I go through phases of carrying a small bag of paints and supplies with me wherever I go and spreading myself out in my gigantic studio without a square inch to spare. The current phase is one of traveling light. Even in my home studio I am using a small box of paints and one or two brushes. I used only tube watercolor paints for the past twenty plus years. A few months ago, when I began serious re-evaluation of my palette and the mud-making color theory that accompanied it, I began experimenting with pan paints, limiting my palette to only three to five colors, using the logic of subtractive color rather than additive color. What a joy!

I had to laugh when I found an old metal paint box of pan paints a couple of days ago while cleaning out a drawer of art supplies. The paint box was made by Binney & Smith, Inc. a company that began in 1885, the creators of Crayola crayons. (In January of 2007 “Binney & Smith” changed its name to “Crayola”.) The paints in the box are called “Artista Water Colors No.8” and I believe they are at least twenty years old. The colors are Primary Red, Orange No.5, Primary Yellow, Green No.7, Primary Blue, Violet No.5, Burnt Umber No.3, and Black No.? (a bit of rust over the number). What I find interesting is that the Primary Red is not the Fire Engine Red I was taught to make as a primary red in my color theory class at Spectrum Institute for the Advertising Arts in the early 70’s. Nor are the primary yellow or the primary blue the primaries I was taught to create. Instead, the three primaries in my Binney & Smith paint box are closer to a Magenta, a Hansa Yellow and a Prussian Blue, the three primaries I have been using in my recent color studies. I have found that with just those three colors I can mix anything I want without it turning to mud. It still puzzles me that I didn’t question the split primary color theory I was taught so long ago. Mud is guaranteed when using such a palette. Perhaps, if I had not turned my nose up at pan paints years ago, I would have learned that lesson earlier. As I recall, the choice of paints in many watercolor paint boxes are similar to the Binney & Smith No.8 collection.

Over the years I marveled at paintings with gorgeous colors, rich neutrals and pure hues that sang strongly on the paper. Though I read many books on color and tried other artists’ palettes, an understanding of color alluded me. Occasionally I would be fortunate to chose my colors well. Most often, I allowed myself to fall back on the split primaries, killed the color, and fought hard to bring life back into the painting. I washed a lot of paint down the drain.

It’s a bit frightening, starting from scratch. It’s also a bit embarrassing. But fear and embarrassment are a small price to pay for finally feeling as if I’m on the right path toward understanding color and having control over the colors I mix.

Watercolor Painting: Nicole sitting outside the Fundació Caixa Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain