working with paints

When I began to learn watercolors, one of the mysterious aspects of painting was exactly how to handle paints. It took me a lot of time, paint, and trial and error, to find the methods that worked for me. Here's most of what I've learned.

We start with a review of mixing surfaces, including glass sheets, butcher trays and commercial plastic palettes. I then introduce you to life without a palette, my own method of working with porcelain mixing cups.

Next I explain rinse & pure water and the usual set up routines for working with paints. Finally, we get to mixing itself. I start with tube paints, as these are the most popular packaging alternative and are fairly easy to work with, though they require more equipment. Then I explain the same mixing strategy for pan paints.

An great way to develop your working preferences is by doing paint wheels. These make you do a lot of color mixing. You'll find yourself simplifying your work area and your mixing methods to get the job done, and you'll end up with an efficient, habitual and comfortable painting method.

major palette types

The artist's signature piece of equipment is a palette on which to mix paints. Because watercolors are much less viscous than oils or acrylics, we don't use the handheld kind of palette, but something designed to contain and partition puddles of water. The watercolor palette provides four things:

(1) a bright white surface that lets you clearly see the hue, chroma and value of paints and paint mixtures,

(2) paint wells that hold the pure paint straight from the tube, separate each paint from the others, and are large enough to let you scoop up paint with your brush,

(3) one or more mixing areas — a flat surface or shallow dishlike area where you can blend the raw paints and puddle or slop water around to get the diluted mixtures you want, and

(4) a nonstaining, washable surface that cleans up completely after work is done.

When choosing a palette, think how well it satisfies those four requirements.

Sheet of Glass. By far the simplest palette solution (at least since the early 19th century) is to use a large sheet of glass as your working surface. To be practical, the sheet should not be too large: between 12" x 16" up to 16" x 20" is about right. You can buy glass in a range of thicknesses (1/8" to 1/4" is the most convenient) at some hardware stores and any window repair shop; they will cut the sheet to your spec. (Be sure they polish the edges on all sides so that these won't cut you.) Plexiglas is safer to use and clean, especially if you use a large piece; you can also use Plexiglas sheets to flatten watercolor paintings when you're finished painting.

To work, lay the sheet flat on a table, under good illumination, with a single sheet of your watercolor paper underneath.; this allows you to match mixtures to the hue of the sheet. Light the sheet from the side, so that a mixture is not sitting over its own shadow. No watercolor paint can stain this surface, and it provides an exact match to the sheet you're painting on.

You get the effect of paint wells by generously spacing the daubs of raw paint around the rim of the sheet. This isn't as inconvenient or impractical as it sounds. On a 12" x 16" sheet, for example, you have 58 inches (142cm) of edge to work with: if you are using 12 paints (a large number, usually) then these can be separated by 4" to 6" around the edge. Very runny paints, by Schmincke especially, work less well on this kind of palette, but most paints do fine.

Keep a sponge or paper towel handy, and use it to cut off any trickle of water that gets too close to the paint or threatens to link one paint puddle with another. You'll be pleasantly surprised at how infrequently this happens. If it does, the sheet is not set perfectly level. A slip of cardboard under one edge of the sheet, or a wood shim under a table leg, will usually fix that.

The mixing areas are improvised in the large surface in the center, which is more than large enough to do the work. I mentally divide the working area into distinct sections — you can get about 8 index card sized areas on a 12" x 16" sheet — and build one color mixture within each. Once you've finished with a mixture, or have run out of room, sponge off the area and start over.

The main disadvantages of a sheet are (1) the large size and (2) the difficulty moving it when there is liquid mixture on the surface. If you have plenty of studio space and can leave the palette where you set it up, then these problems don't matter.

Some folks get nervous about the open spaces on a sheet like this, and build paint wells or mixing areas by laying down a bead of silicone caulk (the clear or white kind used to seal windows or showers) to make barriers around the paint. To me this negates the basic advantage of using a sheet in the first place — open space and ease of cleaning. (The Skip Lawrence palette, sold by Cheap Joe's for $17, is an interesting compromise: a 9" x 14" flat sheet with walled off paint wells that open directly onto a flat mixing area.)

It really doesn't take much practice, or skill, to learn how to keep the mixtures separate and the raw paint clean. I find the main hazard is clipping the top of one of those piles of paint with a hovering brush or sleeve.


major palette types

life without a palette

rinse water & pure water

work routine & storage

mixing tube paints

mixing pan paints

brush mixing tricks

Butcher Tray. Some artists use a large enameled butcher tray as the flat sheet: a sheet with a dike around it. The set up at right is the one preferred by Nita Engle. These range in size up to 11" x 15" (a 14" x 18" tray is also available from Jerry's Artarama), and cost $8 to $12 from direct order art retailers. (Holbein makes a white plastic butcher's tray; the white is warmer and the bottom is completely flat. Cheap Joe's sells these for $16.)

In all about a dozen paints can fit into this tray. Mixing wells can be built up by creating a wall of pure paint, or by squeezing paint onto the sides of the pan, above any water flow.

My complaint is that the butcher trays sold by art retailers have been disfigured by pressing the flat bottom from underneath, making it slightly convex. This causes juicy paint mixtures to run into the gutter and along the side, where they are harder to control and clean up. You also probably pay more for the tray from art retailers than you would pay buying the same item from a kitchen supplies store.

I find the butcher's tray is convenient and easy to clean when working with 4 to 6 paints on a half sheet or smaller painting: it seems to me inconvenient for larger formats (many mixtures), or a larger number of paints on the palette. Your mileage may vary.

Manufactured Palettes. The major alternative to the sheet (or butcher's tray) is a premade mixing palette. Here you will not want for choices ... and unfortunately I tried almost all of them before I figured out my own system.

The most popular palette is one step removed from the primitive mixing sheet: it's a flat rectangular mixing surface bordered on most or all sides by slant mixing wells. There are several variations on this idea.

a white enameled butcher's tray used as a painting palette

One of the most basic is the Robert Wood palette, consisting of 24 very deep, slant bottomed paint wells arrayed around all four sides of a recessed, 9" x 14" mixing area. (Some versions subdivide this area with small walls, creating shallow mixing cups.) It comes with a snugly fitting white lid that provides four additional flat mixing areas. The paint wells are about 2" wide, large enough to accommodate almost any brush. My complaints are that these palettes are rather flimsy (beware the words "lightweight and portable"), and you must hover over them to see what's in the slant wells. It's also perplexingly easy to slop paint from one well to another, as each well holds a lot of liquid; there's also no way to lift a paint mixture off the central mixing area without carrying the brush over one or more paint wells. The lid can protect dried gobs of paint during transport but cannot seal off any liquid remaining in the slant wells. Many variations on this one, including brand name palettes by Cheap Joe's.


