Monday Morning Art School: get to that color fast

To paint with assurance, you need to be able to mix colors effortlessly. These tips will help you get there.

Peppers, by me. Cool light, warm shadows.

Start with an organized palette. I paint with my pigments moving from blues on the left through reds and yellows, followed by the three earth pigments to the far right. White is at the bottom. My particular system isn’t what’s important. But always put paints in some kind of logical order and in the same spot.

These basic rules make mixing easier:

  • Never try to paint with hardened paints;
  • Squeeze out enough paint;
  • Put out every color, regardless of what you think you’ll need. Every painting should have a broad range of colors in it, regardless of the subject;
  • Put out more of each color when you use it up, not when you think you’ll need it again;
  • Start mixing each color with the closest match on your palette, and adjust from there;
  • Add small amounts of paint as you adjust the mixture.
Jamie Williams Grossman‘s lovely painting and palette in the Hudson Valley style, showing color strings. Photo courtesy of the artist.
A color string is a set of premixed paints, usually modulated with white or another light color. Artists sometimes mix a series of these starting from each base color. In the Hudson Valley, you’ll sometimes see artists working from vertical palette boxes containing a slew of these premixed colors.

I use a simpler variation of that idea. I make mid-tone tints of each pigment. Different pigments may look the same when squeezed out of the tube, but there the similarity ends. Knowing how a pigment works when tinted with white is critical. Moreover, these tints become the backbone of a bright finished painting. 

A matrix is a color string in 3-D.

In watercolor, the equivalent is tonal steps, or how the pigment acts in different dilutions. You can’t premix them, but you should understand them.

Before you lift a brush, premix three colors for each major object:

  • A light tone, the color of the lightest side of the object;
  • A mid-tone, which is the local color of the object;
  • A dark tone, which is the deepest color.

These should be fairly close in value. For the extremes, you’ll use your global shadow and highlight colors.

In the example at top of the page, the light is cool—you can tell by looking at the tray. There is a warm dark shadow, a ‘true’ mid-tone, and a cool light color for each pepper. The tray is black. Since the shadows are warm, they’re a reddish black. They were made by tempering burnt sienna with ultramarine blue. The highlights are pale blue.

Start by getting the value right first. That’s usually the most difficult part. You can’t raise the chroma of a paint, so if you get it too neutral, set it aside and start again. If it’s too intense, mix in a bit of its complement.

My palette, diagrammed by Victoria Brzustowicz. I generally don’t use red in landscape painting.

Black has a role in painting, but it’s not in making grey. If you need grey, make one by mixing two complements. Greys are never totally neutral in real life; they always have overtones of color. Start by figuring out what that is. Then start from that color, and add its complement until you hit the perfect neutral note.

Once you’ve mixed your color ‘puddles’, look at them as a whole. How do they go together? Which do you want to emphasize?

Keuka Lake, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

I use a green matrix for painting foliage. Otherwise, greens can be oppressively monochromatic in high summer. Remember those tints I had you mix? You can use them to modulate these greens into hundreds of different shades. Just use blues and violet tints to drive the greens back in space, and yellows and oranges to bring them forward.

By thinking through color relationships before you start painting, you can keep them consistent and unified. As time goes by, you’ll learn to do this intuitively. However, when I muck up a painting, it’s almost always because I haven’t really thought the light and color structure through.

This was originally posted in 2020.

Monday Morning Art School: color harmonies and accidental color

 Color harmonies are easy enough for a kindergartener to understand, but devilishly difficult to apply in paint.

Landscape at Saint-Rémy (Enclosed Field with Peasant), 1889, Vincent van Gogh, courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields

In music, an accidental is a note that is not part of the scale indicated by the key signature. (The sharp, flat, and natural symbols mark them, so those symbols are also called accidentals.) Accidental notes make music more beautiful, complex and intriguing.

In art, we sometimes work within structured color in the form of color harmonies. But too strict a reliance on color harmonies may result in static painting. We need to deviate from these strict concepts with the addition of other color notes. I call these ‘accidental colors.’

