How to Create (and Keep) Luminous Color

April 12, 2018 4 min read

Have you ever walked by a painting and had the color seem to jump from the wall? Some artists are known for paintings that seem to bounce. Carl Dalio is one such artist and it’s no accident that his paintings seem to bounce. Dalio keeps color at the front of his mind throughout an entire painting. In his workshop Color Power: The Path to Visualizing Energetic Color he shares some advice for how to create and keep luminous color in your paintings.

Learn how to paint with luminous color in watercolor with Carl Dalio

Choose the Right Pigments

It all starts with color. Get off on the right foot by making sure the pigments you choose to paint with are the pigments that will result in the most luminous painting. For Dalio this means creating a palette that includes primarily transparent and semi transparent colors.

You can find transparency information on your tubes of professional grade watercolor paints. Dalio’s palette does include a few opaque colors but in his workshop Color Power: The Path to Visualizing Energetic Color, and his most luminous paintings, he doesn’t use them once. Dalio’s colors include:

Permanent Rose (Winsor and Newton)- Transparent
Burnt Sienna (Winsor and Newton)- Transparent
Raw Sienna (Winsor and Newton) - Transparent
Cadmium Lemon (Winsor and Newton) - Opaque
Cadmium Red (Winsor and Newton) - Opaque
Winsor green blue shade (Winsor and Newton)
Cobalt Blue (Winsor and Newton)- Semi Transparent
Cerulean Blue (Winsor and Newton)- Semi Opaque
French Ultramarine Blue (Winsor and Newton) - Transparent
Cobalt Violet (Winsor and Newton)- Semi Transparent
Cobalt Violet Light (Holbein)- Semi Transparent

Learn how to paint with luminous color in watercolor with Carl Dalio

Palette Management

Now that you know the most transparent pigments to put on your palette, treat them right with palette management. Palette management means you need to give your pigments some room to breath between each other.

Dalio chose his John Pike Palette with this in mind. He doesn’t fill every well of his palette with color. That doubly ensures that colors won’t accidentally mix with their neighbors.

“Color really wants to travel and say hello to the color next to it,” says Dalio. “It really gets muddy as a result. So I give them some open room to not get mixed up with their neighbors.“

Here’s why it matters for luminous painting: Transparent pigments are their most luminous in their most basic form. For example, Permanent Rose will be it’s absolutely most luminous alone. When you add another pigment, it makes it a little less luminous. Luckily if you add another transparent pigment within the same color family, it’s still pretty luminous. But as soon as you add any complementary color (or it’s opposite) it begins to lose it’s luminosity.


Learn how to paint with luminous color in watercolor with Carl Dalio

Keep a Clean Palette

It can feel really tough to clean off perfectly good paint from you’re palette. If luminous paintings are your goal, it’s a struggle that’s worth pushing through. We promise though the difference between cleaning your palette and not is a big one.

In his workshop painting, when he transitions from a warm, sun facing wall to a shadow wall, he cleans his palette completely.

“I’ve got to have that discipline to take off the color I’ve got in here,” Dalio says. “I don’t want to start mixing a neutralized color. I’m trying to get as much electricity as I can in this thing.”

In his watercolor workshop, notice that Dalio cleans out his John Pike Palette between almost every major wash.

“You’ve got to be willing to use very good quality color in the first place,” says Dalio in Color Power: The Path to Visualizing Energetic Color. “You’ve also got to be willing to clean that color off and say “Adios. I’ve used you now and now I’ve got to clean this palette back off.” So don’t get too picky with saving color.“


Learn how to paint with luminous color in watercolor with Carl Dalio

Keep your Water Clean

This may seem obvious but how often are you neck deep in a watercolor painting and suddenly realize just how dirty your water is? We’re all guilty of it. But to create the kind of watercolor paintings that jump from the wall, you want to keep your colors as luminous as possible. Dirty water will dirty the pigment and cut down on your pigment’s ability to bounce.

The good news is that this is really really easy to do. Just make sure to get new water while a wash dries or keep several jars of water at the ready. If you make one change on your road to painting luminous watercolors, this can be it.

Keep Mixes and Washes in the same Color Families

Dalio tries to work in color families to keep his paintings luminous. For example in Color Power: The Path to Visualizing Energetic Color Dalio uses primarily warm colors for the sunny walls. He starts with Permanent Rose and then infuses Burnt Sienna for areas of bounced light. He uses Burnt Sienna because it’s in the same color family as Permanent Rose.

However this doesn’t mean he never crosses the color wheel. He just prepares for it.

On the shadow side of his building, he starts with a French Ultramarine Blue and Permanent Rose mix for the top of the building. As he moves down though he adds more and more Permanent Rose so that by the time he’s adding Burnt Sienna for bounced light, he’s adding it into a much warmer purple.


Learn how to paint with luminous color in watercolor with Carl Dalio

The same principles go with washes.

“As long as you’re painting with the same color family one over the other, you’re going to keep it clean,” he says. “The moment you start to put one color over the other and they’re complementary colors you’ve got a problem.”

When you mix blue and orange in your palette, you get grey. The same graying happens when you cover a blue wash with an orange wash. If you want to keep your colors as bright and bouncy as possible, keep washes in the same color family. Remember, this doesn’t mean you can’t use opposite color as washes. Just remember that it’ll cut down your luminous color a bit when you do.


Learn how to paint with luminous color in watercolor with Carl Dalio

Creating luminous color in a watercolor painting is no accident. The good news is that you can learn how to do it. Choose transparent colors, keep your palette and water clean, and work in color families as much as you can with mixing and glazing.

If you’d like to see a few artists who are masters of luminous color at work check out:

Carl Dalio's Color Power: Path to Visualizing Energetic Color
Linda Baker’s Layers of Design in Watercolor

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