COLOR PART VI Methods & Procedures .
- Under the Limit: how many colors
- Under the Microscope: functions of colors
- Under the Knife: tools
- Under Way: first steps
- Under Stocked: basic approaches
- Under Construction: strategies
- Under a Cloud: optics
- Under Other Circumstances: on the canvas
- Under the Gun: conclusion
UNDER THE LIMIT: HOW MANY COLORS
The section on Color Recipes should have provided at least a little insight into what it takes to effectively mix color. Most of the recipes call for only 2 or 3 colors plus white, and none requires more than five colors. Minimalism is an asset in color mixing. The more complex the mixture, the greater is the danger of producing muddy, dead tones.
Besides white paint, rarely is anything more than a red, a yellow, and a blue needed to achieve the desired result, provided they are a well selected red, yellow, and blue. On occasion, it may be necessary, though, to call upon touches of one or two additional pigments as modifiers to meet a specific need.
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: FUNCTIONS OF COLORS
For many of the recipes, one or two colors (plus white) predominate to establish a basic hue. In some cases just one is needed, as I demonstrated recently for a student trying to mix a color that resembled cow-skull bone.
He had been struggling with various mixtures that included Cadmium Red, Burnt Sienna, Azo Yellow, and even Cerulean Blue! When he asked for help, I scraped a blob of Titanium White into the middle of his palette, touched in a dab of Yellow Ochre, and stirred (not shaken) to arrive at a color that looked very much like the skull in front of us. Sometimes it’s as simple as that. For slight shadows, I added a smattering of Burnt Sienna to the mix, and for deeper shadows I also put in some French Ultramarine Blue. To show him how to make the brighter notes, I increased the amount of white to the original concoction of Ochre and white, and sparked it up with a tiny amount of pale Azo Yellow.
Not all base colors are so…well, basic. In the case of a crackling campfire, it may take several pigments to arrive at a general fire color, such as white paint with Light Red, plus Mars Orange for greater warmth, Mars Black or Burnt Umber to deepen the color, plus a little Cadmium Red and Cadmium Yellow Deep to make the mixture a tad more brilliant. Once armed with this universal hue for fire, variations can be created by modifying the proportions of the colors and by adding touches of other tints.
Each color in a mixture, as you can see, serves a specific function.
UNDER THE KNIFE: TOOLS
Either a brush or palette knife may be used to mix colors, but oil and acrylic painters will find that a knife provides more control and precision.
UNDER WAY: FIRST STEPS
Whenever possible, color mixing begins with a tube color that is similar to the target color. The tube color is then modified to make a mixture that is even more like the target. A good example is the cow skull project described above.
If white paint is needed in the mixture, that is generally where to begin, with other colors being added to the white. The reason for laying out white first is that white paint makes the mixture paler, and pale colors are easier to evaluate and adjust than dark ones, as the following sequence demonstrates.
Judging very dark mixtures can be quite difficult. During the process of creating a dark mixture, it is helpful to test the mixture by separating out a small portion with a palette knife and adding a little white paint to the separated portion to make it paler. Then it is possible to determine whether the mixture has the desired qualities, or if it requires adjusting. If a modification is needed, go back to the original mixture, adjust it, and test it again by adding a small amount of white paint to a sample of it.
UNDER STOCKED: BASIC APPROACHES
Color mixing is an art in itself. Delicacy and precision is preferable to brute force, particularly when making adjustments to an initial mixture. The process is best carried out incrementally, adding small…even tiny amounts of color to a mixture instead of large masses. When an overly generous amount of color is added, it is likely that the target will be overshot and the color must then be readjusted to compensate. The following sequence of photographs portray the brute force approach, the act of indiscriminately tossing large quantities of paint into a mixture in hopes that somehow the desired results will materialize.
