Watercolor Painting – To mix or to layer

To mix or to Layer? Which is best?

You will have seen in my Watercolor DVDs or read in books or magazines or in the articles on my website that I often begin my paintings with a ‘tonal map’ using underwashes of yellow. This allows my colors to glow and also gives a realistic ‘substance’ to my work.

Now let’s discuss mixing and layering:

My Schmincke limited palette of colors can be mixed transparently allowing us an endless array of clean luscious hues. Another way of creating beautiful color is layering color in washes. Or you can do both of course.


I use either wet in wet or my Priming Method to create my layering.

Imagine layers of stained glass – one on top of the other. The preceding transparent layers influence the final hue. Each color glows through and gives me a jewel-like final color – beginning with my yellow layer first.

As with everything there are exceptions:
If my final color is to be blue or purple, I use only a tiny amount of yellow underwash. There are many times when I don’t use yellow at all under these colors. Why?

Imagine a blue sky. We want it to look blue don’t we? If we lay yellow underneath blue what do you think will happen? Of course – the yellow can overpower the blue and result in a green hue. So if I need to use some yellow – to take away the rawness of the white paper – I will lay in a very very fine wash of yellow; an almost unperceivable amount. Once the yellow has dried completely I will then lay in my blue wash. If I want a pure blue, I do not use any yellow underwash at all. (This is rare). Click images to enlarge.

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Yellow underneath purple will skew the final impression of the color too. Take at look at this example:

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There will be many times when you want to create a blue or purple that is influenced by a stronger yellow underwash. But if you want your hue to remain purple or pure blue, you will need to keep your yellow underwash very pale as you can see.

In the following examples I have used three colors:

– Aureolin Yellow
– Alizarin Crimson
– Pthalo Blue

This first example is a mix of the three colors.

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The next 2 examples show layering of the three colors:

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The first shows layering in the order of Aureolin Yellow, Alizarin Crimson, Thalo Blue.
The second example shows layering in the order of Aureolin Yellow, Thalo Blue, Alizarin Crimson.

Can you see the huge difference the order of layering the colors can have on the final hue?

You can now see how you can create luminous transparent glowing colors as well as perfect subordinate hues.

Remember the browns, greys and dulled colors are essential in a painting too. They allow our luminous colors to really glow. Imagine a painting full of bright sumptuous color. Each hue would compete for adoration! But by juxtaposing grey, brown or natural dulled down colors next to our brilliant hues, we can make our leading colors really sing even more. These more dull hues are a fantastic foil for the stunning colors you wish to highlight.

Now let’s take this one step further: In the above examples you can see that with the use of layering we can fine-tune our final color to make it favor whatever color we want.
Of course we can use mixes in layers as well. I do this often. I mix my hues on my palette and use layering to create the hue I require.

The amount of water you use will determine how smooth your layering will be. My website is an excellent resource for articles I have written on watercolor painting. Go to the ‘Art Lessons’ section on my website to find out details on my Priming Method

All of my watercolors are created using these invaluable methods and my Schmincke transparent watercolor hues.

Have fun!

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