Nearly a year on from my blog on not using warm and cool as I paint, I’ve been looking at warm and cool again, in anticipation of a portrait painting workshop I’m going on. I started on a random empty page in my sketchbook — the lefthand page — with a little of each colour I had decided to take with me:
Then I had a go at organising the colours into cool and warm by instinct, and getting it muddled by having different criteria in a what was meant to be a binary chart (eg an orange may feel cooler than other oranges but it’s always a warm):
Next the in-house art critic and I had a long discussion about which were what, over coffee. Then I found Gamblin’s comprehensive list and had another go:
It still leaves the question: why do I put cool on the left and warm on the right?
All of this so I can divide the colours into warm dark (for cast shadows), cool dark (for form shadows), warm light (for direct light) and cool light (for indirect light) whilst trying to paint a likeness. Time to remind myself about why it’s good to get out of our artistic comfort zone!
Know those photos you get of artists’ palettes with squeezes of colour around the dge and a mixing area in the middle? Mine never looks like that.
I don’t use a staywet palette for acrylics, and I don’t like to waste paint, so I have evolved a working method that involves a lot of opening of tubes or tubs of paint, taking out a little, using that, then repeating. It may seem inefficient, but it also has the benefit of making me step back from my painting regularly.
The tubs/tubes live on the shelf below my palette so they’re easily to hand and, yes, I do put them back in the same spot. I’d call it a taboret but it’s really a slimline wire kitchen trolley the in-house art critic found, and before that it was an old computer desk, and before that a TV trolley that was a bit low.
This photo shows the squence of colours as I was working on a seascape. I don’t clean the palette, just add the new colour and mix.
In a multi-day workshop, I usually include some time for colour studies, exploring colour mixing with some underlying focus but mostly for the sheer joy of colour, of seeing what happens. The most common response is what fun it is and why don’t we do it more often when we’re by ourselves? I suspect the answer lies in that we get too fixated on “creating a painting” and forget it is time well spent to practice our scales.
When I sat down at my favourite picnic bench in the Uig woodland, I had intended to do a watercolour version of the sketch I’d made a few days before. But after the first tree trunk was painted, impulse led me to trying various colour combinations in search of the ‘perfect recipe’. An hour or so later, I had this:
This photo is a bit blown out. In the middle is my favourite:
lunar black + cobalt blue + serpentine green
I know what the colour are because I remembered to make notes! Not the proportions of each, just the ingredients.
The small print on the labels tells us: PR 122 and PV 19.
Looking up the numbers tells me: quinacridone magenta and quinacridone rose.
Depending where you are on your colour journey, this may or may not be useful information.
The good news is all you really need to know is that one’s a red (R) pigment, the other a violet (V) so, besides the difference in colour as you see it, they’ll do different things when mixed.
Handprint says: “Because it is warmer than a typical magenta, quinacridone rose creates clean, bright mixtures across the red to yellow span of a color wheel. Its violets are not as bright as those mixed from quinacridone magenta, but I find this creates a more natural color when the mixtures are used for shadows.”
For me the two feel like Rosa rugosa flowers (“pink-pink”) vs its rosehips (“red-pink”), which I can’t find a photo of right now.
At Patchings Art Festival last month I was very encouraged by the number of conversations where “single pigment colours” and “pigment numbers” weren’t met with blank looks.
The short answer: One.
Try black or Payne’s grey or sepia. (If you don’t believe this, then ask yourself how black-and white photography is still a thing so many years after the invention of colour photography.)
The colour theory answer: Six.
A warm and cool blue, yellow and red.
The typical answer: The primaries, white, and some earths, perhaps a green.
The Colourist’s answer:
Whatever floats your boat.
My slightly longer answer:
However many you wish, but probably not all in one painting.
Exploring colour is part of the joy of painting, getting to know the personality of each, how it behaves when it’s by itself and how well it plays with others. (I mean: the properties of a pigment and how it mixes with others.) Everyone has their preferences as to how many they want to play with, both at any particular moment and overall.
There is no magic number, it’s about personal preference and it’ll change. If you don’t enjoy colour mixing, you’ll likely use more straight-from-the-tube colour.
How many colours make a successful painting depends on how you use them. Mix them all together and you’ve a muddy mess. Have scattered colour across a composition and you’ve disjointed visual chaos. Worked together, considered and intuitively, it can be intriguing and full of discoveries for a viewer. Never let anyone insist that you limit yourself if you’re enjoying playing with your colours.
When painting with acrylics, I tend to use a subset of colours that has got slightly larger over the past few years (I now need two hands to count the colours, not only one). I do have tubes of many other colours I’ve tried, and occasionally I play with these again. But mostly I use titanium white, Prussian blue, cadmium orange and yellow, lemon yellow, magenta, and?perylene black. Phthalo blue, cobalt blue and phthalo turquoise are also regulars, cerulean blue sometimes joins in. Burnt umber is now neglected as I’ve shifted to mixing greys with orange and blue, and I still don’t like ultramarine blue much (sorry Sharron.
But when it comes to watercolours, since discovering Daniel Smith’s granulating colours, I’ve increasingly been having a ceilidh with colour. Pigments with distinctive characters, not homogenized to all behave the same way like well-socialized, good little colours. I’m not using every single colour in every single painting, and the more successful ones do have fewer colours, but I think these also work because they retain the joy of mucking about with all the colours.
When I moved to Skye 10 years ago, my watercolour set looked like this:
My current watercolour box looks like this:
It feels indulgent to have so many colours, but it’s also so joyous. Sometimes one is all you need, but how will you know which one unless you’ve tried many?