The goal was to arrive at a color similar to that of a tomato. Starting with some white paint (see Step-1), a random blob of Cadmium Red and one of Cadmium Yellow were mixed into the white. Step-2 shows the result, a color that is far too reddish and cold. To make the sample warmer and more orange, a large amount of yellow was added back in (shown in Step-3), unfortunately pushing the mixture too far in the opposite direction, making it overly yellow (Step-4). To compensate, more red is needed. By now, the student is realizing that smaller amounts of paint might prove more productive, so a moderate amount of red is used (on the knife in Step-5). Still, this too turns out to be overkill, and the resulting mix is excessively red. It might take this student several more tries before arriving at an acceptable conclusion, or the student may never achieve a satisfactory color.
More experienced painters tend to make small additions to a mixture, exerting greater control for increased precision, as is seen here:
This attempt began by adding Cadmium Red to a goodly amount of white (Step-1); notice the modest quantity of red paint on the palette knife. The result is a pink, as seen in Step-2. Also in Step-2 there is a moderate amount of Cadmium Yellow paint on the knife, ready to adjust the mixture to make it more orange in Step-3. The color in after Step-3 turned out to be quite close to the pale-middle values of the tomato. A tiny bit of red was now picked up on the tip of the knife (not shown) and added to the mixture to produce the average middle value as seen in Step-4. Adjustments required are often quite small. The error less experienced students make is in overdoing; on the other hand, a veteran may wisely may pick up only a miniscule portion of paint on the tip of the knife as was done for the final adjustment here.
UNDER CONSTRUCTION: STRATEGIES
Usually, not a just a single mixture is needed to render an object, but several that are similar to one another. With the tomato, for example, it may be convenient to prepare a range of orange-reds rather than just one. The various shades may represent deep shadow, modest shadow, modest light, and strong light, or it may be some other useful series.
A simple approach in such situations is to start by preparing a goodly quantity of a base color, and then separate out portions of it to be modified. For the tomato, the base color was expanded in two directions, one to account for brighter parts of the tomato, and the other for shadows.
After touches of additional red and yellow were added to the base color to create color 1A, a portion of 1A was adjusted in turn to make the brighter 2A, then some of 2A was altered to produce the cool tones of 3A, and finally 3A evolved into the highlight color. The same process was used to generate the shadow colors.
This is a rather simplified description of the process, for much experimentation and adjusting may be needed at each stage to achieve successful results. Nonetheless, it (hopefully) gives some insight into one method for mixing color.
Also, keep in mind that different artists work differently. While the example above begins with a base color that is a modest-shadow tone, another person may start with the strongest lights, and somebody else with the deep shadows.
This technique is particularly effective for tonal painting or for executing a grisaille (an underpainting in shades of grays). It is surprisingly difficult to accurately compare two similar shades of a color by eye when they are mixed up separately. By pre-mixing in a series, there is no need to make visual comparisons or be reduced to guesswork. If a color that is slightly paler or darker than the current patch of tone is required, one can simply look for the right color in the appropriate spot on the palette.
The series in the picture above began on the upper right. Small amounts of white were continually added to each mixture going leftward in the upper set, and then to the right along the lower row. (The large batch of dark-ish gray at upper left is not part of the series.)
Developing a set that evolves radically from one color to a very different one can be carried out in much the same way. In this example, a cool blue has become increasingly warmer and greenish, and then was transformed into pinks and red-violet.
Thus far we have looked at rather straight-forward sets of mixtures. Oft times it is necessary to take detours from our rationally sequential series of colors. In painting a figure, for instance, there may be spots where a cooler note appears in an otherwise warm toned section, or a blue shirt reflects some bluish light into the pale pink of a chest.
The arrows in the photograph above illustrate some of the many directions a series of mixtures can take.
UNDER A CLOUD: OPTICS
Not all mixing of color takes place on the palette. Much of it can occur in the painting.
Let’s take a brief side trip for a moment, and look at a few optical color mixing methods before we return to physical color mixing.
There is the technique of the Impressionists, Georges Seurat especially. Impressionists like Seurat placed tiny spots of colors next to one another so that, when viewed from a distance, they seem to mix together. Daubs of blue paint intermingled with dabs of pale pink appear violet when seen from a distance, for instance. Newspaper comic strips function in exactly this way. Look at the Sunday cartoons under a magnifying glass and you will see the tiny dots of colors.
