Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The Colours of Rory McEwen

This is a post about the colours of watercolour paint used by botanical artist Rory McEwen.

Today I was back at Kew Gardens and revisited Rory McEwen The Colours Of Reality (11 May to 22 September 2013) at the The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art(See my earlier post A day in the life of botanical artist Rory McEwen)

Tulip 'Helen Josephine' 1975
Images courtesy of the Estate of Rory McEwen

One of the characteristics of his botanical paintings is the intensity of the colour and the nuances he achieves.  This partly comes from painting on vellum which is renowned for making colours look intense and fabulous.  Vellum is not porous and hence the paint sits on top of the sheet of vellum.

However the colours in his paintings are, of course, also partly due to the paint he used.

One of the cases in the exhibition is given over to his painting materials.

Knowing how much artists like to know about palettes I used my magnifying glasses to copy out the names of the paints he used.  So what follows is a list of paint colours!

It's difficult to know which brands of paint he used however evidence from the names and from the tubes in the display case suggest he used a combination of Winsor & Newton (much used by botanical artists) and Old Holland Classic Watercolours.

He created his palettes by placing tube paint on paper or a thin board and then using the tube paint as a resource for the paint colours he mixed.  Bear in mind the size of the brushes he used he was working dry brush with little very small brushes (W&N Series 7 sable - a lot of 00 and smaller)

It was very evident that some of the paints were fugitive as there's now no colour left.  However it's unclear whether these were used a lot or not.  Several people have expressed reservations about about the pigments and lightfastness of certain Old Holland colours (eg see Handprint's review of Old Holland).  I think it more likely that when using Old Holland, McEwen may have trying to use paints which would have been available to painters like Georg Ehret.  There again these were tubes which had not been used much so maybe he didn't use Old Holland much at all!

My personal view - based on the names on his palettes - is that he was actually using Winsor & Newton.  You can check this out for your self by comparing the names below with the two colour charts for the different paints:
Anyway here are the lists of colours - I've separated them into colour groups.
Note with respect to comments about where paint looks fugitive that these paints would have been those in use over 30 years ago - at least.  Paint formulations have moved on since then!  It is also very apparent that he was paying attention to lightfastness as a swatch card accompanied each colour - and this highlighted the lightfastness - at that time


  • Lemon Yellow
  • Winsor Yellow
  • Cadmium Lemon
  • Aureolin
  • Cadmium Yellow Pale 
  • Aurora Yellow
  • New Gamboge
  • Cadmium Yellow
  • Indian Yellow
  • Cadmium Yellow Deep


  • Cadmium Orange
  • Chrome Orange


  • Bright Red
  • Cadmium Scarlet (completely fugitive)
  • Scarlet Vermillion (paint missing from the palette - discontinued?)
  • Scarlet Lake (looks fugitive)
  • Cadmium Red  (paint missing from the palette)
  • Cadmium Red Deep
  • Vermillion (paint missing from the palette - discontinued?)
  • Winsor Red

Pinks and Purples

  • Permanent Rose (Quinacridone)
  • Alizarin Crimson
  • Alizarin Carmine
  • Rose Madder (crossed through) Alizarin
  • Cobalt Violet (looks fugitive)
  • Winsor Violet
  • Permanent Magenta (Quinacridone)  (paint missing from the palette)


  • Manganese Mineral Blue
  • Cobalt Blue
  • Cerulean Blue
  • Permanent Blue
  • French Ultramarine (used a lot!)
  • Antwerp Blue (paint missing from the palette)
  • Winsor Blue
  • Prussian Blue (looks fugitive)
  • Cyanine Blue
  • Winsor Emerald
  • Terre Verte
  • Sap Green (completely used up)
  • Viridian
The Old Holland colours on display are as follows
  • Cadmium Red Light
  • Terre Verte
  • Cadmium Citron
  • Groene aarde (green earth)
  • ? greep licht
  • ? oker licht
  • French Ultramarine
  • Cobalt Violet
There was another card for the more boring browns, greys etc but this was not visible

For more about watercolour paints see my post about the best brand of watercolour paint for artists'.

So - what do you think about his choice of colours?
  • Are there any that surprise you?  
  • Do you agree it appears to be more W&N than Old Holland?
[NOTE: Links have been revised updated for changes since publication]