Half-Length Portrait of a Lady, Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell

Color harmony isn’t a simple question of matching up complements or a triad. We respond to color emotionally and cognitively, just as we respond to music. We’re influenced by our age, gender, mood, culture, and our learned responses. Then there’s the question of context. Fashion has always played a big part in color awareness, as has the availability of pigments. In that the healthy human eye can perceive millions of variations of color, it’s impossible to quantify every possible combination.

The Yellow Curtain, 1915, Henri Matisse, courtesy Museum of Modern Art

When I was young, I learned that red was the color of rage, blue of calm. That was based on Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Kandinsky was under the influence of a 19th century cult leader, Madame Helena Blavatsky, and everything he wrote about color was total hokum, but it continues to be parroted to this day.

I mention this because there’s no real ‘science’ behind color harmonies as we currently perceive them, any more than there is behind the scales we use in Western music.

Moonrise by the Sea, 1822, Caspar David Friedrich

Still, there are color harmonies that appear to work, so we continue to use them. They’re easy enough for a kindergartener to understand, but devilishly difficult to apply in paint. Two errors I commonly see are:

  • Thinking that the color harmony you chose includes the only colors permissible in your painting, so you don’t put other colors on your palette;
  • Thinking that the colors you chose are the basis of mixing. That’s just an extreme extension of limited palette.

Winter comes from the Arctic to the Temperate Zone, 1935, Lawren Harris

Most masterworks include color notes that are outside the strict color harmony chosen by the artist. When they don’t, it’s to set a mood, for example with nocturnes and sunset paintings.

This post originally appeared in August of this year, but I’m teaching on the subject again this week, so here it is!

Monday Morning Art School: white on white

The color of white is the color of light. Mastering that will make all your paintings more exciting.

Girl Arranging Her Hair, 1886, Mary Cassatt, courtesy National Gallery of Art

Do you remember learning that “white is not a color; it’s the combination of all the colors”? That’s malarkey, although it’s based on a truth. Yes, Isaac Newton demonstrated that white light is a reflection of all the visible light spectrum. That doesn’t change the fact that white is a perceived color (as is black). Our perception is based not just on the physical light bouncing from the surface of an object, but on a whole host of contextual cues, which is why our brain is so easily fooled by optical illusions.

White is, in theory, a reflection of all the visible light spectrum. But that is never true in real life. Inevitably, all light shifts to either the cool (blue-violet) or warm (golden) side, depending on the time of day, season, and atmospheric conditions. Artificial light is even more limited in spectrum than sunlight, which is why it kills the colors in paintings, textiles, and human skin.

Sita and Sarita, 1896, Cecilia Beaux, courtesy National Gallery of Art

At the end of the 19th century, the Impressionist revolution in color had spread to painters like Anders ZornJoaquín Sorolla and John Singer Sargent. Nowhere does this show more than in their handling of white.

The colors in her gown.

Sorolla was painting in the brilliant light of his native Valencia. Zorn lived in Sweden, and many of his scenes have flat light. Sargent lived most of his life in western Europe. None were working in the same lighting conditions, but all of them adopted the same approach to color and light. It was a marriage of Impressionist color theory to more traditional brushwork. The combination still works today.

Helen Sears, 1895, John Singer Sargent, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

By adding color to white, these painters were able to give their subject the sparkle and truth of natural light. To have painted their whites with just white or grey would have resulted in flat, dull canvases. This is because convincing whites, in the real world, are actually quite colorful.

The colors in her dress.

Sargent’s portrait of Helen Sears was painted under gaslight (and what a patient little child she must have been to tolerate all that primping and then all that standing). The little girl is thrown into stark relief by the dark interior, and the whole painting is drenched in warmth. What we perceive as blue is mostly a cool neutral. (Here is a photo of the girl taken by her mother, so that you can see Sargent’s liberal editing.) Even the blue-and-white hydrangeas are actually comprised of mostly warm tones. In this painting, the whites are influenced primarily by the light source.

Mending the Sail, 1896, Joaquín Sorolla courtesy Museo d’Arte Moderna di Ca’ Pesaro. This is a warm-light, cool-shadow combination.

Zorn’s portrait, on the other hand, is mostly influenced by reflected color. It is set against a rich orange floor that influences everything in the foreground. The older girl’s dress is washed in its pinkish tones. The younger daughter recedes in space because of the less-saturated color in her clothes and the grey drapes. Despite all the warmth in the painting, we understand it’s under natural light by the cool highlights. It’s a masterful composition, a brilliant use of color, and above all, an insightful glimpse into the childish mind.

