Watercolor: Stephen Quiller: Color Choices That Improve Watermedia Painting

Watercolor: Stephen Quiller: Color Choices That Improve Watermedia Painting

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After Colorado artist Stephen Quiller finishes presenting exercises, demonstrations, lectures, and critiques during a workshop, students often comment that no other instructor has covered that vital information with such depth and clarity. Even experienced painters and teachers say they benefited from the way Quiller clarified the fundamentals of selecting and mixing color.

by M. Stephen Doherty

Quiller gave
helpful advice
to an artist
attending his
annual summer
workshop in

Twenty years ago when Stephen Quiller first proposed manufacturing a palette to help artists organize pigments according to a color wheel, experts in the art-materials industry told him it would be a great product—but one that no one would buy. The problem was that artists didn’t understand why they needed something other than the traditional rectangular palettes used by oil, watercolor, and acrylic painters. “People told me I had to educate artists about color choices before I could give them a tool to help them manage those selections better,” he explains. “So I wrote a book and started teaching workshops, and eventually the message got through.”

Quiller’s message has indeed gotten through to artists, and now they buy thousands of his palettes (available in three formats), color wheels, books, videos, and DVDs; and they wait years for a seat in one of the limited number of workshops he teaches. And although dozens of other artists follow his lead and offer variations of his products and instructional programs, Quiller remains one of the most authoritative teachers of color theory and its application.

Like many great concepts, Quiller’s ideas about color are simple to understand, yet they have a wide range of applications. Even the most inexperienced student of watercolor painting can grasp the logic of the system and begin to apply it; but the system can also engage professionals who understand how the complexity of the system will help them improve their paintings. “I ask beginner students to use just two complementary colors that are positioned directly across from each other on the Quiller Wheel, and I show them how they can use various combinations in a painting,” the artist explains. “Those in the workshop who are teachers can work with some of the more subtle combinations of contrasting or analogous colors to establish a wider range of applications.”

conducted a
near his
studio in

The literature for the Quiller Artists’ Palette explains it is “arranged for the use of accurate mixing of primary, secondary, and intermediate colors. Indicator guides on the palette aid in locating analogous, complementary, and triadic color relationships to ensure fresh, beautiful, harmonious color mixtures—NOT MUD! There are 12 extra pans around the wheel for other favorite colors, the ‘expanded palette.’ Eight outside corner basins are available to place earth (semineutral) colors or opaque watermedia. A very large mixing area is provided.” The Quiller Wheel diagrams the location of several dozen lightfast tube colors that might be squeezed onto the palette, each placed in the appropriate relationship with the others. By referring to the diagram, an artist can determine which pigments can be combined to produce harmonious, muted, brilliant, subtle, or neutral mixtures.

One of the reasons artists find color to be such a challenging issue is that most of them have a basic understanding of how primary, secondary, and tertiary colors exist in relationship to one another, but they are confounded by the fact that artists’ paints don’t match the pure red, yellow, and blue on which the theory is based. Blue and yellow may combine to make green, but which blue and yellow paints make a pure green? None of them. French ultramarine plus cadmium yellow lemon results in a completely different green than one would get by adding Prussian blue to Indian yellow. And if you apply a transparent wash of quinacridone gold over cobalt blue watercolors, you’ll get a completely different result than if you first mixed them on a palette and apply the combination to watercolor paper.

Students in
the Colorado
were free to
work in
oil, casein, or

When the conversation expands to include the issues of value and intensity, or when an artist wants to understand the relationship between complementary or analogous colors, the confusion increases exponentially. Quiller helps artists come to terms with the mystery and confusion surrounding color by taking them through a series of exercises and demonstrations that assist in understanding the process. His teaching is primarily aimed at applying the theories to watermedia painting—specifically transparent watercolor, gouache, acrylic, and casein—but the information can be applied to oil colors as well. “Obviously each of the paints has a different characteristic that dictates what kinds of solvents, brushes, surfaces, and techniques should be employed, but the pigments used to make the paints are essentially the same,” Quiller explains. “Cadmium yellow and cadmium red will interact in much the same way in oil or acrylic if you adjust for the differences in the opacity, fluidity, and drying time of the paint.”

