Transparent Colours

by Roger Daniell

Green, Blue & Purples

Transparent Greens

Although there a number of transparent soft greens available, such as ultramarine green shade I usually mix my own. Grass can be a challenge. I remember a Watercolour weekend in Martinborough when Shona McFarlane announced ― too much green and took her car-load to Palliser Bay where they in painting the lighthouse! Nevertheless the next day she found a shearing shed closer at hand, and that evening we gathered around to conclude that she had mastered the Wairarapa greens effortlessly.

Tips on Transparent Greens

Go easy, particularly with Winsor (Phthalo) greens, the result can be harsh. Nevertheless, used with care such as with very pale washes Winsor greens can have remarkable luminosity. Transparent and semi-transparent Blues Cobalt Blue is a beautiful true blue, and found its earliest use in glazes for ceramics. I don‘t use it a lot, as I find that it is quickly dominated in mixing, and is not fully transparent.

The transparent Winsor Blues are made from the Copper Phthalocyanine dyes. They were first developed by ICI for dying fabrics and are now widely used in the printing and photography. The dye has a greenish hue, which led Winsor and Newton to offer an optional ―red version in their Winsor Blue range.

Ultramarine is also classed as transparent. You might think that name Ultramarine refers to the deep blue sea. But no, it comes from a Latin word for ― overseas because it wasimported from, of all places, Afghanistan. It was made from painstakingly crushed lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone, and experts viewing paintings from the Italian Masters can tell, from the quality of the blue, the wealth of the painter‘s patron.

Various versions of this magnificent colour, usually with a hint of red, are now synthesized from sodium and aluminiumcompounds. The French (hence ― French Ultramarine) were at the forefront of developing synthetic ultramarine in the nineteenth century, and you may have heard of Yves Klein.
This French artist, active some fifty years ago and whose work now fetches millions, did much of his painting and sculpture in one colour: Ultramarine, for which he‘d developed his own formula.

Tips on painting with Transparent and Semi-transparent Blues

Be careful with washes of Winsor Blue, as it often dries with an edge, particularly if it is in contact with another colour.

Wanting a granulated effect with your blue wash? Use Ultramarine because as it dries, the heavy pigment drops into the indentations of rough papers. Cobalt blue and its cousin Cerulean tend to do this too. Phthalo (Winsor) Blue is more of a dye than a pigment so doesn‘t have this characteristic.

Want to make subtle and luminous grey-browns for your tree trunks or shadows? Try mixing Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna. Depending on proportions the result can look like Payne‘s Grey, for good reason as the pigments are the same except that Payne‘s Grey in a tube includes a small amount of black.

Want a low cost alternative to Cerulean? Try Cotmans‘ Cerulean Hue. Rather than a cobalt base as with true Cerulean it appears to have a Phthalo base plus some filler, but it does provide a turquoise blue of considerable brilliance. I am unable to comment as to permanence, except to say that Phthalos in the W&N artists range have an ―A permanence rating. Indanthrene Blue, a relative newcomer to the W&N range, is a soft warm grey-blue, washes of which can be used to great effect for those stormy clouds.

Transparent Mauves Violets and Purples

There are transparent colours in this range, such as Winsor Violet and permanent Magenta but they can be overpowering. Proceed with caution!

Tips on Transparent Mauves Violets and Purples

If you don‘t want to blend your own, such as from Permanent Rose and Winsor Blue (red shade), I recommend Ultramarine Violet. It‘s less ―punchy than the others but I find the results softer.

A chance discovery down a byway in Haute Provence where the car doubled as an easel to capture this derelict farmhouse on a full-sized sheet using a mop brush and a flat Japanese Hake for more precise details. Having to work boldly and quickly can be good discipline against undue fiddling. Transparent greenish darks from mixing Winsor blue and burnt sienna. Transparent ultramarine violet over a yellow-green wash to suggest the unkempt rows of lavender.

Transparent Colours: Earths, Reds, Oranges and Yellows

We all strive for transparency with our watercolour paintings but I admit to using some opaques like Yellow Ochre. Before modern synthesis, these ochres were dug from the ground, such as at the Provencal town of Rousillon, where today’s tourists walk past and marvel at the old pits of intense reds oranges and yellows. But mostly I leave these rich opaque colours, and also the magnificent Cadmium pigments, for oil painting. Cadmium Red in watercolour looks great while still wet, but loses luminosity as it dries.

Transparent “Earths”

The word earth and its connotation of “mud” can be misleading, as there are transparent natural iron oxides, notably the siennas, which I find essential. Dug up near the Tuscan city of Siena they were an important element in renaissance painting, although nowadays they are synthesized. Raw Sienna is a strong transparent yellow, and when Burnt, Sienna becomes a warm transparent brownish-red.

Tip on the Transparent “Earths”

By itself Burnt Sienna can be overpowering, but it’s a very “Good Mixer” such as for greys based on Ultramarine.

Transparent Reds

Alizarin has long been popular, being a “Good Mixer”. It is a wonderful rich transparent crimson, with a trace of yellow making it slightly brownish. This original Alizarin is still available and is based on a synth
esized version of the chemical found in the Madder plant (whence natural Rose Madder). Although a powerful colour, thin watercolour washes of original Alizarin tended to fade, so some years ago Winsor and Newton introduced Quinacridone to give us their Permanent Alizarin. Perhaps not quite as powerful, but powerful enough!

In fact many of the best modern watercolour reds are based on Quinacridone, a
chemical developed commercially by Dupont in post-war America. (Remember the Pink Cadillacs?)

Tips on transparent reds

I recommend that you check for a quinacridone base when buying red, crimson, rose,
mauve, carmine and magenta. They are transparent and have an “A” permanence rating. The fluorescent pink Opera Rose is fun to use and although it does contain quinacridone, is not quite as permanent as the other quinacridones.

A range of soft transparent neutrals and darks can be obtained from a blend original of
Alizarin with Viridian green.

Transparent Orange

Winsor Orange is a good strong orange but semi-opaque.

Tips on Transparent Orange

I usually make a more transparent orange from a mix of New Gamboge and Quinacridone red/or permanent rose.
Transparent and semi-transparent yellows.

I remember the late Tui McLachlan lamenting “Why can’t they make a truly transparent
yellow?” Aureolin (made from cobalt and therefore expensive) has been the delicate transparent yellow preferred by many in the past, and in recent years Winsor and Newton have included a Transparent Yellow in their range, but as an Azo dye I don’t really think it’s a new pigment. Semi-transparent yellows include Bismuth Yellow, the Winsors (lemon, yellow, yellow deep, and orange), and also New Gamboge.
(Gamboge is the French name for Cambodia, where the original natural pigment was derived from the sap of a tree.)

Tips on transparent (and semi-transparent) yellows Aureolin is good but expensive. I do use Transparent yellow, and I recommend New Gamboge as a good, general purpose, powerful warm yellow.
If you are doing a series of washes, start with yellow, and don’t ever apply yellow over another colour, such as brightening a green by over-painting with yellow. It just doesn’t look right. The right green can be difficult to achieve in watercolour, but it can be a help to start with a yellow wash, then introduce your blue, either as wet-on-wet, or as a second wash.

Watercolour NZ


Copyright © Watercolour New Zealand Inc. and its contributors. All Rights Reserved.