Watercolor terminology: a glossary of terms

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November 16 2019

When you start to explore watercolor and read about it or watch video's, you might come across some terminology you're not familiar with. In this blog I give you an overview of these terms and what they mean. There's three categories: terms that describe paint or pigment qualities, terms that describe colors and terms that describe painting techniques.


Words that describe paint or pigment qualities


Granulation is something that is unique to watercolor. Pigments that are granulating give a wash that is not 100% even in color, but has a bit of a speckled texture. How much pigments granulate is different from pigment to pigment, but is also influenced by other factors. For example if your water is hard (it contains a high amount of chalk particles), your paint will granulate more. The kind of paper you use unfluences granulation as well. The natural pigments that I use in Kaia Natural Watercolor are generally a little more granulating than synthetic pigments.


The value is a color’s relative lightness or darkness. If you would look at the color on a black and white screen, if it's a light grey it has a low value and if it's a dark grey, it has a high value. The value range describes the scale of light (by mixing with water) to dark (by layering) one can get from one color. You can tell a lot about the value range of a color by looking at the paint in the pan. If the paint looks almost black in the pan, it has a high value range. Most of he mayan pigments I use have a very high value range. 


If a color has a high level of transparency it is see-through.  If you paint this color over another color or over a black line, the other color or line will shine through. Opacity is the opposite of transparency. All Kaia colors are transparent, except for yellow ochre and rust red, these are semi-transparent.


Lifting paint means you remove the paint from the paper with a paper towel or a brush, to correct a mistake or create a highlight. Some pigments are easier to lift than other, depending on a number of things, like the absorbency and texture of the paper and the size of the pigment particles. Paints that are difficult to lift are called staining.


Tinting strenght refers to how strongly a color/pigment influences the mix when mixed with another color. When a color has a high tinting strenght it means it only takes a little bit of pigment to infuence the mix. 


Pigments and paints are called lightfast when the color doesn't change or fade over time under the influence of light. All pigments I use for Kaia Natural Watercolor have the highest rating in lightfastness. 


Words that describe colors


Hue is the name of a color like 'yellow ochre'.


shade is a color mixed with black. In watercolor that doens't mean you always have to add black paint. You can make a shade of teal by adding a bit of  chocolate brown for example; the mixed color appears closer to black.


tone is a color mixed with grey. In the case of watercolor, that means: a shade that has been diluted with more water.


tint (also called undertone) is a color mixed with white, or in the case of watercolor, mixed with more water, so more of the white of the paper can shine through.


Chroma bescribes how bright a color is. Natural pigments usually have a little lower chroma than synthetic pigments. The chroma of the mayan pigments I use is usually a bit higher than that of the earth pigments.


Primary colors are the prime numbers amongst colors; they can not be obtained by mixing other colors. The three primary colors are yellow, magenta and cyano blue. 


Secundary colors are obtained by mixing two primary colors in equal parts. Green for example is a secundary color; it is a mix of yellow and blue. 


Tertiary colors are obtained by mixing one primary color with one secundary color. Lime green for example is a mix between yellow and green. Tertiary colors are often my favourite colors; their complexity makes them interesting. I love a blue that hinges to green or a yellow that leans towards orange.


Complementary colors are opposite each other in the color wheel, like yellow and purple. Complementary colors often work well together in a painting, because they provide contrast. If you want to learn more about how you can apply color contrast in your paintings, you might find this blog interesting.


Analogous colors are close to each other in the color wheel, like yellow and orange. Using analogous colors in a painting gives a harmonious effect.


Words that describe painting techniques


When you paint wet-in-wet you wet the paper first before you paint on it. This way you get color 'clouds' with no clear edges.


When you use the wet-into-dry technique you paint on dry paper and the shapes you paint keep their clear edges.


When using a dry brush technique you paint on dry paper with a brush that is relatively dry. This way you don't get a flat wash, but you see the texture of the brush hairs.


In a flat wash the color has the same value throughout the wash.


In a gradient wash (also called graded or graduated) the value gradually changes from dark to light.


In a variegated wash different colors are blended into each other.


Glazing is a different name for layering different washes of transparent watercolor on top of each other.


In a monochrome painting only one color/hue is used. Monochromatic painting can be a good exercise for working with values. 


Negative painting is a technique with which you depict a subject by painting the outline/background of your subject instead of the subject itself.


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