The colors in Sorolla’s sail.

I’ve picked six random ‘whites’ from each painting to show you just how varied whites could be in the hands of accomplished painters. Had I used Impressionist paintings, the tints would have been clearer and brighter.

A Portrait of the Daughters of Ramón Subercaseaux, 1892, Anders Zorn, private collection

I strongly encourage my students to premix tints (the tube pigment plus white) of every color except black on their palette, and then to ignore pure white. Their assignment this week—and now it’s your assignment too—is to paint a white object without using any straight white paint at all. It should go without saying that your neutrals (greys) should not be mixed with black, either. Everything in this exercise should have color.

The colors in the older girl’s dress. It’s picking up the warmth from the carpet, which is in turn unifying the painting.

The addition of white makes any other pigment opaque and somewhat cooler, since titanium white is cool in its pure state. Add too much white, and you’ve got a bleached, dull image. When you start this exercise, it’s best to err on the side of too much color, rather than too little.

The tints in the second line drive this exercise. Graphic courtesy of Victoria Brzustowicz.

What are some good white objects to paint? Eggs, roses, china dishes, clothing or sheets on the line are all options.

This post was revised from one originally appearing in 2019.

Monday Morning Art School: basic color harmonies

Understanding basic color harmonies will help you integrate color in your painting.


Split the color wheel in half like this and you have your cool tones on one side, warm ones on the left.
Color is comprised of three elements: hue, value and saturation. We see value first, but our emotional response is largely dictated by hue.
There are some common color schemes, or chords, found in nature and by extension, in art.
The idea isn’t to be slavishly attached to these schemes, but to use them to perceive and point up color relationships in nature. What combinations are in ‘good taste’ and the reactions a color elicits are largely cultural responses. Nobody but me goes nuts about mauve today, but 170 years ago, it was all the rage.
With all color schemes, one hue should dominate.
Complementary
Complementary color scheme

These are colors that lie opposite each other on the color wheel. The most famous example is Christmas’ red and green.
This is a vibrant, high-contrast scheme. It’s the basic schematic for the color of light, where shadows are always the complement of the light color. If the light is a warm gold, for example, its shadows will be cool blues.
Analogous
Analogous colors

Analogous color schemes use colors that lie next to each other on the color wheel. Using analogous colors can make what might be a garish scene (a sunset, for example) more serene.
Equilateral Triad
Equilateral colors

This uses colors that are evenly spaced on the color wheel. The most well-known example is the primary combination of red-blue-yellow.
Triadic color harmonies can be quite vibrant, even without high-saturation colors.  
Harmonic triads
A harmonic triad counting clockwise from the green

This variation counts 3-4-5 in either direction on the color wheel. Start with a key color, and count from there. This is a sophisticated variation on the equilateral triad.
Split-Complementary

Split complementary omitting the complement of blue

This is the color scheme I go to intuitively. It’s a variation of complementary colors. It substitutes for the complement or includes the complement’s adjacent hues. It’s as visually compelling as a complementary color scheme, but allows for much more variation in the accent colors.

Split complementary including the complement of green

Double complements
A symmetrical (square) double-complement color scheme
An asymmetrical (rectangle) double-complement color scheme.

The rectangle or tetradic color scheme uses four colors arranged into two complementary pairs. The colors can be in a rectangle or in a square.

Monday Morning Art School: what we can learn from pointillism

Not every color that’s on your painting must be there in real life.

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884, Georges Seurat, courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

Pointillismand its twin, Divisionism* developed as painters sought to advance and understand the optical revolution that was Impressionism. Their flagship painting—and the root of the concept—is Georges Seurat’smasterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Seurat called his painting style ‘chromoluminarism,’ which hints at what he was striving for—a way to enhance the ability of canvas and paint to reflect light.

For the record, Seurat didn’t paint La Grande Jattein one sweep. It would have been close to impossible to hold that many ideas simultaneously. In the first pass, he used conventionally-mixed pigments including earths. In the second, he dispensed with the earths and limited the number of paints on his palette. It wasn’t until his last sweep that he introduced the dots of color that we see today. Remember that next time you want to toss a canvas that isn’t working.

