Art et peinture

Watercolour Plein Air Painter Jeff Williams on his favourite colours

Written for the Jackson’s Art Blog by Jeff Williams

I have experimented with a variety of different brands of watercolour paint, but have generally settled on Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolours for now. I particularly like their moistness as well as the fact that they are easily remoistened on the palette.

I am an architect by background, and consequently feel comfortable with my drawing and compositional skills as well as my understanding of value. I certainly enjoy the urban landscape but have particularly enjoyed the freedom of painting rural landscapes, most often en plein air (which often requires very little preparatory drawing prior to beginning the painting process). I often lean toward neutral colour schemes in an attempt to create overall colour harmony and mood/atmosphere in the scene.

Years ago I was introduced to the traditional triad of ultramarine blue, yellow ochre and burnt sienna. As I have explored watercolour painting I began with that triad, gradually introducing other colours as needed for particular types of conditions. From this triad I can mix a broad range of greys, blues and warm tones, which are the core of most any painting that I do. Typically I use 3-4 colours in a painting, and rarely more than 5-6. I find that by mixing colours like this I can maintain colour harmony in the painting more easily.


I currently work with what I consider to be a limited palette (the basic colours are Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue, Yellow Ochre and Burnt Sienna; additional colors that are used for particular situations are Cobalt Turquoise and Cadmium Yellow Medium Hue, which are particularly useful when mixing a wide variety of greens, and earth colors Raw Umber, Burnt Umber and Sepia, which are helpful if a particular dark or warm tone is necessary; Sometimes a red is necessary as well, so I keep Cadmium Red Medium Hue, Cadmium Orange Hue and Permanent Alizarin Crimson nearby. Neutral Tint is available for value studies but I rarely use it in a painting ― I find that I can mix my grays easily and they coordinate better with the other colors in the painting this way. Finally, I also keep a white watercolour or gouache available for those instances when I need to make a colour more opaque or a highlight is lost, however, I try very hard not to do this.




The painting Rockin’ Bass Rocks (2019) was painted en plein air on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, USA, while competing in the Cape Ann Plein Air event. The season’s first Nor’easter was blowing very strongly, the waves had built up to a crescendo and by the time the painting was complete (this was a very quick painting for me, taking less than an hour, with little drawing required) the rain was pouring down and I had retreated to completing the painting from my car. This painting was done almost solely with Ultramarine Blue, Yellow Ochre and Burnt Sienna. Very limited Cobalt Turquoise may have been used in the water (I cannot remember!), and the whites were 98% preserved white of the paper. I work holding the paper (taped to a support board) at an angle and generally the paint was applied from top to bottom in 2 layers (the humidity did not allow more than this or drying time would be too long), followed by minor value adjustments and darker highlights.

I think of myself as a realist painter in that I paint from life, and most people would look at my paintings and think that they represent reality. However, I should qualify this by saying that my paintings begin with the reality of the scene in front of me but I think of this primarily as my starting point. From there, depending on the mood that I am interested in creating as well as the reactions of paint on paper, I respond to the painting itself as I progress through the process. As a result, while the general qualities of the reality that I began with are still present, the scene may look very different than the real scene by the time that I am finished with the painting. This can best be understood via the painting Morning at the Docks.


Morning at the Docks, 2019
Jeff Williams
Watercolour, 17.8 x 35.6 cm


Morning at the Docks was also painted en plein air on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, USA, while competing in the Cape Ann Plein Air event. I began the painting at dawn, and this scene of waterfront activity required some detailed drawing of the boats and context. By the time the drawing was completed the sun had risen and the boats were gone, necessitating the painting be done en plein air but from my memory of the colours and light conditions. My original vision for the painting was of the morning light rising from behind the peninsula beyond and the interplay between the two backlit boats. I also liked the powerful orange contrast to the low light levels of the scene. As these oranges were applied (later in the painting), it became apparent that they needed to harmonize better with the neutrals of the scene. Consequently, a light Cadmium Orange Hue wash was introduced over most of the painting, particularly emphasizing this in the sky and water reflections. If someone looked at the painting as I was finishing they certainly would see something quite different from the reality in front of them. (see in-process photos below)

Here are a couple of in process photographs from Morning at the Docks:


Morning at the Docks in progress


The view of the docks


Jeff Williams at work


Finally, during the quarantined pandemic time I have been doing some study of colour. I have been researching the colours of my palette in terms of transparency, opacity, permanence, lightfastness, staining qualities and granulation. I have also been experimenting with other colours. The colours I have been experimenting with are yellows – Cadmium Yellow Light Hue, Lemon Yellow and Naples Yellow (I am trying to find my preferred yellow for mixing greens as well as for use in morning and evening skies); Quinacridone Sienna and Quinacridone Burnt Orange (a very interesting warm tone that I cannot really duplicate by mixing); grays – Joseph Z’s Cool Grey, Joseph Z’s Neutral Grey and Joseph Z’s Warm Grey (because I succumbed to the advertisements highlighting this amazing painter!); and Lavender (because I have friends that use this often and suggested I try it). I have yet to decide whether I will add or change out one of these colours to my palette…


Bridge at Cypremort Point, 2019 Jeff Williams Watercolour, 17.8 x 35.6 cm

Bridge at Cypremort Point, 2019
Jeff Williams
Watercolour, 17.8 x 35.6 cm


To view more work by Jeff Williams:
Jeff Williams’ Facebook page
Jeff Williams on Instagram


the in-process painting that shows both my palette/painting in process as well as the view that I was painting from (note, this painting used my triad palette as well as New Gamboge and a few Cadmium Red Medium Hue highlights (all Daniel Smith paints)

Lisa Takahashi

Lisa has been a contributor to the Jackson’s Art Blog for the past 7 years, writing artist interviews, and features on oil, watercolour and print. Alongside this she has worked as a painter and printmaker, exhibiting her work regularly at the Mall Galleries and the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. In 2018 she reached the semi-final of Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year.

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