How to create rich dark luminous colors!

The Winds Song
Susan Harrison-Tustain
Watercolor on Arches 300gsm Hot Pressed paper
43″ x 19 1/4″ (1090mm x 490mm)

I am often asked how to create rich translucent strong color.
The answer to the question is found in the strength and staining qualities of the pigments used in our mixes.
Generally you will find you can build up fine washes of transparent color to create a reasonably rich depth of color (saturation/intensity).
However, many pigments do not have a great strength and/or staining power. If you are in the situation where you feel you are not gaining the strength and intense dark you want – don’t ever be tempted to lay in thick color. I imagine you know what will result:
Loss of transparency
A thick glugged and often shiny appearance due to excessive build up of Gum Arabic (binder in Watercolor)
Clog the pores of paper resulting in subsequent layers sitting on surface

This will cause:

– A mixing of all the layers on the surface
– Dulling (greying of color)
– Loss of glow
– Often a brown/grey ‘muddy’ color results

The answer to the question is easy:

Create a mix of colors that are stronger and/or are more staining colors:
If I want to create a wonderful rich dark color I often use the following colours:
The colors I use when I need a rich intense luminous dark color:

– Anthrquinoid Red (strong staining color)
– Phthalo Blue (Strong staining color)
– Phthalo Green (strong, brilliant)

I sometimes apply any or a mix of these colors to my ‘local color’ mix when I want to push my color into the realms of a rich luminous dark. In my painting ‘The Wind’s Song’ (above) – I wanted to create a rich dark color in the sky to give the impression of an impending squall. In this case, the color I refer to as my ‘local color’ (lower sky color), is Paynes Grey Bluish (Schmincke). This is not a strong color. However it is an ideal color for the sky.

In this case, to my Paynes Grey Bluish, I simply added a small amount of one, two or three of the strong/staining colors listed above to give me the punch I was after. This addition also gives me the intensity I need to capture the depth/strength/saturation and luminous transparency you will often see in my paintings.

In Conclusion
The use of strong tonal values brings this painting to life and helps me to establish the unfolding drama as the squall moves closer. Compare the large seagull with the other smaller seagulls that are against a lighter sky. Can you feel the push/pull created by the staining colors?

This is an excellent lesson to demonstrate the power and the intensity that is possible with the use of rich staining colors.


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