Friday, August 15, 2014


In the "Greenhouse" segment of my new video, Watercolor in the Wild, I mentioned that I ignored the green colors and painted the scene with browns, ochres, and blues instead. 

Why would anyone want to do that? Why not paint what you see? Let me explain that decision a bit more. 

Here's a photo of the scene as it appeared to the camera, with fairly strong greens.

This was the gamut, or range of colors, that I was interested in painting instead. It's a complementary slice of the color pie that ranges between blue and yellow-orange. Greens and reds are excluded.

What I was after was the most basic color scheme possible, just one step away from a monochromatic rendering.

I wanted to focus on the most basic dimension of color, warm vs. cool.

As I was painting, I was thinking of (though aware that I was falling far short of) one of my favorite English watercolorists, Thomas Girtin (1775-1802). Girtin was a friend and rival of J.M.W. Turner, but, sadly, he died young, just 27 years of age.

Thomas Girtin, Interior of Lindisfarne Priory, 1797
His skills were so formidable in his short life that Turner said, "Had Tom Girtin lived I should have starved".

Girtin's paintings have a wonderful otherworldliness that I adore. Part of his appeal is the way he restricts his painting to those bones of color.

Thomas Girtin, Guisborough Priory, Yorkshire 1801
How did he arrive at that? He must have been looking at greens and ignoring them.

But wait—Is it possible that he used a wide range of bright colors, and that the greens have faded? Well, yes, there might have been some color loss, especially in the reds.

Thomas Girtin, Ouse Bridge, York
But if his palette was anything like Turner's, according to Winsor and Newton, there really weren't that many reliable greens available at the time. There were some green earth pigments, but none of the greens that we're most familiar today. 

Copper arsenates, Emerald green, Viridian, and Phthalo green all came into use after Girtin's death.

Girtin, Dover
More than that, artists of the day were quite deliberate about restraint of color in landscape.  Here Girtin gives just the barest hint of green. The painting's reserve gives it a quiet dignity, a storybook quality.

You can find this chromatic reticence in the work of Claude Lorrain and Richard Parkes Bonington and so many others. In our own time, artists such as Andrew Wyeth, Erik Tiemens, Alan Lee, Brian Froud, and J.B. Monge have worked in very restricted palettes with wonderful emotional effects.

The way to get those effects is to either 1) Bring fewer paints in your sketch kit or 2) Ignore the colors you see and paint the colors in your head.
To watch the greenhouse segment and the rest of my new video, pick up your copy of "Watercolor in the Wild":
HD download: (Credit Card) 
HD download: (Paypal) buy
DVD: (NTSC, Region 1) 
Digital creators: Learn more about selling content on Sellfy.

Previously on GurneyJourney:
Watercolor Materials
The Green Problem
Read more about Girtin and Turner's colors in "Palettes of the Masters: JMW Turner, via the Tate"
Winsor and Newton's essay about Turner's palette
Catalog to 2002 Girtin Exhibition: Thomas Girtin and the Art of Watercolor


Aljosa said...

Thank you for this blog! I learn so much each time.

Anonymous said...

Thank you James. He's painted the sky with blue in "Guisborough Priory" but he didn't apply it into the shadows I think you would have applied some blue into it.

Jacob A Stevens said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jacob A Stevens said...

Hi James,
Do you look at green as a warm color or a cool color? I realize there are different yellower and bluer hues, but it always seems to be "on the fence." I'm guessing from your painting that your answer might be "neither" but I'm wondering if you have any additional thoughts.

James Gurney said...

Jacob, I think of green as transitional between the realms of Warm (yellow-orange and kin) and Cool (blue and kin). But within the range of greens, there are relatively cool greens, such as viridian, and relatively warm greens, such as permanent green light.

Same is true of magentas and violets, which are on the fence as you say, but are warmer or cooler relative to each other.

Dan said...

His style reminds me of Hayao Miyazaki's, especially in "Dover." There's this brilliant narrative quality, and a certain effortlessness about the drawing that they seem to have in common.

Rich said...

"Bones of Color"
Liked that.
Back to Basics:

Green is a difficult color to handle in landscape paintings, there's always some risk of "overgreening";
the Gurney-Girtin-quote here seems to me a fine antidote.

LizzVisions said...

This was a wonderful post! I have never heard of Thomas Girtin before and I am still trying to get a handle on using watercolors. Great tips! :]

- Lizz
Smile a little at my blog here :]

Tricky said...

I live a few miles from Guisborough and have drawn and painted the abbey several times. Nothing like Virgin's results though. Genius.

Tricky said...

Sorry! Girtin NOT virgin ! Autocorrect! Argh!

Jeff Epp said...

Hi James,

Looking at your gamut map, could you find the green side and paint that colour (grey Green) or do you just pick another colour that matches in value?


James Gurney said...

Jeff, I'd probably use the part of the gamut that is most toward green, even though it's a very dull green.

And remember, that gamut map charts only the two dimensions of hue and chroma. It doesn't show the value dimension, so any point in that gamut could be painted light or dark. (Hope that makes sense.)

Elizabeth said...

Dear James Gurney,
I am really pleased to have found your blog here. I like your watercolours. I'm searching for the palette of Mr Girtin to no avail but ideally, I would find an accurate list such as
French Ultramarine,
Light Red,
Lemon Yellow Hue,
Raw Senna,
Gouach White of some sort!
Please let me know where I could find the list of the actual pigment colours Girtin used (and Turner before cobalt blue was available).
Where can I learn more about the use of pigment in watercolours? Please advise me.
Yours sincerely,
S E Darley
Yorkshire UK