Since the birth of oil painting in the early 1400s, and even before, artists took advantage of the transparency of some colors by layering them atop other colors or over a grisaille (tonal underpainting). A thin veneer of French ultramarine blue laid over a light coating of alizarin crimson on a white surface produces a violet. Light penetrates each layer of color, strikes the white canvas, and is then reflected back through the layers of paint. During its reflected journey, red and blue wavelengths of light are transmitted back to us, becoming violet light in the process. This is precisely the effect that is seen in the shadows of the large foreground tree of the painting below.
The painting is by Maxfield Parrish. Parrish was dissatisfied with his progress, so he scraped and sanded away a large section of the picture in preparation for reworking it. To the good fortune of artists who wish to study his techniques, Parrish left the painting in this unfinished state. The artist used only four colors, all of them transparent: black, blue (manganese), red (magenta), and yellow. He began with a blue underpainting (visible as the tree on the right), and then built on this with layers of transparent colors. The bright green grass is simply yellow on top of the blue, while the moss growing on the tree is a complex series of layers, probably of yellow, red, touches of diluted black. The wide range of vibrant colors in Parrish’s paintings are due to light reflecting off the white panel and through the layers of just those four colors.
Another optical method is scumbling, which is usually associated with glazing. A bit like the Impressionist approach, patches of opaque - and usually pale - paint are scrubbed over an underlying layer of dry color. A scumble is generally applied in a “broken” manner, in other words, its coverage is spotty. Further, scumbling is often done with a half-dry brush (the paint is stiff, with little or no liquid added to it) so that a stroke of paint breaks up of its own accord, thus leaving tiny gaps in the new layer for some of the underlying color to show through. Finally, scumbled paint is generally put down thinly so that even highly opaque paint doesn’t fully obscure what is beneath. Our eyes mix the patches of top-color with bits of visible under-color to create yet a third color.
UNDER OTHER CIRCUMSTANCES: ON THE CANVAS
Now, to return to physical color mixing of the paint itself.
There are many circumstances in which it is advantageous to mix or modify color directly on the canvas. This is particularly so of the alla prima oil painter. Alla prima pictures are made swiftly, often in a single day, working wet-in-wet (painting onto a wet, instead of onto a dried surface).
In such paintings, an initial or base color may be mixed on the palette, applied to the picture, and then be modified by working small amounts of additional pigments into the wet paint on the canvas. In some cases, modifications are so extreme that the original base color evolves into some completely different color. For example, an artist may begin with a large area covered in a mix of white, cadmium yellow, and cadmium red paints (producing pale orange), and through the radical addition of other hues end up with an earthy green.
Even for the artist who prefers to do all mixing on the palette, there are situations in which it becomes necessary to do at least some of it in the painting. A color that was satisfactory when applied to the picture may later look “out of synch” as the areas around it are developed further. In other words, the context has changed, which in turn has changed the perception of that first color. The artist might then go back into the first color and alter it by in-painting while it is still wet, or over-painting once it has dried.
Artist Steven Assael has explained his unusual way of using the picture itself as palette. He squeezes his paints directly onto the canvas at the periphery of the area he plans to work on that day, then mixes his colors with a knife or brush right on the canvas (clearly evident along the left in the photo below). His approach has the distinct advantage that he can directly compare the color he has mixed with the colors of the picture. At the end of the day, any leftover paint is scraped away. The little bit of tube paint still remaining on the canvas is left there to become part of the fabric of the picture, an effect that Assael likes.
UNDER THE GUN: CONCLUSION
Color mixing is an enigma to many students. There are always questions about what pigments to select, in what proportions to use them, and how to avoid turning a mixture into mud.
Color mixing is a skill acquired by doing. Learn through observation and exercise how colors act upon one another in mixtures, as well as side-by-side in your pictures. Experiment with various groupings of pigments, and be bold enough to try what seem to be strange combinations. Practice methods for making a color warmer and darker at the same time, as well as cooler and paler. Find out how to make a color duller and muddier while still giving it spark. Learn how to make reddish greens (yes, it can be done) and blue-oranges.
In the end, the best teacher is you…and experience.