The Wilcox Guide to the Best Watercolor Paints, by Michael Wilcox. School of Colour Publications, 2001–2 edition.
Book Review by Margie Towery
Several months ago, this book was mentioned on one of the artist blogs I read occasionally, though I can’t now remember which one. I was able to snag an inexpensive used copy on amazon. I had thought it sounded like an indispensable tool for a watercolor artist, and it certainly is! This is the tool that will help each artist sort out which pigments she wishes to rely on.
You might already be familiar with the author’s name because he wrote Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green. Wilcox, an artist, art conservator, and engineer, brings all of those skills to this comprehensive, landmark text on paints.
One of the main ideas I brought home from a workshop was a determination to “edit” my current palette to focus not only on transparent paints but also on those that are more lightfast. So this afternoon I spent several hours perusing and getting sucked in to just plain reading this pithy, no-holds-barred book.
I should also mention that the book focuses on watercolor tube paints from about 30 manufacturers. A brief history of each manufacturer is also included.
The text is well-organized with general information at the front, including details of American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) (they examine lightfastness, toxicity, labeling, and so on) and specifics about how each paint was tested. This is followed by sections on each general color (yellows, reds, etc.). A history of each general color is provided along with details of modern pigments. That is followed with evaluations of each specific color (for example, Aureolin) from the manufacturers who market that specific color. For Aureolin, there are 12 manufacturers and/or lines tested. At the end of each section are a batch of miscellaneous colors (for yellows, those include, among others, Antique Amber, Bumblebee Yellow, and Yellow Lake).
The first paint in the Aureolin section is Art Spectrum’s Aureolin W6. The notes indicate that the pigment detail is on the tube, the lightfastness is ASTM II (I being the best), and it earned a high quality rating, along with these comments: “Produced from the genuine pigment, this is a reasonably bright, transparent yellow. The sample handled very well giving smooth even washes. A staining colour” (p. 55).
Wilcox also includes tips such how to mix a specific color instead of buying it, what its exact complimentary is, whether it is transparent, semi-opaque, or opaque, sometimes what it is made of (pigments or other elements such as charred bones), and whether it is fugitive (that is, how fast it’s going to disappear). Wilcox is not an industry spokesperson but freely offers comments about the state of the industry (that is, the Colourmen) and what artists could be doing to help the situation (don’t buy the crappy colors, for one thing).
His voice is at once pithy, informative, and curmudgeonly, but with the intent to inform artists about the best pigments. Of one Scarlet made of Alizarin Crimson and Toluidine Red, Wilcox comments, “Once painted out and exposed to light, it will be a race to see which pigment self destructs first” (p. 161).
I’ve been curious about some of the “neutral tints” on the market. Wilcox has nothing good to say about these particular colors and suggests they are just another marketing ploy to increase profits: “For too long now the race has been on to offer yet another fancy or irrelevant name. Do not join those who feel ill equipped to work unless they have a paint box requiring wheels” (p. 359).
Do you have a tube of Chrome Orange (any manufacturer) in your box? Based on Wilcox’s comments, you might want to rethink that one: “In practise, this is either an unreliable mix of Chrome Yellow Lemon and Chrome Orange, or a concoction of almost anything else. Varies between yellow and red. Best left alone” (p. 105). Of a color named Touareg Blue 049, he comments: “A simple mix, fancifully described. Not used by the Touaregs as far as I am aware” (p. 252).
Let’s return to the main impetus for the guide in the first place: what is the quality of the paint on your brush? The answers are in this book, just as the cover advertises. It is amazing to see how many watercolor paints fail the lightfastness tests, and this holds for many expensive artist-quality paints. If you want your watercolor paintings to last more than a few months or years, you should pay attention to the lightfastness markings on the tubes. And if you want more information about the paint you’re using, I highly recommend this text.
The one major drawback is the lack of an index.