Robert Wood palette

If for some reason I have to use a palette (painting in a workshop), then my second preference is the John Pike palette. This is much like the Wood palette, except it's made of heavy white polystyrene plastic, a slightly off white that is closer to the usual paper color. The paint wells are flat bottomed, slightly smaller than in the Wood (about 1-1/2" wide), with four larger wells wedged in two corners, 20 wells in all. (Cheap Joe's also offers "big well" version with just 16 paint wells.) There are no wells along one side — you carry your brush on and off the palette from this side, so that you don't drip paint into the wells — and the 9" x 12" mixing area is perfectly flat and easy to see. There's a snap on lid, also flat, that provides additional mixing area (once you learn how to pry the lid off, which for me requires a screwdriver). And a major attraction is that you can set up a Pike palette with the specific paints necessary for a certain genre of painting (portrait, or landscape), then save that unused paint combination simply by snapping on the lid. The paints dry in place and store indefinitely until rewetted, like pan paints, for a new painting. However there are three significant disadvantages to this palette: capillary action can cause paint to creep from one paint well to another around the front barrier between wells (which makes it advisable to separate paints by empty wells if possible); dried pigment is tough to clean out of the sharp corners of the mixing wells; and finely particulated, staining synthetic organic paints (dioxazine, phthalo, quinacridone or benzimidazolone paints in particular) will leave stubborn stains on plastic or porcelain (though a little lighter fluid and a paper towel, or a white "Mars plastic" eraser, will clean these off almost completely). I still find the Pike palette a very good alternative to a flat mixing sheet, since the palette and its lid together provide almost a 30" x 15" mixing area. And the lids, when not in service protecting unused paint in the palette paint wells, make sturdy and compact studio trays, for example when cleaning up the work area (photo, right).

The Tom Lynch palette has a similar design but with 13 slant bottom paint wells and 3 large flat bottomed wells in the corners, enlarged to make room for large brushes. The Frank Webb palette palette is another variation, but with 25 narrower paint wells; there is no front dam to the paint wells, so that paint can be pulled directly from the well onto the mixing area — similar in concept to the Skip Lawrence palette mentioned above.

John Pike palette

the Pike palette lids make great studio trays

Other palette concepts have been devised structure your painting activity more rigorously. Of course someone would come up with a ColorWheel palette, of which there are many variations ("color theorists" such as Nita Leland, Stephen Quiller and Michael Wilcox market their own versions), most with a cover that provides additional mixing areas. Again, these are often "lightweight and portable," meaning you can punch through them with a steak knife. The chief advantage seems to be helping those who have difficulty imagining a circular color sequence around the edges of a rectangle. If this is the case, you might benefit much more from a little more study of the artists' color wheel. These highly structured palettes may actually cause you to be overanxious or formulaic in your mixing approach. There's a lot to discover in those accidental puddles and pools of paint! in those random paint combinations! in flailing away with paint mixtures!

Various "paint preservation" palettes have also recently come on the market: the Sta-Wet™ palette that sits on a thin sponge sheet which you can wet with water or turpenoid to keep watercolors, acrylics or oils from drying out, and the Possum palette consisting of a rack for holding tiny clear plastic cups, each tiny cup with a tiny hinged snap tight lid, which keeps the paint safe and snug and moist. I don't know, I just don't have a problem with paint drying out. But if you love these palettes, then use 'em — it's your studio!

ColorWheel palette

If all you're after is puddle control, the San Francisco slant palette is a workmanlike arrangement of 8 paint wells, 8 small slant bottom mixing areas, and four shallow mixing cups (for washes or larger paint mixtures). The mixing cups aren't quite large enough to be useful, and I find the mixing areas are too small to work freely with paint mixtures (see below). You may like this arrangement, however. A few other versions are available — Zoltan Szabo makes a mixing palette that is nothing but paint wells and slant mixing areas, with a cover to protect the paint between sessions — again, it's "lightweight and portable." The San Francisco slant palette in contrast is as tough as a garbage pail lid, and harder than most to stain.

San Francisco slant palette

The English painter Jason Skill has devised a watercolor mixing palette with emphasis on large wash mixtures. His design is a white plastic tray of five rectangular wash areas, each depressed on one side to form a reservoir that can hold enough liquid to cover a full sheet watercolor paper. Tube paint is squeezed onto the elevated shelf, and mixture from this paint drains into the reservoir. As the two areas are connected, the wash mixture can be easily adjusted with more paint. The palette comes with a snap on lid that can be used as an extra mixing area, as a base to increase the slant of the mixing wells, or as a cover to protect the unused lumps of paint when the palette is transported or set aside. I have not used this device and cannot speak to its drawbacks (if any), but the design seems easy to clean up and well made for the purpose.

skill's watercolor mixing palette

However, for down and dirty painting, ease of packing and convenience in almost any painting situation (from plein air to studio to life drawing session), my favorite palette is the Eldajon palette. Nothing fancy here, just 12 smallish paint wells along one side of three large (4" square), cupped mixing areas. The main drawback is that the wells don't take a brush larger than a 3/4" flat, but I just pick up the paint I need with a small round, daub it high up on one side of a mixing area, then use a larger brush there. The paint wells are deep enough to hold a generous shot of raw paint (more than I usually need), and each mixing area will hold enough wash mixture to more than cover an entire full sheet. The mixing areas are very easy to sponge clean (no walls, no corners), but hardened paint in the paint wells requires soaking and aggressive swabbing with a paper towel or cotton swab to clean out, and (like the Pike palette) the hard plastic stains rather easily (again, cleaning with lighter fluid and a paper towel takes care of this). I find the palette is small enough (5" x 12", 3/4" high) that I can move it around on a large painting (laid flat) to keep the palette close to the working area (and I know I better not spill paint when I do this!). The trays stack for compact storage between work on different paintings, but better is to put trays in the refrigerator between painting sessions, to inhibit mold and evaporation. Best, the tray is small enough to fit into a plein air paint kit, in case I want to use tube paints instead of pans in the field.

Eldajon palette

Mixing Cups. Most of these palettes are paint wells and paint mixing areas. This means you also must acquire a few or more mixing cups for working up wash solutions or large quantities of paint mixture.

Cuplike mixing areas are incorporated into some of the commercial palettes, such as the handy Eldajon palette; but they are typically not very large, and to bring the wet mixture closer to the work you have to move the whole palette. Because it's more convenient to use a mixing cup you can hold near the work (especially when applying a large wash), artists usually have other implements for this purpose.

In my early days I preferred a white plastic ice cube tray, which provides 12 separate mixing cups, each deep enough to hold enough wash solution to cover a full sheet (22"x30"), and wide enough to accommodate a 1" flat brush or smaller. These trays are cheap, unbreakable, easy to clean (the corners at the bottom are nicely rounded), and several of them can be stacked up to conserve space.

If you use larger brushes or work with larger washes, you will want a larger container. You can try small glass or porcelain bowls, sold as finger bowls, custard or crême brulée dishes, cereal bowls, kitchen mixing bowls, and so on. These also work very well and clean up easily. The main issues are breakage and stackability — some dishware will stack, some won't. Make sure the material is a pure white or clear glass, so that you can accurately see the color of the mixture as you're making it.

If breakage concerns you then better alternative is an empty margarine tub, the white kind of course, washed with plenty of soap to remove all grease. You can mix enormous quantities of wash with these tubbies, and they will receive any brush. (If you don't use butter or margarine, collect tubs from your zaftig neighbors.) Small Tupperware containers are also good, and have the advantage of the snap on lid that prevents overnight evaporation that will change a mixture's dilution (important if you work on several similar paintings at the same time).

Or you can use coated white paper picnic dishes. These flare at the rim in a way that makes it easier to slop the paint around, and you can throw them away once you're done.