There are joys to be found in colour just for colour. Not for creating a finished painting, but for the delights of trying, exploring, feeling, seeing paint colours.
While there’s good reason to use a limited set of colours and getting to know these well, it also becomes a comfort zone. How often do you think outside the (colour) box?
At the weekend as a friend and I were doodling with the colours in my big watercolour set (one I put together from all the tubes of watercolour paint I have) she described them as “very much my colours”. I was taken aback as I thought there are lots of colours in there that aren’t my usual. But then she went on to list the colours she regards as staples that were missing, including Naples yellow, viridian, not to mention the lack of any kind of red (only magentas), and I realised that the colours were indeed subsets of my usuals, that there weren’t so much unexpected colours but more variations on favourites.
So yesterday I sat down with my Daniel Smith watercolour dot chart and tried with every single colour. Today I’m going to have another look at it and see where I might step further away from the box. Then I’m going to make a shopping list for July when I’m at Patchings Art Festival. Then I’m going to shorten the list.
One of the (many) joys of painting is exploring the properties of all the different pigments we have to use. Each has its own personality, and some we’ll like more than others. A few will become best friends, some drift in and out of our lives, and some forever kept at arm’s length.
For yesterday’s workshop I took along a dozen or so different blues from my stash. We started by creating a colour chart with all the blues, making notes of what pigments were in a colour and a opacity/transparency line on the edge.
We discussed what was meant by hue, specifically Prussian blue hue, and compared different versions which have different pigment combinations in them. Consensus was that Schmincke’s version, which has black in it, was suitably moody for a Skye winter. We also talked about how many blues you really need, and why I have so many.
We had some debate whether turquoise was a green or a blue, or a bit of both. The ultimate question was: if you were sorting tubes of paint out into boxes labelled “green” and “blue”, which one would you put “turquoise” into? I’d put it in blue.
In the afternoon we looked at working in layers, focusing on shapes of colour (rather than “it must look like XYZ” or “I’m painting an XYZ”) and patterns. An approach where no one single mark or layer makes or breaks a painting.
There were two layers of in pencil/coloured pencil before the first paint layer. It’s an activity that also gives a feel for glazing — transparent layers of paint over one another — vs blocking bits or breaking shapes using opaque colours.
A great day all round!
If you’d like to join me on a workshop, the dates for scheduled workshops on Skye and for when I’m at Higham Hall in the Lake District can be found here. (Last I heard there were four spots left for my April workshop at Higham.)
A misunderstanding I regularly encounter in workshops is what is meant by “transparent” in a paint colour. It seems to come from conflating “see-through” and “colourless” into “transparent”.
We can see through some things that have colour. Think of stained glass or coloured cellophane or sunglasses. You see through it, though it adds colour to what’s behind it, changes the colours of things seen through it. Normal window glass is colourless; stained glass is transparent (to varying degrees, but that’s a digression).
If you’ve done a workshop with me, you’ve probably seen this “visual aid”. One day I’ll create a neater, textbook version!
At the bottom right of that sheet is a black line with opaque, semi-opaque, and transparent colours painted over it.
How opaque or transparent a pigment is depends on the inherent properties of a pigment, but also how thickly you use it. Red iron oxide is one of the most opaque pigments there is, even more than titanium white. It obliterates whatever’s beneath it.
Figuring out which colours are which is best done by creating a chart of your own. Yes, many tube labels give an indication, but you can’t beat trying it for yourself, straight from the tube and thinned somewhat, as well as adding white to transparent pigments to shift their opacity.
It’s an excuse to get out every tube of paint you’ve got and say hello to it. Neatly in a grid or not, that’s a potential procrastination. Just put brush into paint onto paper and save neatly for another day.
“Really? Who doesn’t use Ultramarine Blue! I never knew anyone who doesn’t consider it a staple. Intrigued! Is there a reason?” — S.B.* (*In response to my previous blog post in which I said, right at the end, that I almost never use ultramarine.)
Well, you do now. <cue: smile>
I really, truly, genuinely, rarely use ultramarine. I definitely don’t consider it a staple. As to the reason why: I simply don’t like it enough.
If used unmixed, it’s instantly recognisable; you look at a painting and tick the mental “that’s ultramarine” box. It’s a learning-towards-brash bright, brilliant blue. It’s not a sea blue. It’s not a sky blue. It’s not a river blue. It’s not deep-dark shadows blue. It’s the blue of fabric, of Virgin Mary’s dresses, not landscape.
It’s not that I don’t have any, or haven’t tried it. I have it, and occasionally try it again because I know so many people love it. But as you can see, I’ve not used much.
Cennino Cennini, the 15th century Italian artist who wrote on the techniques of the great masters in The Craftsman’s Handbook, describes ultramarine as ?illustrious, beautiful, and most perfect, beyond all other colours?. [He was writing about genuine ultramarine, of course, created from lapis lazuli, not French ultramarine, a pigment invented in 1828 by the colourmaker Jean-Baptiste Guime (no prizes for guessing what country he lived in).]
What blue is my favourite then? It used to be Prussian blue, but phthalo turquoise may well have moved into that spot. Prussian is still my go-to dark blue and stormy-sky blue. I also use phthalo blue (I love its staining quality), cerulean blue, cobalt teal. In some seascapes I use every blue I’ve got, and that includes ultramarine. But it’s rarely a starting point blue.
Could I live without ultramarine? Most likely. Though it feels almost sacrilegious saying so down: my least-favourite blue is ultramarine. And now I have I’m feeling guilty for not loving it enough, and might just have to try painting and mixing with it once again to see if I can’t love it a little more.
What’s your favourite and least favourite blue? Post a comment below and let me know.