The Pine Tree at Saint Tropez, 1909, Paul Signac, courtesy Pushkin Museum

Seurat believed that he could get more vibrant and pure colors by letting the viewer’s eye do the mixing, instead of mixing colors on the palette. In truth, what he was striving for—an additive color scheme—is impossible with paint; it remains subtractive because it’s reflecting light. What Seurat really wanted was digital painting, and it wouldn’t be invented for another 100 years.

Nevertheless, he did create an exciting new way of putting down paint. Placing contrasting colors next to each other causes an optical excitation that typical color mixing cannot achieve. In some way, every color in a Seurat painting manages to maintain its individuality while contributing to a larger whole.

Le séchage des voiles (The Drying Sails), 1905, André Derain, courtesy Pushkin Museum

To create these effects, the divisionist painter first identified the local color of objects. Then, he interspersed dots of yellow-orange in the sunlit passages, and blues, reds and purples in the shadows. Pointillists worked a little differently, thinking through the entire painting in raw color, much like modern printing creates an image in CMYK.

The impact of adjacent colors on perception is a well-known and -researched phenomenon, one that touches on the area of optical illusion. These optical sleights-of-hand are known as contrast effects. By putting dots of contrasting colors next to each other, pointillists hoped to recreate these contrast effects in their paintings.

Were the pointillists and divisionists able to make colors seem brighter than their peers who were still mixing and painting the conventional way? Perhaps slightly, because they avoided the muddiness that can happen in paint-mixing. However, that was a battle that had largely already been won by their Impressionist peers.

Portrait of Irma Sèthe, 1894, Théo van Rysselberghe, courtesy Musée du Petit Palais  

Nor were they able to entirely express shadow and light with hue; these still need some value shifts to make them intelligible.

Nevertheless, their optical experiments influenced a century of painting, ending in the experiments of op art in the 1960s. We don’t have to want to paint like them to learn from them.

The takeaway lesson of the pointillists is that not every color that’s on your painting must be there in real life. Your job as an artist is to represent the inner reality of a situation, not its photographic shell. If the trees are moving, perhaps a flash of orange will add a sense of motion. The sky may be blue, or it may be yellow; it’s hard to say.

The human eye craves interest, and as long as you have the value right, you can play fast and loose with the actual hue.

*What most of us call Pointillism is actually Divisionism but there’s really little point (ahem) in dividing them, at least for our purposes.

Monday Morning Art School: some basic color theory

Mixing paints is simple if you understand how pigments work.

Fallow field, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, available.

In theory, you can paint with just four pigments: red, blue, yellow and white. For beginning painters this is sometimes a good idea, because it’s the fastest way to learn color management. It simplifies the thought process so you have only one decision to make at a time, and it is easier to get a more unified color scheme.

But there is a limiting factor, and that’s the impurity of pigments. They all have overtones that muddy them up in certain mixes. That’s why your local paint dealer uses many, many more pigments than just red, blue, and yellow.

Claude Monet’s palette shifted over time, but included these paints:

  • Chrome yellow
  • Cadmium yellow
  • Viridian green
  • Emerald green
  • French ultramarine
  • Cobalt blue
  • Madder red
  • Vermilion (red)
  • Flake white
  • Ivory black (before 1886)

These are sets of paired pigments. That means he has a warm and a cool of each color, plus black and white. 

I use paired primaries as well, omitting the green but adding in some other earths. (Here are my supply lists for oils,  acrylics, and watercolors.)

The distinction between warm and cool colors has been important in painting since the Impressionists. Warm colors are said to be hues from red through yellow and cool colors are said to be the hues from green through violet. Each hue around the color wheel also has a warm and a cool version.

There’s no factual hot or cold point because this is just a poetic description that works. Much of what we believe about the psychology of color is hocus-pocus, based on the teachings of 19th century cult leader Madame Blavatsky. However, it’s true that if the light is what we call “warm,” the shadows are what we call “cool,” and vice versa.

Paired primaries are simply warm and cool versions of each color.

