Color, Color Everywhere

I decided to learn to oil paint principally to get myself working in a medium that didn’t rely upon line for its information.  Why?  Because most sketchers are like me.  We go out, pen in hand, and draw stuff.  If we also use color (typically watercolor) we do so “after the fact.”  It’s common for people to say “I’ll add color later.”

This is fine and makes many of us happy but this approach causes us to draw without thinking of tone and any thoughts we have of three dimensions come in the form of perspective lines, object overlap, etc.  Again, that’s fine but these approaches don’t do much to teach us to see and produce value, and because of the ‘later’ aspects of our color approach we’re mentally reducing everything to two dimensions as we draw and, for many of us, the third dimension is, at best, handled by some general tone variation when we add color.

And so I thought the switch would force me to get into values and form more.  Unforeseen was my complete ineptitude with respect to using a brush to draw my oh so limited understanding of color mixing and a whole bunch of other stuff.

I bought this book, a book you come across everywhere you look when listening to oil painters.  It’s an oil painter’s bible.  Alla Prima’s reputation is well-deserved.  I have a fairly large library of art books (around 300 at least count) and this one has become one of my best.  Unlike the typical hobby books, this one is packed with into on everything oil paint, and as its subtitle says …and more.

One of the things contained within it is a suggestion for learning color mixing and to gain fluency with your own  colors.  I confess that I’m not a “swatch” guy.  I hate this stuff and, with watercolors I’ve always found it lacking because it’s so hard to know what you’re really mixing because of the watery nature of the medium.  Anyways, Richard Schmid argued that this exercise would make me smart and who wouldn’t want to be smart.

Here’s how it works.  Each panel represents one dominant color.  Each column represents a mixture of the dominant color with one of the other colors on the palette.  Then, with that mix, you do a 5-value chart of that color mix to fill up the column.  Each panel reflects 50 color mixes. I just used the Cobra Water Mixable Oils kit as my color palette and set to work.  It took FOREVER!!!

In doing this, however, I became fluent with the palette knife, learned a lot about the strengths of each color, got pretty good at mixing values and by the end I was able to do this a LOT faster than I could when I started.   Can’t say it was fun but Schmid was right, I got smarter.  I’m still dumb when it comes to oil painting but small steps are the way to success.

Here are all the panels I did to complete the Schmid exercise:

The Zorn Palette

All this mixing got me interested in Anders Zorn’s famous Zorn palette.  He painted almost everything with Vermillion, Yellow Ochre, and Ivory Black.  In reading about him I found that they found Cobalt Blue in his studio so maybe he used that on occasion as well.  I used this as an excuse to add it to my look at the Zorn palette.  Same dominant color + other colors approach applies here but as there were so few colors I was able to do everything on one panel in four blocks of value columns.   It’s amazing how many colors you can get from so few colors.


5 thoughts on “Color, Color Everywhere

  1. So impressed with your color mixing charts—such tenacity! I spent the better part of an afternoon on a similar exercise where I mixed every possible combination of color on my palette rather than value steps. Very useful but extremely time consuming. I learned a ton. I haven’t mustered the energy to try the value steps but after seeing yours and reading of its benefits, I’m inspired to give it a go. Well done!

    • Glad you like them Michelle. I think they will provide lots of info once I study them. Mostly, though, it was the doing, the skill building, that provided the most. I no longer think about mixing. I’m far from perfect with my mixes but I don’t have to think about. This frees my brain for other things.

      I do think the values are the big deal here and I almost didn’t do them (I’m lazy by nature). They teach, very quickly, that the need for lots of colors is unnecessary because of the range of colors you can get from each mix. Add to this the possibility of altering the relative amounts in a two-color mix and the options are endless.

  2. Gosh, Larry … I thought I had inadvertently visited the blog of a watercolor painter I know who seems to spend way more time making gorgeous charts like these instead of painting! 😉 But I can see how informative an exercise like this would be.

  3. Ha.. I’ve watched watercolor sketchers/craft types doing chart after chart of color mixes. Sometimes I think they buy a new brand of paint just so they can chart it (grin). I’ve never seen the point. In this case I saw learning how to use a palette knife effectively, the training of my color sense, and learning about color strengths. This is sooooo much easier to do with an opaque, thick paint than with watercolor where a dark mix looks just like a light mix until you put it to paper. Anyways, it’s done, I can wield a palette knife like Zorro, and I no longer have to think hard about how much of which color do I need to get a range of colors. No more (I hope) color charts for me 🙂

  4. Continuing to learn something new all the time keeps the adventure in life. Have fun on your new skill development.

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