Of course, there is also a clutter of commercial waterwells, porcelain slant mixing trays, folding palettes, oval palettes, floral mixing cups, traveling (seals tight!) mixing trays, plastic mixing trays, Japanese sumi ink cups that are always available at any art retailer ... the list is endless and the selection only depends on available retailer shelf or catalog space.

The drawback? Speciality art items cost far more than the equivalent implement purchased as dishware or crockery, and they are often not as well made or as flexible to use. They go beyond utility to a desire for decorative acquisition — more junk to clean, store, and discard after you discover they are not all that useful.

life without a palette

Which leads to a final question: why use a palette at all? Before you get embroiled in ordering all the various proprietary palette varieties, you may want to experiment with more flexible ways of working.

Storing and using paint in condiment dishes. For much of the 19th century watercolors were most frequently sold as rock hard cakes that had to be "rubbed out" (dissolved by rubbing against the bottom of a dish filled with a small quantity of water) prior to use. Painters typically prepared their paints each morning in small porcelain saucers, one for each of the different paints they planned to use that day. The benefits were that each saucer could be prepared or cleaned up separately from the others, paints wouldn't bleed or contaminate from one container to the next, paints could be poured from one container into another (the saucers served both as paint wells and mixing cups), and the saucers would stack neatly when not in use.

I recognized the functional similarity between those Victorian painting saucers and the white porcelain condiment dishes (shown at right) that I found while browsing the kitchen section of a Crate & Barrel outlet one day. (Any home lifestyle or kitchen supply store will have a selection of similar items.) On a whim, I bought several and tried working with them and tube paints in the old style ... and became an enthusiastic convert.

Square, just 3" on a side and 5/8" deep, the dishes are impervious to stains, dishwasher safe, quite sturdy and stackable — even when they contain wet paint. The inner corners are rounded and easy to clean, and they are heavy and squat enough to resist spills or splatters if accidentally bumped. The dishes are compact and stable enough to set right on the paper next to the area I want to paint — on those big 41" x 29" sheets that is a real convenience. The raised edges are perfect for wicking a wet brush, and every watercolor brush I know of can easily fit into the dish.

When used with a small plastic palette for spot color mixing or thinning, the dishes serve as: (1) pan paint storage for tube paints that I use frequently, (2) paint wells for holding wet paint, (3) mixing cups for wash solutions, or (4) a white mixing surface for spot color mixing. Used as pan paints, the mixing dishes can be combined or replaced at will, allowing you to set up different palette combinations for each painting. And as I move from one painting to the next, I can "change my palette" simply by swapping my selection of cups. This complete painting flexibility is the heart of the setup!

At first I used the dishes as mixing wells, squeezing out paint as needed (as shown above, right) and cleaning up the residue paint when finished. Now I permamently store the 40 odd tube paints I use routinely as "pan" paints. To make a new pan color, I completely empty two 14 ml. tubes of paint into a single dish, slide the dish vigorously back and forth on the table surface to smooth out the pile of paint to approximately level (or flatten it with a wet brush if the paint is stiff), then let the paint dry out completely. I note the pigment color index name on the side of the dish with a Sharpie indelible pen so that I can locate paints even when they are stacked.

In this form the paint can be stored indefinitely and rewetted as frequently as needed. I have used paints in this way for over six years without any adverse effects, and I have largely eliminated the daily annoyances — jumbled tube storage, the clutter of tubes containing little paint, stuck tube caps, sticky extruded vehicle on the sides of tubes, dried paint in tubes, wringing paint tubes — that come with the routine use and storage of tube paints.

When stacked, the paints can be protected from dust by covering with a towel or the backing board from a used watercolor block. For something more permanent, I found a large Rubbermaid snap case (product number 2282), 10.5" x 14" x 4" with a hinged top and latch, that holds up to 48 stacked dishes. I use this to cover stacked paints I'm not currently using and to store all the paints while I'm off on vacation. However I routinely leave the dishes lying around my work area and find dust accumulation is not a problem.

porcelain mixing dishes and a plastic mixing tray

tube paint stored as "pan paint" in porcelain condiment dishes

How to use the pan paints. The procedure for using the paints is simple (photo series at right):

1. Measure out the quantity of water necessary for the total quantity of diluted paint. For large (wash) quantities, I just use an empty, clean dish to pick up water from the source bowl. For smaller or more concentrated paint mixtures I use a measuring spoon or large brush.

2. Pour the water over the dried paint and mix up to the desired consistency. Many paints soften naturally if left to sit under water for a minute or two; the softened paint is easily dissolved by gently stroking the paint with a brush. Always use a 1/2" acrylic flat brush for this task — not a natural hair brush — especially when scrubbing is required to dissolve the paint (for example, with cobalt or some "umber" iron oxide pigments).

3. When the desired consistency has been reached, pour the paint mixture from the paint dish into a clean mixing dish. Liquid left in the paint dish will continue to dissolve paint that transfers to the brush each time it is recharged. Pouring out the paint is usually desirable if the paint must remain at a constant dilution (for example, in a large sky wash). Using the paint directly from the paint dish, exactly like a pan paint, is desirable if you want to vary the paint concentration or want to gradually increase the paint concentration as you work.

4. When finished with the paint, simply pour the excess mixture back into the "pan" dish, or set the pan dish aside to dry out. Until then, the paint remains soft for drybrush or renewed paint mixing.

A particular advantage of the square dishes is that they pour easily from any corner. For rarely used paints that I keep as tubes, or for very large quantities of paint mixture, I squeeze out the paint from the tube into a clean dish, then dissolve the paint in water just as if it were in a palette paint well. When the mixture reaches the desired concentration I pour the solution into a second clean dish (the "mixing cup"); the residual raw paint is left wet in the first dish where it is available for other paint mixtures.

preparing dried paints stored in mixing dishes

(a) measuring water with an empty mixing dish, (b) pouring water over dried paint, (c) pouring the dissolved paint into an empty dish

Pouring can also be used to decant the paint (right), if you want to separate out the heaviest or largest paint particles, which reduces the effect of granulation or brush deposits in colors or wash areas that I want to be exceptionally smooth.

Decanting is especially useful when working with heavily granulating paints in wash solutions, or when dissolving any paint (such as viridian or cobalt violet) that tends to create small, undissolved bits of paint that can streak the color when brushed on.

New paint mixtures also dry to a thin layer of paint at the bottom of their dish; this dried paint dissolves quickly and smoothly at the touch of a wet brush, making it as convenient as a pan paint for continued work with a "custom" color mixture. When I'm finished with the mixture I clean out the dish, and it's ready to reuse.

Partly dried, recently wetted or "sticky" paints are not a problem, provided you put no more than 2 14 ml. tubes of paint in the dish and level out the paint before it dries. Paints then will not contact the bottom of dishes stacked on top of them. Sticky (honey humectant) paints should be covered with another dish when not in use, as they will trap small insects or dust. But I find that they do not grow mold if allowed to dry out after each use.

Problem pigments. After years of experience I have found that nearly every tube watercolor paint from every manufacturer works just fine in this "large pan" format. However, there are a handful of cranky pigments that I prefer to store as tube paints. Most brands of cobalt turquoise (PB36) and viridian (PG18), and some brands of cobalt cerulean blue (PB35) dissolve with gritty clumps in them that are difficult to break down. And some brands of burnt umber (PBr7) or "transparent" iron oxides dry to a resinous density that is tedious to dissolve. I store these paints as tubes and squeeze out color into a clean, empty dish when I need them.

decanting a granulating paint from one dish to another

Spot color. Finally, for detail, drybrush or spot colors, I simply work straight from the tube or from a few drops sprinkled on the dried paint. I unscrew the cap, wet the brush with just enough water to lubricate the raw paint, then I daub the paint I need straight out of the tube.