When we say that lemon yellow is cooler than cadmium yellow deep, we mean that if you are trying to mix a greenish yellow, you’ll get a clearer shade with the lemon than you will with the cadmium yellow deep. The warm-cool language is just a convenient way of saying that.

Different pigments may look the same when squeezed out of the tube, but there the similarity ends. Pigments are impure, and you have to learn and work around those impurities.

To better understand color space, watch Gamblin’s excellent video on the subject, here.

Three blues that look similar out of the tube, but behave very differently. The ‘glaze’ on the left is the undertone. Courtesy Gamblin paints.

Mass tone is the color a pigment is straight out of the tube, dense and unmixed with another color. No real-world pigment, however, is as pure as a color on a video screen. While two pigments may look the same to the naked eye, their behavior when mixed can be radically different.

Undertone is the color revealed when a paint is spread thin enough that light bounces back up from the substrate. Some pigments are fairly consistent when moving from mass tone to undertone. Others have significant color shifts. Not understanding those undertones tones can lead to muddy mixes.

Ultramarine, Prussian and phthalo blue are colors that shift radically from mass tone to undertone. They’re all so dark out of the tube that their differences aren’t apparent to the naked eye. But dilute them, and you’ll find a wide range of blues.

Cadmium Red Hue is usually made with napthol red and a little white. They mix very differently, which is why the hue is a bad substitute for the real pigment. (In its own right, napthol is a fine red, however.) Courtesy Gamblin paints.

Undertones are why buying “hues” instead of pure pigments can be such bad value. Take, for example, cadmium red hue, which is usually a napthol red with a small amount of white added. Out of the tube, the two paints are indistinguishable, but they mix very differently.

To see a pigment’s mass tone, put a small dab of paint on a smooth white board or glass palette and draw it down with a knife, creating a uniform, solid stripe that completely obscures the painting surface.

To see the undertone, draw the sample down again so it is translucent. You should be able to see minute variations in the color, and in the covering power.

Monday Morning Art School: mastering value

The essence of alla prima painting is to nail the color on the first pass.

The top of this canvas is a simple grisaille; the bottom is a single layer of paint applied right over that. This is the gist of alla prima painting. 

You cannot overstate the importance of valuein painting. Even when artists represent value with hue(a technique pioneered by the Impressionists) the dark shapes in a painting have a form. That form drives our perception and guides us through the painting. There are various ways to get this right, but the most common is a quick value sketch. I ask watercolor students to then make a value study in paint before they start their finished project. I have oil and acrylic students do their paint study in the form of a rough grisaille on their canvases. It has to be thin, and it has to be worked fairly dry, or you can’t paint over it.

Where early oil painters sometimes trip up is in making that bottom layer too dark, thick, or soupy. Then, they hope they can somehow lighten it up by adding white back in. Indirect painting works almost like this, so they may have seen something similar on a video. In indirect painting, the artist works into this dark layer; in modern direct painting, or alla prima, it’s there as a roadmap, so it’s applied more lightly.

Close-value mixing is the heart of painting, and the hardest mixing to do.

Direct painting requires great skill in color mixing, because the goal is au premier coup, or to nail it on the first strike. That goes not just the for darks, but every color in the picture. Even a painting with wonderful shadows and lights will have many middle tones, often closely related in value. These are actually the most difficult colors to mix accurately. If you have a painting that isn’t working, ask yourself if it has a full tonal range, or is it simply hitting the highs and lows. When people get in trouble painting texture, it’s usually because they’re overstating the contrast.

Plate IV-4 from Joseph Albers’ Interaction of Color, demonstrating how all color is relative. The inner violet colors are the same exact value, but what surrounds them influences how we perceive them.

All color is relative, and that’s particularly true when it comes to value. Above see a plate from Joseph Albers’ groundbreaking Interaction of Color. The inner violets are the exact same value. But the framing color influences how we see those values, so one looks much lighter than the other. This is why oil painters should tone canvases, by the way.

I made the oil-painting sample at the top of this page for my students. The top is the value study; the bottom is a finished painting. I keep it around to demonstrate that when we say “darks to lights” we don’t mean a thick mask of dark paint; we mean that we think through our values in that order. (In watercolor, we do the same thing, but the application is reversed to go from light to dark.)

Copy and print me.

