In the watercolour world, you might have heard artists refusing to work with white and/or black paint, as black dulls down other colours while white makes watercolour lose its transparency.

Here, I want to establish a happy middle ground for white – in terms of creating pastel colours, how to use it, and its place in watercolour.

Just Add White


The concept of pastel colours is very simple: just mix white with any colour, and ta-da! There’s your pastel colour. You may have to adjust the ratio of white to other colours, but adding white essentially makes a colour lighter.

You could add water instead, being the alternative to white while also preserving the paint’s transparency. However, there may be times when the extra opacity from adding white will help, such as for covering up mistakes!

Note: Some manufacturers make paints that are already a pastel colour, such as brilliant pink from the Holbein line. If you check the pigment information, you’ll be able to see that titanium white has been mixed with quinacridone rose to get a pale pink colour, which means you don’t have to add white or a lot of water to get that pastel effect.

And some pigments don’t even need the extra white to be pastel-like!

There are even pastel palettes out there, where all the colours are pastel. I have one that’s half-and-half (also from Holbein), which is like a limited palette that matches a few pastels with some brighter, non-pastels.

Shadows and Colour Combinations

As for creating shadows, you have two options – either mix in less white/water with your paint, or to tone things down, you should mix it with its complementary colour.

For example, red and green are complementary colours, which means you can mix a pastel pink with pastel green for a more neutral colour. If the result is too muddy, you can mix all 3 of the primary colours (i.e. red, yellow, and blue) for a cleaner grey shadow before adding a little white or water to lighten it.

In terms of mixing ratios, I would add a little more red if you’re trying to add a shadow to pink, more yellow for primrose, and blue for pastel blue.

This also means that colour theory applies to pastels, too! For example, pastel red (i.e. pink) goes well with pastel green, as red and green are complementary colours. It makes it a lot easier to find good colour combinations for pastels, but if you’re ever not sure, just test out some swatches on scrap paper and see what works.

Pastels in Practise

Since it’s springtime, you may be seeing more pastel colour themes, both in nature and in manmade products such as clothes and candy.

They tend to give a soft, childlike feeling, which means they’re good for painting spring flowers, Easter eggs, or some confectionaries such as macaroons or marshmallows. The “lighter feeling” is also because pastels are easier on the eyes, unlike neon colours or regular bright colours.

I would say that if your art subject and/or concept calls for this softer feeling, then go for the pastels! In any case, it’s probably the only time I would allow myself to use white watercolour paint.

Note: White itself can be considered part of the pastel set, so it’s no surprise that it goes well with any pastel colour! “Painting” it is a different matter, though – you’ll have to paint around the white area, and add some very light shadows to give it some depth.

Final Thoughts

There’s a time and place for everything, and as mentioned before, this applies to pastels, too. While not everyone is fond of pastels (as they may appear too childlike or soft), I’d still say it’s worthwhile to give them a try!

Even if you end up not liking them, at least you’ll now know for sure that you’ll never need to mix white with your paints ever again. But as always, hope you keep making more art, and happy painting!

Do you like pastel colours? What’s your favourite pastel combination? Let us know in the comments below! Also, for more tips and tricks about art, feel free to subscribe to our email newsletter. We’ll also keep you up to date with art tips and workshop releases.

Nicola Tsoi is a practising graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy. 

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