Interview with Stephen Quiller

by Paint Tube 7 Minutes

Interview with Stephen Quiller

Stephen Quiller is known internationally known artist who works across several water media including transparent watercolor, gouache, acrylic, and casein. As a master of color, Quiller has a half dozen books and video workshops on both his use of water media and color. His research and development of a color wheel for painters - called the “Quiller Wheel” - is now used by thousands of painters throughout the world.


Could you walk us through your process? What problems are you trying to solve at each stage?

When working in the studio, I work with subject matter inspired by nature. I live in the high country of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and spend much time cross-country skiing or hiking in gathering notes and sketches. I take this information to the studio and this material will tell me the medium or media combination, the size and the format, the color vision and approach to the painting. This also helps me select the paper surface to use whether it be cold pressed or rough, watercolor board or aqua board. Each painting then takes its own direction as the process of discovery is revealed. I try to participate in this process, but listen and not control it. That way I am open to unexpected moments that can actually change the course of the painting and make it stronger.


You’ve said working from sketches is important. Why do you avoid working from photographs? What do photographs lack that you find painting from sketches (or plein air) give you?

I feel each painter has something deeply unique to say and express. Each of us has lived our lives from birth to this point in time and thus see and feel differently. Each painter may work naturally tighter or looser, express with rich color or be more subdued, may be drawn to larger paintings or smaller intimate work.

Sketching and taking notes direct from nature serves a couple purposes. First, it helps painter arrange the composition and find his inspiration-this by rearranging various elements so that every part of the composition leads to your inspiration.

Second, the artist is using his or her eye and making his or her own marks on the paper. These marks can lead eventually to a deeper and more personal vision. The photograph obstructs and gets in the way of this.



What are the challenges watercolorists face? How are those different than what you see your acrylic students struggling with?

I truly feel that transparent watercolor is the most difficult medium we have. Viewing a transparent watercolor painting, indecision is easily recognized. Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent, two of the most important American painters in our history, savored working in transparent watercolor. Sgt. so much so that he would not sell his watercolors until later in life when he sold large blocks of paintings to important museums.

I think most watercolor painters are too timid with their color and the resulting paintings feel washed out. Watercolor dries twice as light as when it’s first put down so the artist needs to be bolder with each application.

Water media acrylic students, on the other hand, need to learn the advantages this medium has to offer. This medium offers the most intense rich luminous color available. When transparent layers are applied, leaving each underlay to dry completely, there is no fear of lifting the under color. That’s why I feel acrylic is actually the most transparent medium we have.

On the other hand, the painter needs to be aware of softening edges before they dry and not applying paint too heavily. It is by far the most versatile medium that we have.



You work in watercolor, acrylic, gouache and casein. What benefit have you found as an artist to work between several different watermedia? How has that made you a better artist?

Every personality is different and an artist could work in watercolor or oil throughout their entire life and still not have enough time to fully express.

I, on the other hand, love working in all four of the water media and their combinations. I may be in the high country working plein air with transparent watercolor or in the studio working on a large painting with casein and acrylic. Working with a variety of media and approaches, both plein air and in the studio, keeps it interesting for me. I have found that each medium has its own advantages and disadvantages and each medium has its own visual beauty. I have spent my professional life trying to learn what each of these media have to offer and how they can best be used by themselves or in combination.

What is the biggest challenge you see students facing with color? What advice do you give them?

I spent my life studying color and it has led to authoring two best selling books and DVDs on the subject as well as my Quiller color wheel that is used by artists throughout the world. I find that many painters find a few colors that work for them and stay with that pallet. Looking at a large body of work by these painters, I find a sameness to the color approach. Working with my spectral pallet, or what I call a universal pallet, the painter can take the subject any direction it needs to go. The most important aspects to mastering color are learning the relationship between value and intensity as well as the best way to mix neutrals that are in harmony with the color relationships in the painting.


People who love color often miss out on greys. What are the importance of neutrals especially if you love color?

Neutrals and semi-neutrals are really the key to color. If the artist is using mostly dominant or the pure hue on the outside of the color wheel, the paintings will be too garish and overpowering. Working on the inside of the color wheel with only selective use of the pure notes will make those notes come to life and sing.

Most artists learn to mix their neutrals using burnt sienna and ultramarine blue. These two colors will give a beautiful neutral or what we term as ”gray.” However for example, if the artist is painting the rain forest along the Oregon coast working with color families of yellow greens and greens as well as the reds and red violets, using burnt sienna and ultramarine blue for the neutral is out of harmony! Much better to find beautiful neutrals with for instance viridian and permanent rose or permanent green light and magenta. There are countless ways to mix neutrals and semi-neutrals that are in harmony with the other color choices.


With all the colors available to artists today, why is learning to mix color still important?

Thorough knowledge of color and color mixing is of utmost importance to the painter. For instance, instead of using a tube of raw sienna for the color note, I can take cadmium orange and ultramarine blue and mix the same raw sienna note, but also take it warmer to the yellow-orange or cooler by adding more of the blue to get raw number and even more to get a true neutral let alone taking it to the ultramarine blue side of the color wheel. With this knowledge, the artist can work with granulating color such as viridian green or staining color such as phthalocyanine green-both that will give similar ”grays” when mixed with quinacridone rose but giving different visual properties.


What decisions do you make about color before you begin a painting? Do you choose a color scheme or an intensity level? Why?

Color is the most emotional element we have to work with. My color selection always depends on the subject and the emotional level that I want. It could be strong light and shadow on a mountain snow scene, or a soft gray day when the Oregon coast or a hot Southwest plateau and Arroyo subject in New Mexico. Whatever the subject I first visualize the color. The subject and the approach tells me what to use. I then select a limited palette for the dominant and subordinate colors in the painting. Having this color knowledge is important to help take the painting any way it needs to go.


How important is drawing to you? Why? How does drawing help you be a better painter?

Drawing is of utmost importance in the painting process. I have files of working drawings that I will not sell. I can look at a drawing that I did 30 years ago and recall what the weather was like, who I met and talked to and where I was.

However, I do encounter painters that draw so well that it can get in the way of expression. I look at Cézanne’s drawings that were blocky and cumbersome and truly not sophisticated. But his way of drawing led to a new way of seeing. Today he is known as the father of modern painting.

Where in your planning process do you consider composition? Are you starting from scratch every time or do you have a few tried and true compositions that you can draw from and then adjust? If yes, could you give us some examples?

Every painting seeks its own best composition. I stay away from formulas. The most important thing is to train your eye to see abstractly. We are trained to see objects and things like trees and mountains or figures and teapots. But what makes a great composition is the way the arrangement of shapes are placed on the picture plane. I see a fairly poor painted painting that has a dynamic composition—-viewers will be drawn to it.

On the other hand, the beautifully painted painting that has a very poor composition—-viewers will walk right by. Composition is the key. So when I have an idea for a painting, I choose the format, division of space, geometric motif, positive and negative shapes (active and passive areas) pattern, rhythm and beat that best says the expression. I try to simplify and hold onto my inspiration and realize that every other element in the painting should help lead to this inspiration.


Learn more about Stephen Quiller by visiting him at his website or on Facebook