This works best if the paper is already wetted and the paint is not strongly staining, so that the first mark of paint can be brushed out and adjusted with a wet brush. Daub the paint around until the brush is cleaned, then go back and stroke out the lumps of paint, wetting the brush with more water or wash solution if necessary. (If you have a coarse, painterly style, then staining paints on dry paper will amplify the brush textures.) This method is great for for laying in details (such as flower parts in a botanical painting) that require small amounts of paint applied with a small brush. It is also good when defining highlights with white paint that must be clean of any contamination: if you accidently transfer color to the paint, simply squeeze out the discolored part and wipe it away.

In all cases, squeezing out only the amount of paint you need, and stroking the tuft against the edge of the tube nozzle, will allow you to mix the paint and water in the tuft almost as evenly as if you'd mixed it on the palette — you have a lot of control over the paint texture. I find a small to medium sized brush works best, both for transferring the paint to paper with a nice gestural mark and for blending the mark into the painting; larger brushes carry so much water or paint than you have much less control.

The main hazard is that excess water will drain from the brush as you stroke the paint and accumulate inside the nozzle, and eventually a drop of watery paint can fall from the tube on your painting, especially when you squeeze out more paint. The obvious solution: don't hold the tube over the painting.

Commercial alternatives. Several years after I first posted this "palette free" solution to watercolor painting, I was intrigued to see a similar system of "huge pan" watercolors offered by two commercial brands, Blockx and Winsor & Newton. I have not tried either system, but appearances suggest the Winsor & Newton paints are in the "dry" (English/German) style, and the Blockx paints are in the "moist" (French/Russian) style of dry pan preparation.

There are three drawbacks to these commercial solutions. Within each brand, I believe the manufacturers only offer a partial selection of their complete watercolor line in the huge pan format. If you like one of their more arcane colors, you are out of luck.

Second, you may or may not find these little custom dishes are convenient for your own purposes or storage system. Judging from available photos, the dishes have gently sloping rather than sharply raised edges, which makes it harder to wick off paint without recharging the brush; the dishes are certainly not deep enough to allow you to dissolve a large quantity of paint mixture directly on top of the raw paint. You must transfer the wet paint to another mixing area that will hold enough water, just as one does with a field pan paint kit.

Finally, if you use any other brand of watercolor paint, you must wait until you deplete the paint in one of these custom dishes before you can refill it with new paint. And as there is a lot of paint in these dishes to start, that's a long wait before you can get rid of the tubes of your favorite M. Graham, Daniel Smith, DaVinci or MaimeriBlu watercolors.

rinse water & pure water

Mixing paints and rinsing brushes requires water, and most artists also develop a personal system for providing water while they paint. This usually means you need to choose appropriate water containers.

Now, if you are painting in the field, in a workshop or painting color studies in the studio, one water source is usually sufficient. Plein air painters learn the knack of first pouring a tablespoon or so of clear water into the palette mixing wells before starting, prewetting paints with clear water, painting sky washes first, wicking or snapping out the brush before rinsing, and other tricks to keep the single water source as unpolluted as possible. I find my field habits carry over to the studio and I feel comfortable working from a single water source.

However, for large painting projects in the studio you will usually want two kinds of water: the rinse water necessary to clean paint from your brush or unwanted paint from your palette; and pure water necessary to prewet the paper, mix paint or wash solutions, induce paint blossoms in wet paint areas, and so on. The easiest way to meet these requirements is with a two container water system: rinse and source. The picture shows my set up — two clear plastic containers, filled to the brim.

rinse water and source water

The kind of container doesn't really matter — some artists use a glass baking dish, china bowls, margarine tubs, you name it. I like clear plastic containers because they let me really see the water (light through the sides is more reliable than a reflection off the bottom, because sediment settles there), and the acrylic plastic is much safer to handle and wash than glass or ceramic.

The rinse container is for clearing paint from your brush. It gets pretty dirty pretty quickly, and that's the point. The container should be capacious enough to hold at least a pint of water (mine holds a quart), yet be shallow enough to let you bump the tuft of the brush against the bottom, if necessary to dislodge paint from the tuft. My container is roughly as wide as it is high, minimizing depth; Edgar Whitney used metal baking pans, which can hold a quart but are only 2 or 3 inches deep, and you can just as well use an enameled butcher tray for the same purpose — if you can afford to give up that much valuable work space for a rinsing container! (I also can't lift the things back to the sink without spilling some.) If you use an opaque plastic or ceramic bowl, make it white. When you drain a rinsed brush against the side of the container, you will be able to see from the runoff whether unwanted paint remains in the tuft.

lifting paint straight from the tube

If you are repeatedly rinsing your brush while working with related color mixtures (cool colors, or analogous colors) or working down the lightness scale from light to dark, then you can work with dirty rinse water without negative effect on your color mixtures. If you shift to opposing color mixtures (from a dark background to flesh tones, or from greens to reds), then you should empty, rinse and refill the rinse container, to prevent contamination of the new mixtures as you rinse the brush.

The source container is your supply of pure, clear water. Use this water only to prewet the paper before applying a wash, to dilute paint mixtures, and to add water to wash areas or create wet in wet effects. Do not dirty it with an unrinsed brush.

I like the source container to be relatively small with a crisp rim, so I can tip it to take out water with a metal measuring spoon, or just pour water directly onto the paper or palette as needed for wash solutions, paint mixing, paper prewetting, and so on.

Many artists (including me) keep some source water in one or more plastic spray bottles, which can be used to wet paints in paint wells or porcelain dishes, add water to a mixing area or wash mixing cup, wet the paper before painting, or blend paints as they dry on the paper. No way you'll accidentally dirty the water with a brush — and one squirt delivers a fixed quantity. If the task is wetting the paper, my problem has been finding a spray bottle that produces a fine yet evenly divided mist — most spray bottles eject a mist mixed with much larger drops.

I've learned by trial and error that rinsing is a waste of time. It breaks the flow of work and just gets the rinse water even dirtier; worse, it destroys the equilibrium between water and paint in the tuft. After rinsing the brush is full of water, not paint; to get it back to painting mode I have to blot or shake out the rinse water as necessary, pick up a fresh charge of paint, then wick out the excess paint so that paint is delivered to the paper at the right density. So I've learned ways to paint that let me rinse less frequently.

My prejudice is, rinse as a last resort. Do all the painting necessary with one paint mixture before rinsing it out to start with another. In particular, frequent rinsing is often a symptom of overworked painting. Stay alert to the other ways you might get rid of the paint on the brush. You can put it elsewhere on the painting, leave it in the brush as you swirl up a different mixture of paint (to shift the hue of the mixture slightly), use it for drybrush texturing ... rinse the brush only when you can't clear it in any other way.

Final comment: it really is OK to lower your standards of cleanliness if necessary. Very often, if the paint mixture you're working with is at a fluid or dilute consistency, you can just shake out the brush or wick it against the edge of a mixing area, and go on to another color without rinsing. The impact on your painting will typically be unnoticeable (or no more noticeable than paint mixed with dirty rinse water), unless you want to apply a yellow or white paint.

work routine & storage

Once you've got your palette, mixing cups and rinse containers, you're finally ready to start working with paints.

