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01.14.2013 ~ relearning color

by | Jan 15, 2013 | inspiration, oil painting

A few months ago I changed my palette — the colors I use when oil painting. I was inspired by an unlikely source: a book by Jack White on the ins and outs of being an artist. Mr. White may not be the most elegant nor sophisticated of artists, nor the most refined writer, but he’s passionate about art and his desire to share his knowledge of making a career of it.

For a long time I’d been feeling a need for change with the way I mix oil paint. Despite years of  experience mixing colors, and despite having been a teaching assistant in grad school for a brilliant Albers based color class, I still hit walls of frustration when mixing oil paint. Too often I create mud, or don’t get the “temperature” of the color right; I end up with a warm color when what I wanted was a cool color, or visa versa. If I go a while without working in oils, when I come back to it I often have to relearn the properties of the colors on my palette. My eye is trained pretty well, but my retention of chemistry is weak, as is any in-depth understanding of the properties of pigment mixing.

And that’s my own fault.

With so many colors available from painting manufacturers, I’ve been lulled too easily into laziness. I walk into the art store and stand before the tubes of paint and become intoxicated with the ever-expanding offerings of color choices. “Oooo…look at that color… Ohhh….I want that one….OH! and this one! That’s beautiful, and surely there’s no way I can mix that myself…I better get it!”

Next thing I know I’ve just spent $42 for a tube of some obscure color that I’ll end up hardly using at all. (e.g.: cobalt violet light)

That, or else it’s a color that, had I done a little bit of focused experimentation, I could have mixed it myself with my colors on hand (e.g.: ultramarine blue + alizarin crimson + cadmium orange + cadmium red light = burnt sienna)

Or it’s one that charmed me by the color printed on its label or in the catalog, but ended up being nothing like I imagined or needed (e.g.: king’s blue).
But I use it anyway and create mud with it because I haven’t taken the time to really see how this color mixes with other colors on my palette and still haven’t grasped the real chemistry of color mixing.

Or I stick to colors I’m familiar with, regardless of whether or not they’re really working for me, and mostly mainly they’re NOT working for me and never have. (e.g.: sap green)

Or I’d use a color because it seemed I was supposed to cause I’d always sort of heard about over the years, even though I never really liked it (e.g.: cerulean blue).

Time and time again.

And the result? I have over 70 various colors of oil paint in my possession, of them a mishmash of some 40 or more colors pictured below that I’d use off and on with varying degrees of frustration.


I’ve been winging it with all of these colors, not really knowing what I was doing and basically wasting time, money and paint.

Well, no more.

In September I kicked 3/4s of those paints to the curb and have been using instead the “Double Primary Palette” mentioned in Mr. White’s book:

– deep dark (ultramarine blue + alizarin crimson. Mr. White calls this “mud” but it’s anything but)
– ultramarine blue
– pthalo blue
– alizarin crimson
– cadmium red light
– cadmium orange (cadmium red light + cadmium yellow medium. you can mix it yourself or simply buy cadmium orange)
– cadmium yellow medium
– hansa lemon yellow
– titanium white

What’s noteworthy about this palette is that there are two colors for each primary (hence the name “Double Primary Palette).
Recall the primaries are red, yellow and blue. Here, there are two of each, one warm and one cool:

– ultramarine blue (warm)
– pthalo blue (cool)

– alizarin crimson (cool)
– cadmium red light (warm)

– cadmium yellow medium (warm)
– hansa lemon yellow (cool)

(For more information about what I’m talking about when I refer to color “tempertaure,” click here.)

I am very pleased with results of this limited palette.

However, I’m still repeating my same old bad habit: If I go too long — say a few weeks — without working in oils, I forget how to mix the colors I want. Sustained knowledge and recall will come eventually with consistent practice. But I’m not there yet.

What I really need to do — what I’ve needed to do for years, frankly — is to take the time and do the real grunt work of mixing color after color after color on my palette and take notes. The busy, unromantic, time-consuming elementary work of mixing paint and making a chart. I’ve never brought myself to do it because it has always seemed so time-consuming and, well, boring. But had I done this years ago with my paints? I would have wasted a helluva lot less time and thrown out much less paint.

So that’s what I did yesterday afternoon: mixed colors.

And you know what? It was really kind of satisfying.

And now I have this groovy little reference chart that I can keep with my mudless, uncluttered palette.

Will I only ever use these nine tubes of color when painting in oils?

Of course not. 
For truly there are certain colors out there that I simply can‘t mix from these nine colors, no matter how skilled I become. [Study the photo at the top of this post and you‘ll note there are four colors of blue on my plein air palette. That’s because I really really like cobalt blue + sevres blue to get the dazzling blue sky of New Mexico.] And besides, it’s just darn fun sometimes to experiment with a new color of paint. But for the time being I intend to keep my oil palette limited and see just how much I can learn again about mixing color. 

Not a bad project for a new year.