How to Experiment with Colour

I would like to bet that, like me, whenever you go into an art store, you are seduced by the colours on the side of paint tubes or pots and you have lots of different colours to experiment with. I know that I have been, and I know, too, that none of us need all those colours.

Not only do I have tons of different colours I also have lots of different products too. I love to indulge in numerous forms of media, so there are oil paints for portrait works, acrylics for large canvas pieces and watercolours to experiment and make small works with. I also have a huge store of inks, pencils, pens, chalks, oil pastels and felt-tipped pens, too.

Madness really. Why? Because when working with colour and to really understand your paints, you only need a very small number to work with.

I would like to introduce you to a way of working which restricts your need to buy every colour in the shop and still produces amazing colours to work with.

Before you dismiss this as an exercise in mixing paint and you don’t have time or don’t want to bother, please just stop for a moment and consider this suggestion. Because I know there are days when you have time to paint and you simply cannot find the energy to produce work or you have run out of inspiration, but you still have 30 mins to spare. Indulging yourself and spending time on this activity will improve your understanding of colour and how to use it to make wonderful artworks and will give you the most wonderful resource material for your future works.

First, the paints. Lots of artists these days are working with a limited pallet; they simply choose one red, one blue, one yellow, white and black. You could, if you really wanted to push that further, use what is called an ‘Off Primary Pallet’ which consists of a warm yellow, a cool red, black and white. It is amazing what incredible colours you can make with just these four colours.

My suggestion, however, is that you pick one cool red, one warm red, one cool blue, one warm blue, one cool yellow, one warm yellow, white and black and for this exercise the paints I have used are acrylics but oil or watercolour paints work just as well.

Starting with the blues, here are my current favourites:

Warm blues – Ultramarine and Cobalt, Cobalt Deep and some Turquoise blues, too.

Cool blues – Phthalo Blue, Prussian Blue, Manganese Blue, Winsor Blue and Cerulean Blue.

Warm reds – Cadmium red light, pyrrole scarlet, cadmium scarlet, scarlet lake naphthol red

Cool reds – Permanent Alizarin Crimson Hue, Permanent Road, Quinacridone Rose Spectrum Crimson, Magenta.

Warm yellows – Cadmium Yellow Deep, Indian Yellow, Quinacridone Gold, Hansa Yellow Deep.

Cool yellows – Lemon Yellow, Cadmium Yellow Light, Transparent Yellow and Spectrum Yellow.

I haven’t covered transparency here (that is for another time) but a footnote to Alizarin Crimson. Everyone, well nearly everyone it seems, loves using this colour at the moment and whilst the Golden paint company assures us that their oil version is stable, the watercolour versions fade badly. It is never a good idea to place any artwork in direct sunlight but if you use this colour you really need to keep it well away from sunlight and still expect it to fade over time.

Primary or neutral yellow, which is neither warm or cool (e.g. Nickel Azo Yellow, Hansa Yellow Medium, Pure Yellow by Schmincke or Winsor Yellow by Winsor and Newton), is a useful colour to experiment with but not necessarily at this stage.

Having selected your eight colours – cool red; warm red; cool blue; warm blue; cool yellow; warm yellow, black and white – you now need to pick just two more colours. For instance, Cadmium Red and Cadmium Yellow.

You can use what ever paper suits you best. So, if you are a watercolour artist, you could use some of your cheaper watercolour paper and either leave it in sheets, fold it into a book or cut it up into squares or oblongs to make colour cards like the ones in your DIY store.

If you are an acrylic artist you can use watercolour paper but it is best to gesso it first or you can buy acrylic painting pads which you can treat in the same way or simply use a sketch book so that all your samples are in the same place. Oil painters can buy sheets of primed canvas which you can treat in the same manner. Whichever way works best for you, go with it.

So, start with one colour, say the yellow. In its purest form, straight from the tube, paint a swatch on your paper – making sure to record which shade you have used and that this is its pure state. Now, taking a very small amount of the red, add it into the yellow and place a swatch of colour on your paper. Again, remember to record what you have done, particularly if you are making them into individual swatches. Repeat this process until you have gone from pure yellow and to pure red.

Now start again with the yellow add another colour, working through all of them and recording the mixes. Adding some cool red to the warm red will also give you an interesting result and you may wish to record this, too.

Now start again with the first two colours but this time add in the black, a little at a time, and then some white, too. It is amazing how black and yellow together with white can look and how adding in one of the reds can change that, too.

You could spend hours doing this or, just as easily, produce a couple of colours as and when you have time. Once you have produced this resource it is then easy to decide which colours work in a way which pleases you and, when you are looking for a colour in your paintings and you are unsure what to use, your swatches should help you out.

The overall positive to doing this is that you can decide what overall colour effect you want your work to have and then you can quickly figure out which colours work best for you.

Using a limited pallet and knowing which colours you can produce by combining them you also get to produce works which are harmonised. You will know that the artwork will always sit comfortably within itself because all the colours are combinations of themselves. So, if you want to produce a beautifully harmonised artwork you have the tools to do so. Likewise, if you want to make a splash you can use your swatches up against your harmonised piece to see exactly what result you can obtain.

I do hope you take up the chance to make this useful tool for yourselves. You won’t regret it in the long run.

A final fun experiment to do is to make greys (grays). Start by simply mixing black and white together and make a few different shades. Then add hints of colour into them and see just how much more interesting they are if they start their lives as a colour which is then pushed into the grey field.

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