Layout for Paints. Many artists wrestle with the issue of how to lay out paints on the palette. The standard recommendation is to order the paints in spectrum sequence — rose, red, scarlet, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue, purple, earths red to yellow, white and black. The primary advantage of this system is that you remember where colors are.

Other artists lay the paints out to separate strongly staining colors from the rest, as even a little staining color will strongly pollute other paints. This is basically a method to help you avoid brush blunders.

Still other artists lay the paints out according to palette types, staining colors in one area and opaque colors in another. This is basically a method to help you organize your mixing procedures.

The list goes on ... but by now you see the basic point: artists lay out their colors in whatever way makes them comfortable as they work. (Just like organizing your kitchen utensils, or the work by your computer, or your golf clubs.) If you simply watch yourself paint, you will discover your own intuitive system for ordering paints. If you pollute colors often, learn to separate them; if you forget which paints are which (!), lay them out in a memorable pattern. The palette reflects the way you think about painting.

Again, everything about mixing gets clearer if you do four or six paint wheels with different brands of paints. If you have any natural working preferences or confusions, all the color mixtures that a paint wheel requires will quickly bring them to your attention!

Fresh, Dry and Moldy. At the other end of the work routine is your method of setup to start a painting and for handling paints between painting sessions — overnight or during vacations.

There are basically three schools here: (1) squeeze paints fresh from the tube to start work and clean off the palette when the painting is finished, (2) let the paints dry out on the palette when not in use, or (3) keep the paints continuously wet.

If you use a variety of paints, choose different paints for each painting and work with small format paintings, then the best approach is probably to squeeze paints fresh from the tube and clean the palette completely when you've finished painting for the day.

To clean the palette, put the palette in the sink, immerse it in water and leave it soak for an hour. Then hose it down and towel dry. (You may need a QTip or sponge to work paint out of the sharp corners of paint wells on commercial palettes.) All residue paint goes out with the rest of the mud on the palette, and each time you start a painting you start with fresh paint.

In the second approach, you let the paints dry out when not in use. This has a lot to recommend it and a few drawbacks. For plein air painters who like to work with pan paints and are frequently absent from the studio, the method is the same in field and studio and provides continuity in technique whatever your travel schedule may be. Finally, clean up chores in the studio are greatly reduced. You rarely have to clean out moldy paint, unused paint, or contaminated paint. (If paints do become contaminated or moldy, simply put the paint under running hot — not scalding — tap water until the water has dissolved away the contamination, and drain dry; clean paint remains on the palette.)

To rewet the paints when you start work, either spritz the dried paint with water from a spray bottle, or pour a small amount of clean water over the paint with a measuring spoon, and let the paints soak for 5 to 30 minutes. Some painters are impatient about this enforced moistening period, but I'd suggest there are always morning chores — making coffee, answering emails, walking the dog, getting dressed, etc. — that can be done while the paints soak. Wet the paints first, then go do other things.

If you need to start with large quantities of paint, rewet the paint by squeezing fresh paint on top of the dried, with a little added water. By the time you work through the tube paint the dried paint will have softened to the same consistency.

All watercolors made with gum arabic binder can be dried out and rewetted an unlimited number of times without harming the paint color or permanence. There are three cautions, however: (1) some manufacturers (such as Schmincke) make their paints with a synthetic binder, which I find does not rewet as well as gum arabic with glycerin and glucose; (2) some manufacturers (such as M.Graham and Sennelier) use a honey wetted vehicle that either dries out very slowly or only dries to a sticky surface, which must be covered to protect the paint from dust and insects; and (3) in some brands there are problem pigments, specifically viridian, manganese blue, cobalt violet, cobalt blue and the dark iron oxides used in burnt and raw umbers, that rewet reluctantly and may turn toward a thin or gritty consistency.

To artists who dislike working with dried paint, I'd suggest that the only reason you have a pile of paint to rewet the next day is because you've squeezed out too much paint in the first place. Add paint to your palette more frequently and in smaller quantities; there's always more in the tube. When you're done, what you clean off will not be worth saving.

The third approach, which is to keep the paints continuously wet, allows you to work immediately and with larger quantities. The primary motive, I think, is distaste for the interruption and tedium of dissolving paint: the painter dissolves a single large amount of paint and gets it over with. The main drawback is the inevitable appearance of mold after four or five days, or sooner in hot or humid climates.

The remedies for mold are at least as inconvenient as mixing the paints each morning. The first recourse is to prevent mold spores from getting onto the paints. Keep the paint wells covered when not in use, use an air filtration unit near your work area, and work with bottled distilled water only. Be sure to clean, dry and cover your brushes each night. Clean paint containers and palettes with soap and water prior to use.

If you are willing to experiment, try different paint brands to see if you can find a mold resistant formulation. (Unfortunately favorite paints are all susceptible to mold.) One alternative is to mix your paints by squeezing the paint into a plastic squeeze (ketchup or honey) bottle or small Tupperware container, add water, cap and shake to dissolve. Store the paints overnight in the refrigerator and shake them up each time you use them, as pigment will settle quickly to the bottom. (Flat palettes, protected by their covers or a sheet of foil or cling wrap, can also be stored in the refrigerator.) You will still have to periodically clean out and refresh your paints, but this can usually be kept to once every two weeks or so, depending on usage.

The simplest solution may be to add a few drops of Listerine™ disinfectant to the paint wells, diluted paints and rinse water. This may create a mild chemical odor while you work but this disappears once the paints have dried.

You might also try adding small quantities of a nontoxic food preservative, such as potassium sorbate or sodium benzoate dissolved in your source water (used to mix colors) and rinse water (used to clean brushes). Unfortunately these "natural" preservatives create or require an acidic environment to work well, but in small quantities they may still inhibit mold enough to meet you need.

I used to clean the palette because I wanted to start fresh with each painting. Now I store and mix the paints in separate porcelain dishes, which I choose and use as I need them, let paints dry out when I'm not working in the studio. When I run out of clean extra dishes I run them all through the dishwasher.

I temperamentally like to work with different paints and color combinations, so I only feel hemmed in by dried piles of paint on a single palette. Some artists paint the same kitty in the pail, or game bird, or rose petals, or seascape sunset, over and over and over: and they have their piles of familiar paint always at the ready. For them, a crusty or continuously wet palette is just the thing.

mixing tube paints

The page on mixing with a color wheel provides the step by step instructions for a basic mixing method, which focus on how to choose different paints to get a specific mixed color. Here I focus on how to work with the paints as material substances you mix with a brush. (The paints used here are the same used to illustrate the basic mixing method.)

Again, my preference is to explain things in enough detail so that you can understand what is going on. For simplicity, I describe the procedure as if you wanted to paint a single area with a single color. Typically your actual work procedure will be more free flowing, as you build new mixtures, go back and add more of previous mixtures, float more paint into an area that is still wet, adjust the color temperature of an existing mixture to model forms, and so on.

The key elements of rinsing, bringing out paints, building mixtures and adjusting colors remain the same, and these are the basic building blocks of your technique. They will simply become more intuitive and more flexible with habit.

