HOW TO MAKE GRADIENTS
International Artist|December 2021 - January 2022
James Gurney demonstrates how to get your colors to change gradually throughout your picture
James Gurney

Traffic Lights, casein and gouache, 5 x 8" (12 x 20 cm) A lens flare is an effect that uses gradients of opaque paints to give an otherwise ordinary scene a feeling of magic. In this example of a set of traffic lights, there are two systems of gradients: one in the sky and the other in the forms that are in front of the sky.

Like a glissando in music, a gradient is where one color note smoothly transitions into another. The shift can occur in hue, value, chroma or all three at once. Gradients don't just happen. They take planning. Anyone can paint a flat patch of color. But if you want to make your colors shift, you'll need to reach deeper into your bag of tricks.

The term “gradients” is familiar to digital artists. Traditional artists might know them as gradations. In watercolor, they have also been called a graded wash or a graduated wash.

There are a lot of methods for achieving gradients. With oils you typically need to pre-mix representative batches of the colors, apply them in a sequence of steps, and then blend the transitions. With water media, you have to execute them quickly before the paint sets up.

HOW TO PAINT A WATERCOLOR GRADIENT

Materials: Heavyweight watercolor paper, rag, large round watercolor brush, pencil, palette or mixing surface, water cup and pigment. I'm using Scarlet Lake in this example.

1. Dampen the entire surface with water without pooling. Tilt it to even it out.

2. Load the brush with paint and start at the top. Pigment should travel.

3. Add water to dilute the mixture while removing excess liquid from the brush with a rag.

4. Tilt the board to get pigment to flow in the direction you want.

5. Remove excess buildup of water on the paper with a thirsty brush to avoid backruns.

6. Try it with various pigments to see what they do.

HOW TO PAINT A BRAYER GRADIENT

1. Use two or three colors of water-based block printing ink laid out on a sheet of glass spaced where you want them in the final color gradient.

2. The block painting ink has the right sticky consistency, but it's very soluble in water after it's dried, so you need to mix in some acrylic paint to get the paint layer to seal when it dries.

3. The purpose is to prime a page of a sketchbook or a smooth panel for overpainting in gouache.

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