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The Color of White

Evolution by OM Braida

Dear Friends:

In traditional watercolor painting, white is obtained from the white of the watercolor paper rather than from using a white opaque pigment.  White paint, then, is used for tinting other colors, to create lighter tints.  In Botanical Watercolor Painting the white of the paper represents the highest value – the lightest light, but also so does a pale stain of a color.  This “highlight stain” is often used as the “lightest light” and is an important distinction when comparing this genre against other watercolor genres.

This business of “white paper” and “white paint” can be confusing and it is important to understand the best way to use white paint in botanical art.  As a water-based medium, white paint can be found in watercolor as Chinese White and Titanium White; and in Gouache as Permanent White.  Gouache is a water-based paint, much like transparent watercolor but made in opaque form. Many antique botanicals were painted with Watercolor or Gouache, and sometimes with Body Color (a mixing of opaque white gouache with transparent watercolor or gouache colors in general).

In botanical paintings it is most important to capture the “Local Color,” that is the actual color of the subject being painted, unmodified by light or shadow.  In botanical paintings that create a three dimensional perspective, light and shadow is used to form the subject and does in fact alter the color especially when the subject is complex and many layered.  Needless to say it is most important that we “model” our image (that is, represent its color and lighting effects to make it appear three-dimensional) without completely altering its true color.

Mixing the local color of our subject involves quite a bit of color analysis and familiarity with our paints.  It is not surprising to take a day working with colors to find the right color palette for a particular painting.  When it comes to matching the color of the subject we may in fact find that laying tints (or thin washes) of colors will build to the desired effect. “Tints” can also mean color mixed with white.   If the subject demands, we should feel comfortable about including the use of white paint as a means at arriving to our desired color.  In Anne Marie Evans book, “An Approach to Botanical Painting” she lists Permanent White in her list of suggested colors for the botanical painter.

To be clear about this, white paint is not used to restore highlights.  It simply doesn’t work to our best advantage.  By mixing white with color, we find it particularly useful “for depicting hairs, thorns, stamens, leaf-veining and other minutiae of plant life.” (Botanical Illustration in Watercolor by Eleanor Wunderlich, Watson-Guptill 1991.)

In addition to “tinting” these smaller aspects of plant life, Edward Pretty suggests including white when painting our larger subjects.  His book published in 1810 “Practical Essay on Flower Painting” includes instructions on drawing twenty-four flowers complete with full color renditions and color charts.  For his York and Lancaster Variegated Rose, Pretty instructs the use of Flake White (Lead White poisonous and now replaced by Titanium White).   And for his Rose-Bud, he recommends that “The first tint for the Stalk and Leaves is prepared from Gamboge and white, with the addition of a little Antwerp Blue….and for the Greens, Antwerp Blue, Gamboge, and White, varying them according to the tint required……On the principal Leaf, a few light touches of the Veins are discernible, which is done with White and little Gamboge.”

A Note about GAMBOGE:  The original genuine Gamboge is made from tree resin and was brought to Europe in 1603. It was believed to carry medicinal cures. The original pigment is very fugative (fades).  “Genuine gamboge NY24, the resin of the indian garcinia tree, is an impermanent, transparent, nonstaining, light valued, moderately intense orange yellow pigment.” Bruce McEvoy, www.Handprint.com.  The “gamboge” color has been replace several times by different pigments and finally emerging as “New Gamboge” made with Nickel dioxine yellow PY153. It is a very lightfast, semitransparent, lightly staining, nongranulating, light valued and intense orange yellow pigment available from several sources.  According to Bruce McEvoy, “Daniel Smith new gamboge and Winsor & Newton new gamboge are both warm, duochrome pigments; the Daniel Smith is more transparent and less staining and has the edge in color warmth. Both verge on a radiant yellowish orange in masstone. Rowney’s and Utrecht’s are only slightly darker and less saturated, but this makes a noticeable (attractive) difference in the apparent hue; Utrecht is the least staining and most transparent. The Sennelier paint is somewhat dull and homogenous.”    The Winsor Newton New Gamboge is a recently reformulated warm yellow pigment resembling genuine toxic Gamboge.  Its chemical description includes Quinacridone, Azo Nickel Complex and refers to the color index name: PR 209, PY 150, not the PY153 which is currently still available from Daniel Smith.

In Perfect Color Choices for the Artist by Michael Wilcox, he states that “Tints produced by adding white have a valuable contribution to make.”   In my book, “Ten Steps – A Course in Botanical Art and Illustration – Watercolor III, Volume 7” I recommend creating a Color Harmony Chart which teaches us how to de-saturate pigments and includes mixing your palette colors with white.  It is an exercise in learning how far we can go with our paints and how far we can go with white.

Helpful hint:  Use the Chinese White for mixing and tinting, and the Titanium White for adding details in white over a colored background or wash.

Ruskin’s ambition as a teacher was to raise the moral strength and spiritual health of his students by teaching them to see. As he put it:

“I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing; and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw.”    The Elements of Drawing by John Ruskin, Lawrence Campbell (Introduction)

Enjoy your summer and if you are here or near Sarasota, join us for a summer class.  Check our Class Schedules on this site.

God bless. OM

 

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