Mixing On the Palette. The figures that follow show a single mixing area in an Eldajon palette (on the left), and part of a flat mixing sheet (on the right), to demonstrate how to work with paints on a slanted or flat mixing surface. The Eldajon mixing area is actually a shallow rectangular bowl, so paints placed near the edges are raised above the pool of mixture in the center. You may prefer the flat surfaces that most large mixing palettes provide.

laying out the paints

Lay out the raw paints with plenty of room between them. I've placed them in adjacent paint wells on the Eldajon palette (left), but it's better to leave an empty paint well between different paints if you can. This prevents one wet paint from contaminating the other. I use the middle paint well to make a mixture of the two paints on either side, as the need arises, to save mixing space in the mixing areas.

Squeeze out only enough paint to do the job. This is a matter of guesswork based on your concept of the finished painting; with experience you can estimate this pretty accurately. (And if you need more paint, it's in the tube.)

I squeeze out paints one at a time, only as I need them, since I may change my mind about a paint depending on how the other colors look on the sheet. When I haven't committed to a prior plan by squeezing out every paint I think I'll need, I can improvise in a new direction if I want to.

I put several drops (about a half teaspoon) of water over the raw paint. This dissolves some paint in a thin solution so that the color is easier to see, and it keeps the paint from developing a hard skin while I work. If I need the paint full strength, I dip into the pile; if I want it diluted and wet, I dip into the water.

bringing out the first paint

clean the brush by wiping it on the mixing area

To start the mixing, take a moist medium brush (a #8 round), dip it into the weakest tinting paint (the paint with the weakest mixing strength), and bring the pure paint out onto the mixing area. Daub it down on the sheet, then smear the brush sideways (or scrape it against the outer rim of the mixing area) to get as much pigment off as you can. Repeat if you need more paint. Bring out slightly more paint than you think you'll need.

Then clean the brush by stroking it in the area where you will make the mixture. Get as much paint off it this way as you conveniently can.

adding water to the mixing area

swirl the brush in the mixing area, not in the rinse water

Take the brush and dip it into the rinse water, but do not stir it. Let it fill with water, then transfer this water to the mixing area. Rub the brush against the mixing surface to get more paint off the bristles and discharge the water. Then repeat to add more water.

On the Eldajon palette, discharge the water by wicking the brush against the edge of the mixing area: the water will run down the side to make a puddle in the center.

For larger quantities of water, use a small measuring spoon. I use a plastic straw dipped in water and then stopped at the top end with my finger; this method also allows me to measure the water pretty accurately.

Keep this going until you've built up a pool of water that is slightly less than the amount of mixture you'll need. Then mix the paint and water thoroughly to assess the mixture. If the mixture is too weak, add more paint from the pile on the mixing area.

At this point you have a weak mixture of paint in the mixing area, and a pretty clean brush. Notice that you have not cleaned the brush by plunging it into the rinse and swirling away the residual paint; you've repeatedly wet it just enough to loosen the paint, but have swirled away that "dirty" water on the palette, where it forms part of the mixture.

Dip into the pile of paint on the mixing area if you need more paint to make the mixture stronger; rinse the brush by swirling and rubbing it in the mixture.

When you're done, wick the brush off against the edge of the mixing area (on the Eldajon) or by stroking the brush around the edges of the mixture puddle on the flat sheet.

Now rinse the brush thoroughly in the rinse water: you should only get a little paint out of it. (If not, then you could probably wick more paint onto the sheet or edge of the mixing area first.)

bringing out the second paint

slowly swirl the dirty brush in the mixing area to test the mixing proportions

Shake out or towel the brush lightly to remove excess water, but leave some water in the brush — this helps to release the paint onto the palette because paint does not stick as eagerly to a moist brush.

Then pick up the second, stronger tinting paint from the raw paint pile in the mixing well with the wet, clean brush. Pick up only as much paint as you think you'll need — typically, this turns out to be too much.

Drop the blob of the paint on the side of the mixing area, then very cautiously begin to swirl off the rest inside the pool of mixture (remember, you probably have too much paint on the brush). As you do this, you can evaluate how powerfully the dominant (second) paint will affect the hue of the mixture, and can adjust your mixing proportions accordingly.

Stop immediately and rinse the brush if you suddenly come close to the color you want; otherwise carefully add more of the second paint (from the pile on the mixing area), each time swirling the brush clean in the mixing puddle.

When you have the hue you want, go to the rinse water and bring out more water to the mixture, swirling the brush in the mixture to dislodge paint, and adding water until you have slightly more mixture than necessary.

Swirl the brush in the mixture to mix the two colors thoroughly. You now have a mixture that is (a) close to the hue you want, (b) close to the concentration of color you want, and (c) a slightly larger amount of mixture than you think you'll need to cover the area you intend to paint.

adjusting the mixture of two paints

slowly add more paint from the mixing area to adjust the color as needed

Now, if you need to adjust the color, you can either swirl a tongue of the liquid over to the pile of paint on the mixing area, or pick up some paint from this pile by flicking it lightly with the tip of the brush.

Use the paint on the mixing area to adjust the mixture, not the raw paint in the paint wells. You want to keep the raw paint as uncontaminated as possible, which means touching it only when you've run out of paint on the mixing area.

Continue swirling and adjusting until you have the hue just right. Now test the mixture on a blank piece of paper. The apparent color of the mixture will typically shift as the paint dries. (You can anticipate the result of this shift if you are familiar with the typical drying shifts of the paints you've used.)

adding the third paint

Rinse the brush thoroughly. As the last step, add a small amount of the third, adjusting paint to get just the right saturation and value in the mixture. Often you need less of this paint than you think, so start with a tiny amount and add more as needed; a quick stroke of the raw paint pile is enough. Rinse the brush thoroughly before touching the paint in the paint well again.

Swirl the mixture to mix completely. You now have a paint mixture at the hue, saturation and value you want, and a brush completely charged with paint, ready for work.

If you need to adjust the hue slightly as you work (for example, to change the color temperature to model lit or shaded areas of a form), you have both the mixing paints on the palette to work with. Just flick the mixing pile with the tip of the brush and swirl more paint in the mixture.

When you're done with that mixture, rinse the brush thoroughly. Leave the color mixture where it is, and start the next color in another mixing area or another part of the sheet. You'll almost certainly want to go back to a mixture you've already made — to apply a second coat to areas you've painted that are too light, or to use the mixture in other parts of the painting, to create a color unity.

Notice that you always leave a range of paint mixtures on the palette. Your burnt sienna mixture is there, but also some of the raw paints it was made from. This lets you adjust the mixture, for example when shifting from foreground to middle distance in a landscape, by pulling in more of one or more paints. These paints will also continue to drain into the mixture, giving it life. When all the paints have been dissolved in a single puddle, any visual excitement or variety in the mixture is dead.

Mixing On the Paper. Everything that has just been described about mixing paints on the palette can be applied to mixing paints on the paper. The reason to do this is that it "shows your work" in the painting, allowing the viewer to see the components of color mixtures, the effects of changes in color proportions, and the effects of pigment diffusing in water. All this greatly enhances the visual interest and feeling of spontaneity in the work.

