Knowing Your Palette
I don’t believe there is anything more sensuous or beautiful than the right mixture of pigments in a well-executed painting. Nonetheless, mixing the right colors seems to be an endless source of frustration for many artists. The tempo of watercolor painting demands quick decisions, and it’s imperative that the painter has a thorough knowledge of what will happen in his choice of color mixtures.
When our color looks muddy, it’s invariably because the color we’ve selected is either the wrong temperature, or totally out of character for the color harmony that we are working in.
We all begin with a basic knowledge of color. Red and yellow make orange, blue and yellow make green and so forth. However, it’s imperative that we know the characteristics of our paints. Will the mixture I choose accomplish my goals? Will the outcome be the final color I was aiming for? Will the colors granulate (example: cerulean blue and cadmium red), will one of the pigments overpower and dominate (examples: pthalo blue, alizarin crimson) and will I be able to achieve the value I want, using a particular mixture?
By familiarizing ourselves with our palette, we can address all of these questions long before we begin laying down washes on that big masterpiece. After all, no concert musician gives a recital without having spent a great deal of time practicing his scales. So let me offer some suggestions on how you can become better acquainted with the colors on your palette.
One sure fire way of accomplishing this task is to paint a series of color charts. These charts will give you a comprehensive knowledge of how each of your pigments interacts with the other pigments on your palette. It will also provide you with a lifetime reference for future works.
The concept is simple, but requires steady concentration.
You select a particular color – say ultramarine blue. You then pick another color on your palette – say cadmium red. Mix them together in eight color swatches with values ranging from one to eight. Make sure that each mixture is one value darker than the previous. It will take some practice. Don’t be discouraged. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
When you’ve got that one down, take ultramarine and another pigment, like alizarin crimson, and repeat the procedure. Continue until you’ve mixed ultramarine against all the pigments on your palette. Then pick another pigment, like cobalt blue, and mix that pigment against all the colors on the palette. Do this with the other colors until you have complete charts on all the colors on your palette.
These charts will not only expand your knowledge of color, but they will also aid you in your understanding of value as well.
I know that these charts are tedious and time consuming, but the knowledge you will gain will be indelible, and I guarantee your control over color will take a quantum leap.
Here’s another approach that is a lot of fun and can accomplish similar results.
Do a series of painting studies using only three primaries (red, yellow and blue). You would be amazed on how far you can go with just a warm and a cool of each of the primaries on your palette. Sometimes keeping it simple is the best route to go. By minimizing your color mixtures, you build in an automatic color harmony and gain an understanding of how certain pigments work with each other, and you minimize the chances of introducing an inappropriate, or muddy, color.
Take your cool blue (ultramarine blue) and paint a study using your warm red (cadmium red) and a yellow (new gamboges). Then use ultramarine, and alizarin crimson and new gamboge, and paint the same study. Then replace new gamboge with yellow ochre and paint the same study (once with cadmium red and once with alizarin crimson). Then move to cobalt blue and repeat the process. Continue on until you’ve used all the combinations of primaries on your palette.
Not only will you be learning about the qualities of your pigments, but also you will be discovering new color harmonies that you never knew existed. I generally use this technique when I introduce a new color on my palette.
Here’s a demonstration using viridian as my blue, along with alizarin crimson and yellow ochre:
In the upper part of the painting, I mix viridian and alizarin crimson in a wet-into-wet application. Those two pigments tend to separate, and granulate, and form some wonderful cool grays. The foreground is a wet-into-wet mixture of my three pigments.
(click on any image to view larger)
I begin by adding some shadows on my structures using primarily viridian and alizarin crimson, with some delicate touches of yellow ochre. Then I cut the structures out negatively using a mixture of viridian and yellow ochre, and while that mixture is still damp, I introduce some touches of alizarin crimson.
I finish up by painting the roofs red, with a combination of alizarin crimson and yellow ochre, with a touch of viridian, to darken the two shadowed roofs on the left structures. I reinforce the overhanging eaves with a neutral mixture of all three pigments. I then reinforce my light source by adding some cast shadows in the foreground, and in the bushes surrounding the structures. I finish the painting off with some random splatter that adds a little interest to the foreground.
It isn’t necessary to labor over these studies. The primary purpose is to gain some knowledge about your pigments and the colors that can be obtained when you mix them together. This painting took about twenty-five minutes.
I’ve included a few examples that you might find interesting. Note how each combination lends a slightly different mood to each study. You can also ascertain which pigments granulate, and what effect semi-transparent pigments, like naples yellow, have on your mixtures.
First study: Cerulean Blue, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red.
Second study: Cobalt Blue, Naples Yellow, Alizarin Crimson.
Third study: Ivory Black, Yellow Ochre, Venetian Red.
Fourth study: Ultramarine Blue, New Gamboge, Burnt Sienna.
Do enough studies to complete the combinations of primaries on your palette.
There’s always a tendency to fall back on color combination that are familiar. These studies will introduce new possibilities, and open up all kinds of color horizons.
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