Monday Morning Art School: four color exercises

By the time you’re done with these exercises, you’ll have lots more experience in mixing color.

Our basic classroom still-life for these exercises. 

Above is the still life I created for these exercises. Make your own, or work from a photograph. You can use the same subject for all four exercises. Keep it simple; it doesn’t pay to get lost in the details when you’re supposed to be thinking about color.

Mimicking the masters

The Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh, 1889, courtesy MoMA
What’s your favorite painting? Look carefully and mix the basic colors in it. One student referenced The Starry Night, above, for her painting, below. 
Jennifer’s painting based on The Starry Night.
The goal is to use those colors in various positions in your own painting. That means substituting Van Gogh’s blue for the blue in your painting, etc. You don’t need to use the same proportion of colors as Van Gogh used; just use them in your painting. If a color in your painting doesn’t appear in the picture you are mimicking, work around that. Don’t mix to approximate what you see.
Olive Trees with the Alpilles in the Background, Vincent van Gogh, 1889, courtesy MoMA
Van Gogh painted a series of olive trees in 1889. One of these, Olive Trees in a Mountainous Landscape, (above) was a complement to The Starry Night. You can see how he manipulated the palette (and linework and composition) to relate the olive trees to the night sky.
Color triads
For this exercise, I refer you back to this blog post on color harmonies. Re-read the section on triads, because you’re going to use either an equilateral triad or a harmonic triad to build a painting.
Mary’s color triad painting.
The easiest triad to use is a primary triad. The still life at top was set up to include primary triads and secondary triads, depending on which objects students emphasized. They started by choosing a dominant color and then from that, subservient ones. For example, one might base the painting on the cobalt of the blue vase, with the yellow bowl and red apples subservient to the blue.
Harmonic triads are not balanced, but are counted 3-4-5 in either direction on the color wheel (as in the section on triads). Again, mix a dominant tone, and then its subservient tones. Your goal is not to match the real colors in your subject; your goal is to substitute the color palette for what you see.
This, plus white, is a limited palette.
Limited palette
In theory, you can get to any color using just red, blue, yellow and white paint. But the chroma and clarity of those mixes depends on the pigments you start with. For example, cadmium red mixes brilliantly on the orange side, but muddily on the blue side.
Limited-palette paintings tend to be more unified than broader-palette paintings, precisely because you can’t hit all the points in the color wheel.
My limited-palette demo using the paints above.
The classic color pigments are cadmium yellow, cadmium red and ultramarine blue. You’ll need white as well. Don’t buy extra paints for this exercise; use what you have that’s closest to these colors.
Hardwood, by Carol L. Douglas. This is a color substitution painting.
Color substitution
The painting above is a kind of substitution painting, but we’re going to use a narrower interpretation of the idea. We’re going to substitute each main color for its complement on the color wheel.
Olive Orchard with a Man and a Woman Picking Fruit, Vincent van Gogh, 1889, courtesy Kröller-Müller Museum
In Van Gogh’s olive tree painting, above, he’s substituted a warm gold for a blue sky. We’re going to do the same thing, except we’ll do it everywhere on the canvas. Keep the value and chroma the same as the original color, but substitute the complementary position on the color wheel. It sounds simple, but it’s devilishly difficult. Have fun!