To mix paint accurately you must become absolutely conversant with the colors on your own palette. You can download this pigment test chart and print it on watercolor paper (trimmed to size) on your laser printer. Or, just grid off a canvas or paper to match. (Don’t try doing this in watercolor on plain copy paper. It isn’t sized, and your pigment will just sink.)

Use the pigments you usually have on your palette (if there’s more than eleven, we may need to talk).

What is the natural value of your paint, straight out of the tube? Compare it to that scale above.

 

The first step is to identify the natural value of your paint, straight out of the tube. For oil painters, this is easy. For watercolorists, it’s a bit of work to figure out what that really darkest point is, because it’s never the same as it appears on your palette. The colors wetted are a better guide, but you’ll need a test paper handy to experiment.
Your finished exercise should look something like this.

When you figure out the darkest natural position of that pigment, paint it in the appropriate position on your scale. Then make lighter steps to match the greyscale strip you’ve printed from the sample above. For watercolorists, that means dilution. For oil and acrylic painters, that means cutting with white.

There are three things to remember:

  1. These judgments are subjective. There’s no reliable way to measure the value of a color. The camera is as subjective as the human eye.  
  2. You can’t get a color to go darker than its ‘natural’ value without distorting the hue or chroma. Thus, there is no natural dark version of cadmium yellow, so the shadows in a yellow object require a workaround.
  3. All pigments can make about the same number of discrete steps. While the yellows have a shorter range, the steps are more noticeable. Blues can mix from almost-white to almost-black, but the middle points are very similar. 

Monday Morning Art School: color temperature and palette

Mixing paints is simple if you understand how pigments work.

Tilt-a-Whirl, by Carol L. Douglas, plein air.

In theory, you can paint with just four pigments: red, blue, yellow and white. For beginning painters this is sometimes a good idea, because it’s the fastest way to learn color management. It simplifies the thought process so you have only one decision to make at a time, and it is easier to get a more unified color scheme.

But there is a big limiting factor, and that’s the impurity of pigments. They all have overtones that muddy them up in certain mixes. That’s why your local paint dealer uses many, many more pigments than just red, blue, and yellow.

Split the color wheel in half like this and you have your cool tones on one side, warm ones on the left.

Claude Monet’s palette shifted over time, but included these paints:

  • Chrome yellow
  • Cadmium yellow
  • Viridian green
  • Emerald green
  • French ultramarine
  • Cobalt blue
  • Madder red
  • Vermilion (red)
  • Flake white
  • Ivory black (before 1886)

These are sets of paired pigments. That means he has a warm and a cool of each color, plus black and white. 

I use paired primaries as well, omitting the green but adding in some other earths. (Here are my supply lists for oils,  acrylics, and watercolors.)

The distinction between warm and cool colors has been important in painting since the Impressionists. Warm colors are said to be hues from red through yellow and cool colors are said to be the hues from green through violet. Each hue around the color wheel also has a warm and a cool version.

Paired primaries from my palette.

There’s no factual hot or cold point because this is just a poetic description that works. Much of what we believe about the psychology of color is hocus-pocus, but it’s true that if the light is what we call “warm,” the shadows are what we call “cool,” and vice versa.

Winter sun along my hedgerow, by Carol L. Douglas, plein air. If the light is warm, the shadows are cool, and vice versa.

When we say that lemon yellow is cooler than cadmium yellow deep, we mean that if you are trying to mix a greenish yellow, you’ll get a clearer shade with the lemon than you will with the cadmium yellow deep. The warm-cool language is just a convenient way of saying that.

Different pigments may look the same when squeezed out of the tube, but there the similarity ends. Pigments are impure, and you have to learn and work around those impurities.

Three blues that look similar out of the tube, but behave very differently. The ‘glaze’ on the left is the undertone. Courtesy Gamblin paints.

Mass tone is the color a pigment is straight out of the tube, dense and unmixed with another color. No real-world pigment, however, is as pure as a color on a video screen. While two pigments may look the same to the naked eye, their behavior when mixed can be radically different.

Undertone is the color revealed when a paint is spread thin enough that light bounces back up from the substrate. Some pigments are fairly consistent when moving from mass tone to undertone. Others have significant color shifts. Not understanding those undertones tones can lead to muddy mixes.

