Saturday, October 6, 2012

TOP TEN: 10 Things Every Watercolorist Should Know About BLUE

This week's theme is cool and calm BLUE, the overwhelming "favorite color".

 BLUE surrounds us -- it is the color of peace, order, strength, and the spirit -- symbolized by the blue sky and the vast blue ocean.  BLUE evokes serenity, innocence, truth, sadness.

Here are 10 important things about the color BLUE that I think everyone who paints in watercolor should know:  (I'm also including some "blue" paintings of mine, as well as quotes about blue from others.)

1)  BLUE IS THE COOLEST COLOR ON THE COLOR WHEEL, bringing a soothing element to any painting.  Of the three primary colors, it is the only cool one.

"Blue color is everlastingly appointed by the deity to be a source of delight." -- John Ruskin

2)  BLUE VISUALLY RECEDES.  Any color that we associate with the sky -- especially blues -- tend to be recessive, stubbornly recessive.  Another characteristic of BLUE is its POWER TO SUGGEST INFINITY or DEEP SPACE -- beyond that of any other color.  Because of this, blue is a good color to use for your background, and also as a glaze, in order to set something back in space.

" . . . introduce into our light vibrations, represented by the reds and yellows, a sufficient amount of blueness to give the feel of air."  -- Paul Cezanne

3)  BLUE'S COMPLEMENTARY COLOR IS ORANGE.  Side by side, these two colors create a vibrancy.  Interestingly though, if you put these two colors next to each other, at the same intensity and the same size, the cool blue will still recede, and the warm orange will still advance.

"There is no blue without yellow and without orange."  -- Vincent Van Gogh

4)  YOU SHOULD HAVE AT LEAST 3 BLUES ON YOUR PALETTE, since all blues are not considered equal.  Blues have what's called a "hue bias", which is the different mixing potential of each blue (whether the color leans towards green or red).  It's good to have a blue with a GREEN BIAS, like a Phthalo Blue; a blue with a RED BIAS, like French Ultramarine; and a good blue for glazing, like Cobalt Blue.  Having a green bias, means that this blue will mix with yellows to make beautiful greens.  Having a red bias, means that this blue will mix nicely with cool reds to make violets.

"Oh, suns and skies and clouds of June, and flowers of June together.  Ye cannot rival for one hour October's bright blue weather." -- Helen Hunt Jackson

5)  PHTHALO BLUE (also known as Winsor Blue or Rembrandt Blue) IS A BRIGHT AND INTENSE BLUE THAT CAN BE VERY DARK.  Used as a thin glaze, it is very transparent.  It is a staining pigment, which means it is hard to lift.  Phthalo Blue can easily overwhelm other colors, unless it is used sparingly.  But, this makes it excellent for mixing darks.

"Beyond the head, instead of painting the banal wall of the mean room, I paint infinity.  I make a plain background of the richest, intensest blue that I can continue, and by this simple combination of the bright head against the rich blue background, I get a mysterious effect . . . " -- Vincent Van Gogh

6)  COBALT BLUE IS AN ESSENTIAL BLUE FOR YOUR PALETTE -- GOOD FOR PAINTING SKIES & SHADOWS, BUT NOT GOOD FOR DARK MIXTURES.  I use it a lot for glazing and in portraits.  Cobalt blue is translucent and lifts easily.  It's also somewhat toxic, by the way.  This is a great all-round color for underpainting, layering, and mixing with other colors -- just not for darks.

" . . . cobalt blue, ultramarine blue . . . necessary for painting."  -- Pierre Auguste Renoir
(from the artist's notes, describing his palette)

7)  FRENCH ULTRAMARINE -- A SEDIMENTARY COLOR -- CAN BE VERY USEFUL, DEPENDING ON WHAT YOU'RE PAINTING.  Because of its granular quality, it's good for painting beach scenes, landscapes, barns -- but not portraits (at least not for the skin).  Use French Ultramarine, mixed with Quinacridone Burnt Orange, when painting rocks, trees, bark, and stone.
This color is attractive when applied wet-in-wet, because it settles and doesn't spread uncontrollably.
French Ultramarine is a very saturated royal blue, biased slightly toward red, so it makes a beautiful purple.  This color will dry lighter than you think, and it lifts easily.

The highest quality ultramarine blue is made with powdered lapis lazuli from Afghanistan.  (Not really important for you to know, I guess, but I thought it was interesting.)

"Of all the colors, blue and green have the greatest emotional range.  Sad reds and melancholy yellows are difficult to turn up." -- William H. Gass

8)  CERULEAN BLUE IS A BEAUTIFUL, LIGHT BLUE PIGMENT THAT CAN ACT AS A TRANSPARENT COLOR, WHEN MIXED WITH LOTS OF WATER AND APPLIED TO WHITE PAPER.  It is not a good color for mixing or glazing/layering, since it is opaque and can be rather chalky.  It also has a granular quality, and is a good pigment for spattering.

"If you see a tree as blue, then make it blue." -- Paul Gauguin

9)  BLUES MAKE BEAUTIFUL, "COLORFUL" GRAYS.  I know that seems like an oxymoron, but the grays you get when mixing blues and other colors, are so much more interesting than the tube grays.  You're able to "push" the gray towards blue or rose.  You can also apply a cobalt blue glaze over a busy or too-bright background, to gray it a little and calm it down.  Using a blue mixture for your shadows is much more effective and harmonious than just using a Payne's Gray wash, for example.

"Hold onto your divine blush, your innate rosy magic, or end up brown.  Once you're brown, you'll find out you're blue.  As blue as indigo.  And you know what that means.  Indigo.  Indigoing.  Indigone.  -- Tom Robbins, in "Jitterbug Perfume"

10)  BLUE HAS A BROAD VALUE RANGE, from tints to shades (unlike yellow, which never gets dark, without turning into brown).  Strong blue hues retain their color identity at the darkest value, and at the lightest value (unlike red, which becomes pink at its lightest value).  


Pablo Picasso's "Blue Period" paintings, in which the color blue dominated, were a marvelous expression of poetic subtlety and personal melancholy, and contributed to the transition of his style, from classic to abstract.  These were painted between 1901 and 1904.


  1. Very learned description and helpful for the fledgling artist -- Mrunalini

    1. Thank you, Mrunalini! So glad that it was helpful to you. -- pat

  2. I love this. Saw on Facebook as a share. Thanks! Do you have posts for other colors too? I should go look before asking, lolz ;)

  3. I am so amazed - this was very educational -as a beginner, I have so very much to learn about the basics. Thank you.

  4. Lovely read, thanks!
    I was fascinated by the fact that blue stays blue unlike yellow> brown and red> pink, but thinking about it, isn't that just because we named the mixture of red & white "pink"? I wonder how our preceptions of life and art would differ if "pink" did not exist, and tints of blue had a seperate name.

  5. I can never get enough of your beautiful art. You have inspired me so much.