Monday, July 27

Choosing the Right Blues for Painting Skies and Water

Today’s Image
Sample Blues

Sometimes I get the blues, and you may, too; however, I’m not sad. I’m talking about all the blues available to you when you paint skies, water, and all kinds of other things blue.

Today’s Image is several popular blues I painted on a strip of watercolor paper. It’s a handy aid I use when selecting a blue for sky or water. From the top, the blues are Cobalt, Ultramarine, French Ultramarine, Ultramarine Deep, Ultramarine Light, Antwerp, Sky, Compose, and Horizon. The names you see in your art supply store will be different depending on the manufacturer, so you have to be alert.

The idea for a "Blue" blog came to me after finishing a watercolor last week, the subject of which was a beach scene. The blue sky takes up almost one-half of that painting along with a blue stripe of ocean. I had trouble re-creating the correct color of the blue in the sky from my reference photo. When the photo was taken, the sun was in the two-o’clock position, give or take a half hour, so the cloudless sky was very bright. It was a beautiful, clear, albeit hot, July afternoon.

Deciding on the right blue for a sky, and then matching or mixing it correctly, is the challenge artists live for, yes? That doesn’t make it any less daunting however. There are only three colors, blue (or cyan depending on your process) being one of them, so what’s the problem?

In reality, you’re faced with choosing the proper blue for the object you’re painting, whether it’s a sky, the ocean, or Wedgewood china. Traditional and abstract painters have the same problem.

As you know, on the color wheel when you move away from blue, it starts changing to violet or green, depending on the direction. But not all at once, and on the way it turns into all kinds of blues. Your computer has the ability to make more than 256,000 different colors, with fully one-sixth of those being some shade of blue. That’s more than 42,000 blues!

Theoretically, you can mix that many, too, but fortunately, you don’t have to. Many of us are satisfied to mix several of our own blues from a limited palette. Most of us will be perfectly satisfied to buy one of the many blues available from the major manufacturers.

In my watercolor mentioned above, the time of day and location helped me narrow down the choices. I started with a limited Standard palette (Cadmium Red Medium, Gamboge Yellow, and French Ultramarine Blue). Because I could see some green in the blue of the sky in my reference photo, I decided to use either Antwerp or Cerulean blue, both of which have some green, rather than French Ultramarine, which has some red. I chose Antwerp because it doesn’t granulate as much as Cerulean, at least for me. After apply several washes of Antwerp, follow up with several more washes of Ultramarine Light to darken the sky higher up. The water was a deep, deep blue, so I was able to use the French Ultramarine for it.

Just to complicate things, if you’re working from digital reference photos, like I do, the photos you print on your printer may not have true colors. Check the printed colors carefully, and not just the blues. Any color may appear different, very different, depending on the program you used to upload the photo, how much ink is left in your printer cartridges, and even the paper you print on. Of course, working en plein air, the colors will depend on your eyesight.

With experience comes knowledge and ability. Selecting and/or mixing the exact blue you want may soon be the easiest part of your painting.

I'll show you my watercolor with that blue sky in my next blog, so check back later this week.


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