How do you know which tube pigments you need to mix a colour you want?
It’s bewildering. There are so many. And none of them are ever quite what you need. Most of them are too dark, too, so then you have to decide what to lighten them with.
Quite often I get asked for recipes for particular colours. But colour is infinite. You’d need an infinite umber of recipes. At best, you’d need an incredibly large amount that would take you years to learn. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have that much time.
Tube pigments vary greatly from different manufacturers, too. If I give you my recipe for a particular orange and it uses cadmium yellow, and I have Michael Harding cad yellow (which is brilliant paint by the way) and you have Windsor and newton, the recipe will fail. Because they’re different colours, and behave differently in mixes.
Here are mixes made with each of those yellows and burnt umber, to two different, but equal values. Look how different the results are:
If you struggle with mixing a colour you want sometimes, or if your colour is chalky or muddy, here’s what I think will help you much more than recipes: a sensible, repeatable colour method.
Lets get straight to it. Here’s the process I use to pick the tube pigments I need to match any colour – any colour exactly, first time.
The Method: How to Choose the Right Pigments
Step 1: Select a close hue
Now this isn’t always easy. But it doesn’t have to be perfect. If the colour is very low chroma, the hue can be difficult to judge. And anyway, I can guarantee you, for every colour you ever want to mix, you won’t find an exact match in your tube colours.
BUT DON’T WORRY!
You only have to get close.
The choice is complicated by the fact that the hue of a particular tube pigment isn’t always obvious. I’ve started a chart of the tube pigments I use regularly, and where they all sit on the Munsell hue wheel.
I’ve a bit more work to do it to make it more comprehensive, but here it is:
Notice that Burnt Umber is orange. That Raw Umber is Yellow. That Flake White is Yellow-Orange. That Titanium White is blue, and so is Ivory Black.
Step 2: Bring it up to the right value
Ok, now you have a pigment chosen, you’ll probably need to lighten it to the value of the colour you want. Our tube pigments are pretty dark, generally.
You could have a few choices here. You just need a colour lighter than the one you have. Usually, that’s white, or perhaps yellow. But think about how far you need to bring up the value and also the chroma of your target colour.
If you’re looking for a high chroma dark reddish-brown, and your starting pigment was burnt umber, cadmium red might do it. If you use titanium white, you can bring the value right up but you’ll also drop the chroma.
And here’s a thing: if you’re after that reddish brown and you mix in titanium white, you’re mixing in a blue. Just a very low chroma one. So that’s going to drop your chroma even further.
Now, a lot of the time, as realist painters, we’re painting variations of brown. Which is really a low chroma, low value orange. Lots of stuff in the word is orange, including people. Yes, all people. We’re all orange. just different values and chromas and very slightly different hues.
So if you’re after an orange and you mix in a blue, what happens? The chroma drops. And that’s what chalkyness is – just a loss of chroma and a hue shift towards blue. The oranges look less orange. Less vibrant. Deadened. Dry. Chalky.
If you’re after a low chroma orange, no problem. The point is you need to consider it, and choose which colour you lighten your starting point with based on the value and chroma you want. For that reason, if I’m after a high chroma, high value colour in the orange yellow area of the hue wheel, I’ll sometimes use flake white, because it will drop the chroma very slightly less than titanium white.
Regardless, as long as you’re just close with the hue, and you’ve nailed the value, you’ll be fine. Because the next part sorts out the hue.
Step 3: How close did you come? Compare the result
Now compare the colour you have to your target colour.
If you’re a really long way off, you might need to try a different pigment at this point, But you only need to be close.
Consider it in relation to the hue wheel. Munsell, or any other. Doesn’t matter. The colour you have will be one side or the other of the colour you’re aiming for.
If you’re still after that reddish brown, it will be too red or too yellow-orange. In a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction, in relation to your target colour.
Whichever it is, you now need another colour of the same value, but on the other side of the target colour on the hue wheel.
