Recently I've been getting a lot of questions about how I keep my watercolors vibrant and saturated. Initially, I didn't have a very good answer but after thinking about it for a while I have a few ideas. This is not intended to be a comprehensive guide; it's just a few things to keep in mind.
1) Use WHITE paper.
That might sound obvious but a lot of watercolor paper is a little on the creamy side. That'll dull your colors a bit right off the bat. I use Strathmore 400 Series Mixed Media paper for almost everything. It's not super white but it's good enough to get nice saturation.
3) Use high quality, professional paint.
For years I used Windsor & Newton Cotman colors and thought they were great but as soon as I tried a few pro quality brands I never used Cotman paint again. The Cotman colors were very affordable but tended to have less pigment and looked dull and desaturated compared to professional paints. The professional colors cost a lot more ($10 - $30 for a 14ml tube) but it's totally worth it. I mostly use Winsor & Newton Professional and M. Graham and Co. watercolor paint. But I am constantly trying new brands and pigments in search of the perfect mix.
3) Use clean water and be cautious and intentional with your color mixing.
It's real easy to desaturate your colors if you mix with a dirty brush. Especially when working with very strong pigments and little color contamination will go a long way to muddying your colors.
4) Use Vibrant Colors!
The most obvious and most important tip. If you want vibrant colors, USE VIBRANT COLORS. I know that sounds dumb. I KNOW! I'M SORRY!! But it took me a long to time to figure that out. There are a few pigments that I adore and use whenever I want to get a real intense color.
- PRUSSIAN BLUE - This is a rich navy blue color. This pigment was developed in German in the 1700's as a replacement for lapis lazuli. I use it constantly. I probably use this color more than any other because it's usually the basis for my shadow colors.
- SCARLET PYRROL - This is an intense warm red. It's an organic, synthetic pigment that was developed for the automotive industry. I use it a lot when I need an orange or when I need a red to look more intensely red.
- INDIAN YELLOW - This color is a strong, warm, yellow color. Originally This pigment was made in India by collecting and drying the urine of cows that were fed only Mango leaves and water. That's super bad for cows, I guess, so nowadays they make it by mixing a few different yellow pigments. I'll often use this to get an intense green by laying down an area of Indian Yellow, letting it dry and going over it with different levels of green and blue. The yellow shows through and adds intensity to the green.
5) Use a Computer.
Adjust your hue, saturation, and curves in PhotoShop so your colors are the vibrancy you are after. When it comes to making art for reproduction there is no such thing as cheating. Use all the digital tools at your disposal and make sure the printed product is as good as possible.