Cadmium Red Hue is usually made with napthol red and a little white. They mix very differently, which is why the hue is a bad substitute for the real pigment. (In its own right, napthol is a fine red, however.) Courtesy Gamblin paints.

Ultramarine, Prussian and phthalo blue are colors that shift radically from mass tone to undertone. They’re all so dark out of the tube that their differences aren’t apparent to the naked eye. But dilute them, and you’ll find a wide range of blues.

Undertones are why buying “hues” instead of pure pigments can be such bad value. Take, for example, cadmium red hue, which is usually a napthol red with a small amount of white added. Out of the tube, the two paints are indistinguishable, but they mix very differently.

To see a pigment’s mass tone, put a small dab of paint on a smooth white board or glass palette and draw it down with a knife, creating a uniform, solid stripe that completely obscures the painting surface.

To see the undertone, draw the sample down again so it is translucent. You should be able to see minute variations in the color, and in the covering power.

Click to get a printable PDF

Another way to test colors is to mix through what you have on your palette. Make the above color chart, using three sets of paired primaries:

  • Prussian blue—Ultramarine blue
  • Quinacridone violet—Cadmium orange
  • Indian yellow—Lemon yellow

The purpose of this exercise is to understand how paired primary pigments work together, so that you can make neutrals when you want them, and avoid mud when you don’t.

Draw the chart onto a canvas, and then mix across and down for each square. When I say “mix”, I mean mix them before applying, rather than in the squares themselves.

The left column and the top row should be pure pigments. Fill it in, then, just like the multiplication tables of your youth. For example, the intersection of cadmium orange and ultramarine blue should be a 50-50 mix of those two colors.

If you’re painting in watercolor, use enough water to make a jewel-tone transparency. In oils, the results should be opaque.

Monday Morning Art School: the color of Spring (part 1)

It’s time to assemble the proper pigments to paint beautiful greens this spring.
Fog over Whiteface Mountain, by Carol L. Douglas.
If March didn’t exactly come in like a lamb this year, it at least came in like a sheep. Don’t be fooled. Some of our most brutal winter storms have been known to happen in March. Walking to church, I pondered the depleted state of our woodpile. I wasn’t the only person thinking on these lines. My pal Naomi told me she was going home to move wood “while the ground is still frozen.”
That doesn’t mean that color is not peeping through here and there. The days are growing longer. We may see snowdrops and winter aconite appearing along granite foundations this week. Back in western New York, two witch hazels ought to be blooming, planted by me.
Spring arrives in a host of rich colors, and we’ll discuss that next week. But we must start with the predominant color, which is green. In my own yard, the green moss on the stone wall and my shed roof are the only visible cues that the season is changing. They tell me that growth and warmth are happening under the surface.
Beaver Dam on Quebec Brook, by Carol L. Douglas
Michael Wilcox published a famous watercolor pigment guide called Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green. Most of what it tells you can now be found on the internet, but it’s where I first got the idea to add back the banned black.
His point was that there are many routes to the same destination, and that to really mix colors, you need to understand what pigments you’re using, not work from trade names for colors. Consider sap green, for example—a staple of many plein air painters’ toolkit. It’s really a convenience mix made of a phthalo blue and some kind of yellow. The same is true of Hooker’s Green.
Mixed greens, in oils.
The single-pigment (‘true’) greens available are chromium oxide green, viridian, and cobalt green. Chromium oxide green is a lovely, heavy, natural green. Unfortunately, it outweighs everything it’s mixed with. Viridian and cobalt green are lovely, but expensive. Beware viridian hue—it’s just another phthalo in disguise. Any other greens you buy in a tube are just variations of those pigments, or convenience mixes.
To make a whole range of beautiful greens, make sure you have the following pigments in your toolkit. Since they’re all-around useful colors, they make a lot more sense than carrying several greens.

  • Black
  • Ultramarine blue
  • Prussian (or phthalo) blue
  • Hansa (or Cadmium lemon) yellow light
  • Diarylide (“Indian”) yellow
  • Yellow ochre

The rookie error of landscape painting is to make all your greens using the same basic color, modulating lighter or darker for highlights and shadows. You’ll have much more life in your trees if you know all the different ways you can get to leafy green. 