The way to do this is to include the paper as a "second palette" in the mixing process. This can be done at any point. You could transfer the finished brown mixture to the paper, then add touches of diluted red, yellow or blue paint to tweak the color in certain areas as you paint. You could transfer the base orange mixture of yellow and red to the paper, then add the neutralizing touches of ultramarine on the paper, while the orange mixture is still wet or as a glaze of color after it has dried. At the extreme, you could daub or stroke the raw red, yellow and blue paint directly on the paper, where you want strong color accents to remain, then add water (with a brush or spray bottle) to mix them together on the page.

All these methods produce distinctive effects, and all are worth trying out. In general mixing paint directly on the paper takes the work closer to a sketch, and this mixing method is especially suited to quick sketching. But it can be used in any type of work.

Usually you will need to moisten the paper first, or work into still wet paint. Applying raw paint to dry paper will leave a visible paint tattoo, no matter how much you try to mix or scrub over it. This usually happens no matter how wet the paper is, so there is not much point to getting the paper soaking wet: more important than the amount of moisture is whether it has had time to dissolve the gum arabic sizing and soak a little bit into the paper. This creates the ideal surface for mixing on the page.

A Two Paint Mixing Lesson. You can learn quite a lot about mixing paints by focusing on a two paint palette. This limits all the decisions about value range, texture, color appearance and handling attributes to two paints, which takes your mind off "color theory" considerations and focuses it on mixing decisions and mixing procedures.

The mixing alternatives at your disposal are subsequently limited to these five: proportion of each paint in the mixture; dilution of the mixture; wetness of paper; amount of paint in brush; and type of brushstroke gesture. So you learn more quickly in these specific technical areas.

Perhaps the finest pair to use is burnt sienna and ultramarine blue. These are near mixing complements, and are able to produce a fascinating variety of hues and textures.

Once you have done some paintings using only these two pigments, it's interesting to add a third paint to flesh out the range of color mixtures. The most common choice is a dull yellow, such as yellow ochre or raw sienna, which will get you a green when mixed with the ultramarine blue.

mixing pan paints

When using dry pan paints, the main complication to the mixing technique concerns picking up paint from the pan.

First, premoisten the cakes you are going to use with a few drops of water. Usually a minute or two is sufficient time for the water to soften the surface of the cake. In the field, I get settled and take in the view, then I wet the cakes I will need to start the painting, then I make the foundation sketch on the watercolor block. By the time the sketch is finished the paints are ready.

To wet the cake, saturate the brush with water, hold the handle in a horizontal position, and bring the tuft over but not touching the cake. Then turn the handle to the vertical. One or two drops will fall from the brush onto the cake. Do not touch the pan paint with the brush, and you will not have to rinse it. Repeat until the surface of the pan is wet with a bead of water.

Don't go around dropping water on every cake; the more cakes you wet the more disastrous the results if you knock over the pan set. Just moisten the colors you think you will need. (As with working with tube paints — no point in squeezing out the paints until you're ready to use them.)

Paints vary widely, by manufacturer and type of pigment, in how easily or quickly they can be wetted and picked up with a brush. Usually the granulating or "transparent" inorganic pigments, including the cobalts, viridian, raw and burnt umber, raw and burnt sienna, as well as most carbon blacks, and tedious to pick up and also hard on the brush. In general, the powdery, dense paints, such as the cadmiums, chromium oxide green, the whitish titanium spinel paints, yellow ochre, venetian red and ultramarine blue, dissolve and pick up easily. The synthetic organic pigments, such as the phthalos and quinacridones, are about as hard to wet and pick up as the "earth" pigments, but this is less noticeable because their tinting strength is so high. You become accustomed to these variations after working with a fixed set of paints in your paint box.

prewetting the pan paint by dropping water from a saturated brush

Next, using a medium or large round brush, carry a small quantity of pure water to one of the mixing areas on the inside cover of your metal pan set. To do this, use the brush rather like a spoon: dip it into the water, turn it horizontal, lift from the water, move it quickly over the mixing well, turn it vertical, then wick it against the raised side wall of the well; repeat. If the source water is close enough you can almost shovel or throw the water from the container to the mixing well.

Do not transfer all the water you will need for the mixture. You should transfer no more than half the total quantity needed for the color mixture. (The reason is explained below.)

Most paintings consist of one to four basic color fields — sky, trees and earth for landscapes; flesh, shirt and background for portraits; leaf, blossom and background for botanicals — and most pan sets have three or four large mixing wells stamped into the cover to accommodate wash quantities of diluted paint. Because you are often working in bright sunlight, it is very important to paint in the largest color areas as soon as you can, to minimize glare from the paper and establish your middle values. This makes the rest of the values easier to judge.

Two hints: try to locate your source water within reach at the end (above) the pan set, so that you can bring water to the paints along either side. This minimizes accidental dripping onto the pans: a drop that falls between pans will fuse the liquid in them and cause the paints to bleed into each other. And I often load a small amount of water into all the mixing wells at the outset, when both the brush and water are completely clean.

carrying water to mixing area

Now pick up the premoistened paint with the brush. In a two or three color mixture, start with the weakest tinting paint. I find it best to use a medium sized brush for transferring paint to the mixing wells, as small brushes quickly lose their points and large brushes are sloppy and harder to wick. They also dirty the rinse water much faster.

If you are using a natural hair (kolinsky or red sable) round brush, I recommend that you pick up paint by rotating (twirling) the brush over the surface of the cake — just roll the handle between your thumb and fingers. This scrapes up paint with the shafts of the hairs rather than the tips; it picks up paint on all sides of the tuft, and twists the hairs tightly together so that paint is not forced into the base of the tuft. Stroking or scrubbing the cake will wear out the tip on natural brushes, can fray the tuft, and works paint farther into the tuft where it is more difficult to rinse clean. Cobalt and some earth pigments can be especially hard and abrasive.

An even better alternative is to use an acrylic flat for picking up the paint, as the bristles are strong, the brush is cheap, and it is much easier to rinse. Small flats also tend to pick up color more evenly — though you pretty much have to resign yourself to wearing a hole in the center of the pan paint. (A moderate sized hole is good, because it cups the wet paint and helps the pan dissolve more quickly.)

picking up paint by twirling brush

Transfer the paint to one of the mixing areas in the cover or flat palette tray of the paint box, and wick the brush on the palette surface or stir the paint into the water in the mixing area. Again, a medium sized brush is best for this operation as it is easier to wick.

To wick the brush, turn the handle to the vertical position and press the tuft into the bottom of the mixing area as you draw it out of the puddle of diluted paint. Then pull it up against the raised edge of the mixing area and scrape it off against this edge to finish.

A bead of paint will form under the tuft along the edge of the mixing area, but if the paint is not too thick and you make the wicking gesture quickly, the bead will usually be drawn back into the puddle and you can wick the brush a second or third time.

If you have trouble, tilt the mixing area slightly so that the bead runs away from the tuft. If the bead is still too large to wick adequately, wick the brush against the raised lip of the pan set lid along the side of the mixing area. (You can sweep up stray paint along this edge as you paint from the mixture in the mixing area.)

wicking paint onto mixing area

Now you need to do two things: increase the amount of paint in the mixing area until you have the total quantity of paint you need, and increase the amount of water in the mixing area until you have the total quantity of liquid (diluted paint) that you need. The basic strategy is this:

add paint --> add water

To increase the quantity of paint, you simply work back and forth between the pan paint and the mixing area, rewetting the pan with the diluted paint, twirling the brush, and wicking the more concentrated mixture back into the mixing area. You are only adding paint, not water, to the solution.

