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Less is More: How to Acquire Mastery of Colour

As an artist, and, indeed, as a lover of art, I spend a lot of time looking round galleries and museums, both physical and virtual.While nothing beats a visit to a major institution like The National Gallery in London or the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, studying the work of master artists on or is also a worthwhile exercise. By master artists I mean the Old Masters, the Moderns, and some (but not all!) of the major names working today.

I also regularly make the rounds of local galleries and art club shows. At the majority of galleries and shows there is generally a high standard of draftsmanship, composition, and artistic imagination on display. In these and other areas of art there is less of a gap between master artists and many contemporary professional artists and talented amateurs than one might think. To my mind, the most noticeable difference between master artists and the majority of contemporary professional and amateur artists is in their respective use of colour.

The colour schemes of most master artists are subtle, restrained, and harmonious, yet have a powerful impact on the spectator. In many cases the colour schemes of non-master artists are somewhat gaudy and discordant. Even where the realist or abstract compositions of master artists have overtly striking colour schemes, there is still a tremendous sense of unity and overall purpose to the work. In non-master paintings bold colour schemes are, more often than not, strident rather than striking.

How did (and do) the masters achieve their colour effects? Fundamentally, master artists used, and continue to use, fewer colours than most other artists. David Bomford and Ashok Roy in Colour, page 9, stated, “For centuries the artist's palette in European painting remained limited ...” On page page 63 they noted, “The study of paintings by seventeenth century artists such as Rubens, Velásquez, and Rembrandt reveals … they used a limited range of pigments ...” While this may have been due in large part to the restricted availability of pigments, for some artists a restricted palette was a deliberate choice.

Velásquez for example, used a palette that contained very few colours, even fewer than were available at the time. In the Underpaintings Forum of 13th April 2010, Matthew D. Innis wrote that, “It can be argued that by using a simplified palette, limited even when compared to the small selection of pigments available to seventeenth-century artists, that Velásquez was freed to be more ambitious in the technical execution of his paintings. His color palette, in fact, changed very little during his entire career.”

While Velásquez may be an extreme example, the basic principle holds true. Whether from choice or from necessity, using a limited palette allows more control of colour and builds a greater understanding of colour while simultaneously freeing the artist to concentrate more on technique.

The lack of a large selection of pigments was not, therefore, a handicap to the Old Masters. As Bomford and Roy noted in Colour, page 63, “... they were able, through optical means, and the sophisticated manipulation of the oil medium, to create a variety of subtle colour effects.” This is one of the great truths of art and still holds true today despite the profusion of colours available to the artist. It holds true also for painters in acrylic and, to a large extent, for watercolour artists.

In many instances, using complementary mixing colours to create a series of intermediate hues and further admixtures of such hues with white was (and is) sufficient to create the greater part, or even the entire colour scheme, of a master painting. Various mixes of blue and orange, red and green, and yellow and violet respectively, and tints thereof, have formed the basis of a great many paintings of master quality. The Colour Mixing Swatch Book by Michael Wilcox gives examples of these mixes and his book Advances in Colour Harmony and Contrast has many illustrations of master works produced using these mixes. Blue and orange is especially popular. As Wilcox noted at page 39 in a further publication, The Artist's Guide to Selecting Colours, “Without a doubt, the most popular colour arrangement spanning all ages and virtually all countries, has been blue and orange.”

Complementary colours have been known to artists for centuries. Rolf G. Kuehni, in Color: An Introduction to Practice and Principles (Second Edition) wrote, page 165, “Color contrast effects in painting were already described by Leonardo ....' The employment of complementary mixing colours was one of the cornerstones of Impressionist painting. First, some of the most vibrant paintings of Delacroix and the Impressionists are based on the simultaneous contrast effect, with direct blue-orange, red-green or yellow-violet complementary pairings.”

The use of complementary colours is frequently employed in contemporary art. Complementary colour schemes, mostly blue-orange contrast schemes, can clearly be seen in the works of Lucian Freud, possibly the greatest realist artist of modern times. Charley Parker, in the Line and Colors blog of 7th April 2012, stated that Thomas Kinkade, America’s most collected artist, made use of complementary colours.

The main mixing variations are as follows. A green-blue, a neutral blue, or a violet- blue, can be mixed with a red-orange, a neutral orange, or a yellow-orange. A violet-red, a neutral red, or an orange-red can be mixed with a yellow-green, a neutral green, or a blue-green. A green-yellow, a neutral yellow, or an orange-yellow, can be mixed with a blue-violet, a neutral violet, or a red-violet. Mixing the aforementioned colours produces a surprisingly wide range of intermediate colours. Once these intermediate colours are produced, tints can be made by adding white in various quantities. These tints are excellent colours in their own right, being at one and the same time subtle and delicate yet powerful and expressive.

It is these intermediate hues and tints, rather than the base colours, that are at the heart of complementary colour schemes and serve to make the painting a unified whole. This was noted by Johannes Itten in The Art of Color, page 79, “Many paintings based on complementary contrast exhibit not only the contrasting complementaries themselves but also their graduated mixtures as intermediates and compensating tones. Being related to the pure colors, they unite the two into one family. In fact, these mixed tones often occupy more space than the pure colors.”If mixing a range of intermediate hues and tints produces such gratifying results, why don’t more artists follow this practice? The answer is that creating the various gradations between complementary colours is not that easy.

Should the artist wish to prepare the mixes in advance, he or she needs to start off with large volumes of the base colours so as to ensure there is enough paint to produce the range of intermediate colours and tints needed for the planned painting. Alternately, if the artist attempts to produce the mixes on the palette while working on the painting, he or she may well be in for a disappointment as it is all too easy for the mixes to go wrong.

In the end, its so much simpler just to use equivalent, or near-equivalent, colours straight from the tube. Using tube colours, however, may upset the colour balance of the painting. Further, the artist may succumb to temptation and end up relying on tube colours too heavily. Overgenerous use of colours straight from the tube tends to be frowned upon by critics.

The aforementioned difficulties of colour mixing should not deter the artist from attempting to gain mastery of colour by practicing colour mixing exercises. Musicians practice scales, martial artists practice kata, and artists practice colour mixing! Knowledge of colour is fundamental to art. Attempting colour mixing exercises and using fewer colours in actual paintings will really add to the artist's arsenal of art skills.Please coment on your own experience with colour mixing and how it has informed your work's development.

Alan Friend is currently having a show of his prints at The Lovers Lights Gallery in London. The show runs from 11th May - 5th August 2012.

You can also find more art by Alan Friend on his website at