I think anyone who has ever tried watercolor has had this experience: you’re painting along, maybe your painting looks like a super sweet rose and you know your mom is going to love it, and suddenly it looks like a cat puked on your paper. And the weirdest part? It happened fast. Rose one minute, cat vomit the next.
Even though I wasn’t there when it happened, I can almost guarantee I know what went wrong. And that is this: you weren’t aware of how watercolor yellow works.
I’ve known people that were watercoloring for years, totally mystified that certain paintings just didn’t work out. Because no one had explained this simple rule to them. Which is that yellow doesn’t play by the normal watercolor rules. I lucked out with an incredible watercolor teacher when I began painting, and this was one of the first things she taught me, thus saving me lots of ruined paintings.
One of the main battles people have in learning watercolor is that it’s hard to wrap your mind around a transparent medium. We aren’t used to looking at the world in layers, and it’s hard to retrain your brain how to break down what you’re seeing into transparent layers of color that you can replicate in a painting. And yellow really messes this process up, because it isn’t transparent like other watercolors are.
Basically, what happens in watercolor is this:
And basically, what yellow does is this:
So when you’re going along, painting your rose, and you think, “some yellow would look sweet right now.” But then you go and slap it down on top of 3 other transparent layers, and you interrupt the entire process of watercolor. Because unlike other watercolor pigments that allow light to pass right on through, yellow reflects light. It stops the light from reaching the other colors and creating that beautiful layered effect that we all love. The resulting mess is what we watercolorists affectionately refer to as “mud.”
So what’s to be done?
Put yellow down first.
It’s really that simple. When you’re planning out a painting, look closely at your subject and identify all the areas that will be warm. And go in with your yellow, and block it out.
Then, this can happen:
And, to continue this idea, different watercolor pigments do have differing degrees of transparency. In my experience, the majority of yellows, oranges, and warmer reds will present a similar issue.
So as a general rule of thumb, put all warm colors down before cold colors.
If you absolutely must put yellow down on top of other colors, don’t use watercolor. Use a dye (I like Higgins yellow dye ink for this). Dye is transparent by nature (blog post on dyes vs. pigments coming up for sure), and won’t have the same effect on your work.
To demonstrate this a little, I took a video last night of a portrait I’m working on so you can see my approach:
Working with a couple different yellows and my flat brushes, I block in the major areas where I see it peeking through. Tomorrow I’ll go in with the rest of my pallet and finish the painting.
So, there you have it. A simple, but very effective shortcut to help you out in your watercolor journey. There are lots of other sudden and mysterious ways to trash a painting, but this is one of the main pitfalls I see people fall into with this medium. In watercolor, it’s not enough to know about colors, you have to know what order to put them in to get the best results. And when in doubt, yellow goes first.