During the demonstrations Quiller offers on each day of a workshop, such as the ones he presented during a recent workshop near the offices of Jack Richeson Co., in Kimberly, Wisconsin, he develops small abstract paintings to show how colors relate to one another and how each of the various watermedia paints can be used to apply the information contained in the Quiller Wheel. “During a five-day workshop, I usually spend the first two mornings on the broad issues of the value, intensity, and relationship of colors,” he says. “I keep the pictures small and nonobjective because I want students to focus on the relationships, not the way colors are used to create illusions of light, atmosphere, or texture. The two most important issues— and the ones students seem to have the most trouble understanding—are value and intensity. That is, the degree to which color combinations are light, dark, bright, dull, or neutral. I show students ways to make colors lighter or darker in relationship to one another.

students laid
out the paints
on their Quiller
Artists’ Palettes
while studying
the Quiller

“Recognizing that it’s not always easy for people to give up the time and money required to participate in a workshop, I offer them as much information and personal attention as I can,” Quiller continues. “I’ll even do demonstrations during the lunch break while students are eating so none of the time is wasted. During the first couple of days of the workshop, those demonstrations and the ones I offered during the afternoons were directed at showing students how they could apply the theory behind the Quiller Wheel and the Quiller Artists’ Palette to painting landscapes or still lifes.”

After the initial demonstrations, Quiller tailors the remainder of the educational program to the specific needs of the students attending a workshop. “Every group is different in terms of the students’ levels of experience and understanding,” he explains. “Once I have a sense of what those levels are, I adjust my plans accordingly. For example, if there are a large number of beginners, I spend more time working with a limited palette so they have a chance to gain a better understanding of color mixtures; and if there are a number of professional artists and teachers in the group, I jump into painting with a full palette.”

For the indoor
portion of the
conducted in
Wisconsin in
2006, he
abstract shapes
under an
overhead mirror.

Quiller indicates that he spends a fair amount of time during each workshop explaining ways of mixing colors to make neutrals, or middle-value grays, that help establish transitions between stronger color values. “I start by showing students there are a lot of combinations they can use to make warm or cool neutrals,” he says. “The most common ones are burnt sienna plus ultramarine blue; but one can also mix permanent orange and ultramarine blue, quinacridone rose and viridian green, cadmium red-orange and phthalocyanine blue (green shade), cadmium yellow light and ultramarine violet (Quiller brand), and many more.

“Eventually I try to go over all the major issues related to color so people can go back to their own studios and practice what they’ve learned,” Quiller says. “As we all know, the best way to get the full benefit of a workshop is to continue reviewing the information and using the techniques that were demonstrated.”
Some of the workshops Quiller teaches near his studio in Creede, Colorado, and on trips abroad include sessions of plein air painting with transparent watercolors. “Some students use acrylic, casein, or oil, but most of my instruction outdoors relates to transparent watercolor because I prefer to use that medium when working in the landscape,” the artist explains. “I still talk a lot about color choices and mixture, but being directly in front of nature allows me to relate those decisions to what I see. For example, I can look deep into the shadows on a hillside of trees and identify a wide range of greens—olive green, blue green, yellow green, semineutral greens—and talk about the combinations of complementary and analogous colors that will approximate or exaggerate what I’m observing.

Quillers Work

High Valley, Upper Huerfano
2006, watercolor,
29 x 21.
Private collection.
Canyon on the Little Susitna River, Alaska
2006, acrylic, 24 x 14. Collection Gordon Green.
Skunk Cabbage on West Willow Creek
2006, watercolor,
26 x 19. Collection Lucy Nowak.
Dawn, November 16
2004, acrylic, 36 x 56. Collection Bryce and Johanna Milam.
Autumn in Blue and Gold
2005, watercolor and casein, 32 x 44. Private collection.
Autumn, Deer Crossing
2005, acrylic, 34 x 30. Collection the artist.

