one I want to mix. I have two reds on my palette – an orangey red (vermillion) and a pinkish red (permanent rose). We know it’s definitely pink so permanent rose it is.

Pay attention to paint consistency when mixing value

The really annoying thing about watercolor painting is that when we mix colors on the palette they look *nothing* like the colors that end up on the paper. They always look darker until they get placed on the paper and are spread so thin that the paper shines through.

So what should we do? Well we could just test a swatch on some scrap paper and that is always a good idea to check. But while we’re on the palette all we really have to go on is the consistency of the paint. We add water to make a pigment lighter so the consistency of the paint gets thinner. Dark paint – thick paint and light paint – thinner paint. When we’re planning our watercolor carnations painting pay attention to both – the consistency of the paint and how it looks on your scrap paper.

Mix and paint the light value on your rough sketch
Mix and paint the light value on your rough sketch

Mix the light value for the carnation watercolor

For our value 6 our paint needs to be roughly of the consistency of 2% milk. It will flow around the palette fairly easily. For comparison a value 5 will be light cream consistency and darker will be heavy cream. Try mixing your permanent rose with some water until it feels like a milk consistency. Then try a swatch on some scrap paper. Let it dry a little (watercolor always dries lighter) and bring in your value scale to see how close you are.

Practice makes mixing much easier

This seems like a really awkward process when you first start. And we haven’t even started putting paint on the paper yet! But it gets a lot easier very quickly. And trust me – your paintings will get so much better very quickly. The ability to mix accurate values is a key skill towards getting an effective watercolor.

Vermont farm watercolor landscape by Michele Clamp

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Now mix the dark value

We have a little bit of a problem with the dark value. Take some permanent rose straight from the tube, loosen it with a tiny bit of water, and make the darkest swatch you can. Measure that value with your value scale. Eeek! We need a value 4 but we can only get down to a value 5. We can’t get dark enough!

So what to do? Well – we only need to go slightly darker. Take your permanent rose and mix in a teeny bit of black and burnt sienna and try that swatch again. You should be able to make a darker pink without that black muddying that color too much. It should still be a nice rich pink but at the right value you need.

And just one more color!

We have our main colors but we need just one more color. The leftmost side of the flower is very light – around a value 8.5. And the color is shifted ever so slightly towards blue. This often happens when you have still life subjects lit by daylight. As the object moves into shadow the color shifts towards orange. It’s not an absolute rule but it happens an awful lot! So let’s measure and mix that color. As it turns out our permanent rose diluted to a value 8.5 is pretty bang on that color. So we paint a swatch and just try it out on the edges of our cartoon sketch flower.

But when do we start painting?

Yes, yes I know we’ve done a *lot* of messing around with mixing and swatches and value scales. But all this prep makes the painting so much easier. Finally – let’s start painting this carnation watercolor!!!

First the Drawing

Ok so I lied about the painting. We’ll get there soon. First we have to draw out the outline of the flower. When drawing the carnation lightly sketch in the oval shape then draw the outline and pay attention to the angles of the petals. Flowers may often look soft and curved but if you look closely they’re often quite choppy and jagged. This really does add to the character of the flower so we should pay attention to it.

watercolor carnation drawing
watercolor carnation drawing

The final thing in the drawing is to lightly draw in the boundary between the light and the shadow side. This won’t be smooth as in our little cartoon sketch but will be more choppy and angled as the petals go in and out of the light. We need this to remind us where the dark colors stop and the light colors start.

And Now we Paint! Honest!

So we’ve done a whole lot of hard work. We know our colors and how to mix them. This frees up some thinking room to concentrate on putting the paint on the paper.

Paint the lightest color

Mix up and put the lightest color around the edges on the left side. While the paint is still wet clean your brush, dab it a couple of times on a paper towel and smooth the edges out. When you do this you don’t really go into the paint you’ve already put down. What you’re actually doing is wetting the paper right next to the paint and just letting the paint flow into the damp paper. It will do its thing if you let it!

The Mid-Value Layer

Let that lightest layer dry and then we can move onto the next value up. This is the color on the light side (minus those very light edges) but we’re going to paint over the dark side as well. We know we’re going to go over this with an even darker color so it’s fine to do this. In fact as the darker color will still be slightly transparent the color will show through a little and make the flower more luminous.

Make sure you don’t just fill in the shape. Leave a few gaps to show where the petals are in light. It’s these edges that really give a convincing rendition of a flower. And soften all those edges with a damp brush. Hard edges at this stage will be really jarring on the eye.

Now the Shadow Color!

We can start to see the form of the flower happening but now is time for some of the dark color to go into the shadow side. This is the scary bit!

Again it’s not just ‘filling it in’. Leave small areas of the previous layer showing. It will give the impression of petals. And, as always, soften some of the edges. Some of the edges where the petals end will be hard so leave those. But not too many! It will look choppy and jarring otherwise.

And just a reminder – KEEP AWAY FROM THE LIGHT! Don’t let that shadow color get into the light (apart from softening the edges). We’ll lose all the form if that happens and we’ll have a pink splodge. Trust me – I’ve been there.

Michele Clamp Studio Wall

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Painting the Stem

Let’s take a bit of a breather while that layer dries and paint the stem. This is much less stressful! Mix up an olive green color with some lemon yellow, black and a touch of ultramarine. You should end up with a mid value yellow-green. Paint in the stem and then, while it’s still wet add in a little black to make the color darker and put in the shadow on the right hand side. I decided to soften a few edges here and there on the stem just to break up that hard line. We want all the focus to be on the flower – the stem is just incidental.

Now for some Subtle Shades on the Light Side

Now it’s looking pretty good! We now have to be careful not to ruin it. It’s easily done and this part could be disastrous if we’re not careful. We’re going to put some really, really, subtle definition into the light side. Just a few touches to show where the petals overlap each other. It is so, so easy to overdo this so really err on the light side. Better to do too little here than too much. So it’s a really watery version of our light side color and just touch in some areas to show a few petals. Be careful!!!

And Now Even Darker! We’re Almost Done!

So we have some really nice form on the flower now. And some indication of petals. But the center still needs to go a little darker. Mix up an even darker mix of your shadow color. This will have very little water in it but just enough so the paint still flows.

Dab pieces of paint into the darkest crevices and soften the edge that’s coming out into the light. You won’t need much here. In mine I also decided to slightly darken the whole shadow side with a watery wash of the dark color. I wanted even more subtle change of value in the petals here as I thought some of them were too light. Skip this step if you’re not sure.

Finish Off by Sharpening up the Outside Edges

The final step was to sharpen up and make slightly choppier the edges on the shadow side. The edges of a flower often give a lot of character so I like to define them.

And Finished!!!

Finished pink carnation watercolor
Finished pink carnation watercolor

And the finished thing! I am pretty pleased with this. I really love those petals in shadow that give real depth to the carnation. We all deserve a lie down now.

And Finally…..

If you enjoyed this tutorial and would like to be notified of new ones that come out please sign up for my mailing list. I try and make tutorials that produce a satisfying result but are also easy watercolor paintings for beginners. There will also be a video on this page shortly and also on my youtube channel. If you’d like to see more of my flower watercolors this daffodil watercolor is one I’m particularly pleased with.

Many thanks for reading!! If you try this tutorial I would love to hear from you.