The brush becomes harder to wick as the paint solution gets thicker. However, the paint in the pan should be getting softer, so that it is easier to pick up with the brush; this keeps more of it on the outside of the tuft. The hardest work is when the paint is hard to pick up (such as a burnt umber) and you require a concentrated mixture (for a dark color); this may take several minutes to complete. Just take your time and enjoy the fresh air.

adding more paint to the mixture

Now add more water as needed. The trick here is that you can pick up fresh water with a dirty brush and rinse it at the same time. (This is why you don't put out all the water you need at the beginning.)

To pick up the water, first wick the brush thoroughly on the mixing area. Then hold the brush horizontal and lightly touch the tuft to the surface of the water. Don't push the tuft into the water or swirl the brush from side to side: let the slight thirstiness created by wicking the brush pull water up into the tuft. Once you get the knack of this you can pick up water without releasing any paint.

Transfer this water to the mixing well and wick it off without putting it back into the paint mixture. This wicking is the actual "rinsing" action. Now go back for more water. The brush is slightly cleaner than before, so this second charge is easier to pick up without losing paint into the water, and the brush is cleaned further by wicking the water. Repeat until you have enough paint mixture to continue.

The point here is that water is a scarce commodity in the field. It is heavy to carry, and your field rinse water container is usually smaller than the one in your studio and also must usually double as both pure and rinse water. This rinsing method conserves the purity of the water while cleaning the brush for work.

rinsing the brush by adding water to mixture

Now turn to the second paint. This should be the stronger tinting color in the mixture, and is usually also the darker paint.

You basically repeat the steps above, except that you do not have to add water to the mixture. Because the second paint is stronger and darker, you usually have to pick up much less of the color.

You will probably be surprised to find that you do not have to rinse the brush. The "rinsing" action of adding water to the mixture has cleaned nearly all the paint from the tuft. And if you charge the brush slightly with water before you go to the second paint, you also keep paint out of the inside of the tuft.

If you have to make several passes for the second color, wick the paint on the opposite side of the mixing area, so that you can add paint without contamination. Even if the mixing area is completely covered with paint, you can usually wick off paint along the edge (or the lip of the lid) without getting the brush into the mixture.

If you are unsure how much of the second paint to add, don't take chances: wick it into a separate mixing area (as shown at right), then draw a small amount of color over the raised edge and into the working mixture. Do this repeatedly to build the color gradually. You do not want to overshoot and add to much!

Don't worry about contaminating the cake with another color of paint. As you continue working on the painting you will go back to the cake with a freshly rinsed brush for a load of more concentrated, darker paint — and you clean out any contamination as you do. Of course, this assumes most of the contamination is light to dark, weak tinting to strong tinting, intense to dull, so that a dark, dull, strongly tinting paint is contaminated by a light, intense, weakly tinting paint. If a saturated yellow, orange or white paint gets contaminated with another color, simply wick your brush off with a paper towel and blot up most of the paint with your brush. Clean out the rest as you work or when the painting is finished.

bringing out second (stronger tinting) color

Add the darker paint, and any third (adjusting) color, until you have the mixture you want.

If you want to go directly to the painting, do not rinse the brush: charge it with mixture and get to work. If you have to prewet the area to be painted, do not rinse the brush: charge it with water and go to the paper. The small amount of paint in the water tints the area so that you can see clearly where it is wet or dry, and as you blend the water across the area you diffuse the paint until it is quite faint.

When you are finished with the mixture, you may want to test it on a scrap of watercolor paper. (The "postcard" watercolor blocks are perfect for this purpose.) Mixtures on the palette can be especially deceiving if they contain cadmiums or cobalts; one floats, and the other sinks to the bottom, shifting the color of the mixture from the color it will have on the paper.

As always, it is more effective to mix colors on the paper than on the palette. In that case the palette in the description above stands for the paper. That is, you wet the paper first with a bit of water, then carry paint into that area; you roughly brush on more paint and water, as necessary, to build the color and wet the entire area, and "rinsing" the brush as you do; then you drop in charges of the second color, swirling it through the wet area to mix with the paint already there. In fact, you should actually premix the color on the palette only when (1) you want a diluted wash mixture to create a large, even color area (such as a sky), (2) you are painting a small area with concentrated paint, or (3) you want a color that must be mixed precisely.

As you work, always leave a little moisture in the cake. Don't pick up all the dissolved paint and leave the cake to dry out, or add a drop of water after you do. This continues the softening process in the cake. After five minutes or so, the paint will soften so much that one or two daubs with the brush will pick up a lot of paint; after about 10 minutes, the raw paint can be used for drybrush effects. Water evaporates fairly quickly from the cakes when you are working in low humidity, wind or heat, and in those cases you need to rewet the cakes more frequently.

wicking brush before rinsing, and testing color mixture

As the large areas of the painting are filled in and I start to add more details, I stop adding water to the cakes. After repeated wetting, the cakes shift toward a soft, gooey surface that is perfect for picking up paint for drybrush applications. If necessary, a wet brush will lift a heavy charge of paint quickly, because the surface is very soft.

By the time I've added the final touches, the cakes have usually dried out sufficiently to fold up the pan without mess, and all are as clean and uncontaminated as when I started.

In the field I work with a single small rinse container (holding about 2 cups of water), and I rarely have to change the water before I finish a painting.

brush mixing tricks

The brush can also be used in a number of ways to mix paints on the palette or on the page.

On the palette. The brush can be used as a measuring tool or eyedropper to pick up small quantities of dissolved paint from a paint well.

On the paper. The brush can be unevenly charged with paint to produce paint mixtures that change as the brush is used.

Flats or brights can be charged with one paint at one corner of the tuft, then tinted on one side with a second paint, to produce banded or two color strokes when the brush is used flat. When it is turned to paint along one corner, the amount of the second color that will mix into the stroke depends on the pressure applied to the tuft.

Rounds can be charged first with one paint mixture, then with a second. As the brush is drawn over the paper the mixtures will blend — from the second mixture into the first — in a graded but unpredictable way.

When mixing paint with a round, a smaller brush is better. I find a round in the #8 size works best; smaller sizes are too finnicky to use to transfer water, and larger sizes are harder to wick or rinse completely.

If you are going to use a large brush with the mixture (for example, a wash brush), use the smaller brush to move the paint onto the mixing area: when it is rinsed, it will not release much paint. Use the large brush to transfer water to the mixture, and to adjust the mixture by swirling against the paint already on the mixing area.

I've found that an acrylic flat is great for picking up raw paint. The flat acts as a small palette knife to scoop up paint, and it's very easy to wick off by wiping on the mixing area. It cannot carry much water, however, so a second brush (or a spoon or straw) must be used instead.

Sometimes, to start a new mixture, I simply take a 3/4" flat, use it first to transfer the amount of water I need to the mixing area, then scoop one paint with one corner of the tuft, rotate the brush 180 degrees, and scoop up the other paint with the opposite corner. Try this, and you'll find it's quite easy to pick up two different colors with the same brush. I then plunge the whole brush in the mixing puddle to rinse the brush and mix the paints together.

Making paint wheels got me habituated to using flats, because they work so well in mixing colors (easy to pick up paint, easy to wick, easy to rinse). So much so, that I eventually had to force myself to learn the same methods using rounds, because I had lost the knack of them.