Step 4: Mix another
Ok, so your brown is too red, You need a more yellow orange brown to balance the hue. Or your brown is too orange, you need a more reddish brown. If your blue is too purple, you need a green blue to balance it, and vice versa. You get the point.
So now you mix another colour, close in hue, but on the other side of the colour wheel from your target colour.
You can often use the same starting pigment, just modulate the hue in the direction you need with something else. the only thing that needs to be exact about this second colour is the value. Your first and second colour need to be exactly the same value as your target colour or this doesn’t work.
Step 5: Mix between them
Now you have two colours. Just mix between them until you’ve nailed the hue. You’ll have the finest possible control using two colours and mixing between like this and with practice, you’ll become more sensitive to tiny changes and your mixes will get better.
At this point you may need to affect the chroma. If you need to bring it up, I’m sorry but your screwed. Start again with a different, higher chroma tube pigment or a higher chroma lightening pigment, or both. Because adding chroma is a beast, and takes much more paint than you’d think. Taking it out is much easier.
You have two choices for taking it out, use a lower chroma version of the colour you’ve just mixed – which you can mix using exactly the method above – or use a neutral grey of the same value as your target colour.
Using a neutral grey will likely affect the hue, if you have to bring the colour down a long way, and may even affect the value, although I find that’s very rare and easily adjusted. But you may have to do some adjustment before you completely nail it. but this will get you there, and will allow you to make the most sensible choice of pigments to hit any given colour you want.
Maybe this sounds complicated. In a sense, it is. What, you thought colour was easy? I never promised that. But it is understandable. It doesn’t have to be that much of a struggle. It can be mastered, and more quickly than you think.
If you have a method.
This just works
If you follow this series of steps, you will have much less trouble finding the colours you want. You might have to start again a few times, particularly when you’re getting used to the method.
But it works. And you wont need any recipes.
This is easier to understand if you see it demonstrated of course, than to read it, so here’s a video of the steps I went through to match a very low chroma, high value orange. You might call it a light brown, but I think my description is more accurate 🙂
At the beginning, I chose two pigments that I estimated to be either side of the target hue. It’s the same process as I’ve described above, I just chose both my starting pigments at the beginning.
This method will help you learn how your tube pigments behave and how they interact. You’re still going to have to put a lot of mixing time in. Because that’s the only way to learn something properly. It would be lovely to be able to give you recipes and take the requirement for all those mixing hours away, but I can’t.
What I can do is lessen the number of hours filled with frustration that you’ll have to got through. And this method will do that. There are more and less efficient ways to learn stuff, and this is the most efficient way I know to learn about your tube pigments and get good at mixing colour.
Work with this for a while, and before long you’ll get to a point where you never struggle with colour mixing again. Seriously. You don’t have to go through all that pain.
You do have to work at it. But not as hard as you might think. I’m not in the hair shirt camp when it comes to art. I want effective, repeatable solutions to difficult problems in painting, and this is one.
So please, give it a go and let me know what you think.
I’ve tried to give you as clear a demonstration and explanation as I can of this method here, in the hope that you can take it away, practice with it and learn – and hopefully avoid some of the frustration I went through before I learned this method from Graydon Parrish.
You can absolutely learn this on your own with what I’ve given you above. But if you want a more organised approach, with a structure to follow, I run two online courses which take you through this method and more:
This course takes you through the method above in detail. Constructed as a series of step by step assignments, each building on the last, this course will introduce you to Munsell and ensure you never struggle to mix a colour again. Unless it’s a colour that can’t be mixed, of course, like sunlight 🙂
This course includes all of the above course content, and then moves on to the really effective stuff: teaching you how to use colour to paint form convincingly. This course teaches you nothing short of how to paint in oils, whilst focussing specifically on colour and form. I’ve put my heart and soul into this one, and students are finding it’s transforming their work.
If you want to know how to paint with beautiful, natural looking colour, to be able to paint subjects that look real, this is the course for you.
I’ll be going through all this method of choosing the right pigments in a lot more detail in a free live webinar soon (date to be finalised). If you’d like to come and join the fun you can register for the webinar here.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
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