“At some point during each workshop I also show students the different properties of acrylic, casein, gouache, and watercolor; and I explain why each might be appropriate for a particular subject or painting situation,” Quiller notes. “For example, I recently taught a workshop in Yosemite National Park and announced one morning that we were beginning a ‘casein day,’ meaning that casein would be ideal for responding to the gray, soft, damp, cloudy weather conditions. During the afternoon I used transparent watercolor to capture the veils of color among the evergreens. The point was to identify ways of using each medium to its best advantage.

“During any demonstration, whether it is conducted outdoors or in the studio, I talk about the progress of the picture so students understand that painting is a process of making decisions,” Quiller adds. “I explain what motivates me to paint a specific subject, and then I share my concerns about the composition, color combinations, paint quality, and visual impact of a picture as it takes shape. I don’t hesitate to admit when I’m struggling with something I don’t like or with choices that would take the painting in one direction or another. I want them to understand that the process is the same for me as it is for every other artist.

“The hardest thing to teach is how to see abstractly,” Quiller says. “That is, to help artists grasp the idea that they should focus on the relationship of shapes and colors rather than the identification of a landscape, still life, or figure. When I’m demonstrating, I talk more about the relationships between elements than I do about how to paint snow, or evergreens, or sheep. Trees aren’t just one color or shape. Their appearance depends on the light, atmosphere, weather, distance, and everything around them.

“I’m writing another book and one of the key issues I want to address is the importance of the abstract elements of picture making,” Quiller reveals. “I plan to recommend that readers spend more time using sketches than photographs because in my experience students are often too dependent on the realistic image recorded by the camera, especially now that so many of them have digital cameras that provide instant snapshots that can easily be manipulated in a computer.

“I always allow time for a critique of the student work, and I try to have a dialogue that is constructive,” Quiller explains. “I put each person’s paintings by themselves in front of the group and not next to another student’s work because I don’t want to suggest that workshop exercises should be judged competitively. I may ask the student to describe what he or she was trying to accomplish because that gives me an indication of how my comments can be helpful, and then I point out the strengths of paintings—and there is always something encouraging I can say, even if it is only that they have a good beginning. I then make suggestions of how they can move to the next level of painting in terms of their technical mastery of the medium and the emotional content of the picture. Finally, I allow the other students to ask questions or make comments that would be helpful. I just have to make sure that doesn’t get out of hand with one person dominating the discussion or being too negative in his or her comments.
“As often as I can, I try to interject thoughts about the spiritual side of painting because I feel strongly that art is more than just the nuts and bolts of putting paint on paper or canvas,” Quiller reveals. “I spend a lot of time teaching those technical skills, but I want to make it clear to the students that my principal concern is about integrating art into their lives.”

About the Artist
Stephen Quiller’s introduction to watercolor occurred while he was in high school in Fort Collins, Colorado, when he studied with local artist Darrell “Skip” Elliot. He continued his education in art at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, and, after graduating, taught art in Oregon. He bought a building in Creede, Colorado, in 1969 that continues to be his studio, gallery, and workshop headquarters. He has written five books on painting; produced and starred in several videos and DVDs; invented the Quiller Wheel and the Quiller Artists’ Palette; endorsed several lines of paints, brushes, and watercolor papers; and published six sets of note cards. His paintings have been included in countless gallery, museum, and watercolor-society exhibitions, and he has earned signature membership in the American Watercolor Society (he is a Dolphin Fellow), the National Watercolor Society, the National Society of Painters in Casein and Acrylic, the Rocky Mountain National Watermedia Society, and Watercolor West. For more information on the Quiller painting supplies manufactured by Jack Richeson Co., visit the companys website.

M. Stephen Doherty.

Watch the video: Preview. Watercolor Essentials with Thomas Schaller (August 2022).