Chart courtesy of Victoria Brzustowicz
In fact, the best way to navigate the colors of foliage is to avoid greens out of a tube altogether. A system of paired primaries gives you more options, avoiding the acidity of phthalo, the weight of chromium oxide green, or the soul-sucking darkness of sap green.
In my experience, bad paint mixing causes paintings to go wrong faster than anything else. Constantly over-daubing to modulate the paint color distorts the original drawing and makes a grey mush. If you’re confident of the color, you can apply it fast and accurately.
Green modulation swatches by student Jennifer Johnson.
I make my greens on a matrix, which I’ve shown you both mixed and on a chart. After mixing greens according to the chart, you can then experiment with modulating your resulting greens with tints (meaning a mix of white and a color). The specific tints are unimportant, but the most useful one for landscape is a mix of white, ultramarine and quinacridone violet, making a pale lavender. It is great for atmospheric perspective.
Note that blue/black pigments are much stronger than the yellows. You need about half the amount of blue or black as you do yellow.

Monday Morning Art School: why these specific paints?

All real-world limited palettes have gaps in them. Paired primaries work best.

The Athabasca River, by Carol L. Douglas
Savvy folk in the far north often reserve their peregrinations until March. That way, winter’s back is broken by the time they arrive back home. I knew that meant my current painting class would be scattering to the four winds soon. I had a neat little map of lessons laid out for them before they left town. Then my new grandson arrived early, and they didn’t get them in order. I’ll try to correct that here.
The three primary colors we learned in primary school are red, yellow and blue. Forget about any other color space you’ve learned about; they’re not relevant to painting.

Above are the three primary colors in subtractive color. This is the color space in which painters work, and it predates modern color theory. These three colors are the foundational building blocks on which all other colors are made.


Mention this to your nearest teenager, and he’s likely to pepper you with comments about other color systems. Ignore him. This is the color system in which pigments work.
Mix the primary colors in the first illustration with their neighbors and you end up with the secondary colors. A secondary color is always across the color wheel from a primary color.
Back in elementary school, we learned that if you mix a primary color with one adjacent to it, you get the secondary colors:
  • Green (blue and yellow)
  • Orange (yellow and red)
  • Purple (red and blue).

Importantly, a secondary color is always across the color wheel from a primary color. When you want to dull down (reduce the chroma) a color in a hurry, the fastest way to do it is to mix it with whatever’s sitting across the color wheel.
All blues are not created equal: the wavelengths of common painting blues, from Multispectral Imaging of Paintings in the Infrared to Detect and Map Blue Pigments, by John K. Delaney, Elizabeth Walmsley, Barbara H. Berrie, and Colin F. Fletcher, Scientific Examination of Art: Modern Techniques in Conservation and Analysis, the National Academies Press, 2005
All limited palettes are based on a simple red-blue-yellow color scheme. Unfortunately, in the real world, there are no pure paint pigments. They’re either warm or too cool, or they have overtones that muddy them up in certain mixes. This means that all real-world limited palettes have gaps in them, places you just can’t get to with the available pigments.
In practical terms, this can be useful to the beginning artist, as limited-palette paintings always feel integrated. That’s because they hit a limited range of notes. For the beginner, that avoids discordance, but it also means that he or she will never learn how to mix through the whole color universe.
The colors on my palette are a variation of primary colors. It’s the same principle, but there’s a warm and cool version of each of them.
This is why I use paired primaries on my palette. I have a warm and a cool blue, warm and cool red, and warm and cool yellow. This allows me to go almost anywhere on the color wheel without sacrificing chroma.
Why, then, do I have four more tones: yellow ochre, raw sienna and burnt sienna, and black? You don’t need these colors, actually; you can mix to get to any of these points. I use these iron-oxide pigments because they’re cheap and they make great modulators in places where white is inappropriate.
This allows you to go anywhere you want on the color wheel without sacrificing chroma (intensity).
All the colors on my color wheel are modern synthetic pigments (with the exception of the cadmium orange, which is a 19th century organic pigment). Conversely, the iron-oxide pigments are the most ancient pigments known to man. We know they’re not fugitive. Engraved ochre has been found that dates from around 75,000 years ago.