Stop mixing mud. Start mixing beautiful color, every time.
With the Digital Munsell Book of Color you will finally know:
- ...how to mix exactly the colors you need
- ...how to stop wasting time and paint
- ...how to identify the color you need and what colors you need to mix it correctly
- ...how to mix true neutral grays
- ...how to mix beautiful near-neutrals
Mixing Color Scientifically
Hue is the correct name for the characteristic we call color. Value is its lightness or darkness. Chroma is its intensity, and in painting is the frontier.
The average human sees approximately 3.2 million colors in the environment. Some see even more. Given current oil paints the limit of individual colors that can be mixed is just over 3,200, only .1% of what we see. That requires about 30 tubes of paint.
If an artist is mixing from a limited palette, split primaries, or any group less than those 28-30 needed they are limiting their color range even further. There are those who find this controversial but it’s color science, not belief or voodoo that controls what can be done.
Generally, I mix by starting with one or two main colors and have two or three accent colors to adjust for hue and chroma. I use black very sparingly, and white no more often that I need to. At first it took me 10 minutes or more to hit a mix. Now I spend about two minutes per color.
In every mixing session there are colors I hit immediately and at least one that I have to wrestle into submission — and I’ve been doing this daily for 15 years. If you get off track and start building up a big pile of paint cut half of it away and reserve it. Then try to fix what’s left. This usually works well and you end up wasting much less paint than if you keep trying to fix an ever-growing pile.
I've gone from producing one painting a month, feeling like I was slogging back from Moscow with Napoleon, to loving what I'm doing while producing 4-6 paintings per month. And it's all fun and satisfying.
Why are painting methods important and why can't we just make it up as we go?
Paint what you feel. You can't make it all equally beautiful. Brown paintings suck. "Inchy by inchy, Leonardo daVinci."
This is the sum total of what I was told by a series of Pratt's painting teachers. Obviously not helpful.
So why was I so set on a painting method that would allow me to paint anything I wanted?
Because if I did not know how to approach a painting, even of a subject I had painted before, then I was doomed to reinventing each subject, struggling with materials and brushes, repainting, burning failures, etc.
Endless frustration was baked into every attempt. And this while I'm showing at some high end galleries like Spanierman, Arcadia and Principle. I even turned down an invitation from Gagosian because I doubted my ability to fulfill.
I wanted to have a method that allowed me to solve any painting problem with a minimum of trouble, and that could even be satisfying and fun. Because why shouldn't it be fun?
I wanted a fast reliable method because otherwise it's like being sentenced to invent entire alphabets, use them to create new languages and tell stories in them.
Showing and selling work successfully requires a painter to produce work of an expected quality, and if it can be done fairly quickly and enjoyably all the better. A robust method allows for this.
How to set painting goals and achieve them
I'm going to start off with a technique which may seem non-painting related. I didn't realize it was a thing until recently. It's the core of my approach, though.
My wife has developed an app to help people set goals and achieve them by scheduling practice sessions during their day. Last week she told about a study demonstrating that if you want to reach a goal motivational cheerleading is worse than nothing. But there is a way to significantly improve your chances of making it happen:
Write it down.
Schedule a time to do it.
This simple method increased success 2.4X! It's also what I've been doing intuitively, though getting me to write down anything is a struggle.
When I am composing a painting I set a goal for it. I decide what effects and reactions I want it to stimulate in those who see it. Is it poignant? Will it be lush? A vanitas? That becomes my main goal for the piece.
There are secondary interests also. Textures, the material nature of my subject, its fragility or weight, the way it turns in space. So many things, and essentially what I would like a viewer to notice and consider.
Every day I set a goal for the new area I will work on during that session. And this is where the value of separating your painting process into defined stages first becomes clear. Since I have already defined my large-scale goals -- even though they may change -- I can focus in on my small-scale ones. Because I know where I am in the painting process and what my short term goal is I can put all other concerns aside and really focus on nailing the form.
A bit about Form Painting
Form painting is an approach that focuses on developing each form on its own. Each subject is made up of large and small forms.
The Four Stages of Painting
Added to the clarity of having set your goals is that of knowing which stage of the painting process you are in. They are:
When I am working on the drawing, especially of a complex subject I'm only focusing on locating the large and small forms in the space I am creating. This process brings me very close to the way the subject exists in three dimensions, how its form subdivides, curves and straightens, etc. I'm not thinking about the finish stage, underpainting, or anything else (go Red Sox!) I make the drawing as good as possible, and just focus on that.
Likewise for the other stages, though as I go through them I will be looking for any corrections I need to make.
Once I have set my goal for the entire painting, and set my goal for each stage and my goal for each form in each stage, all I need to do is show up and paint.
Thoughts on using Photo References
This used to be much more controversial than it seems to be now, but it doesn't matter. Everything I'm showing you can be done working from life as well. In fact, I do work from life sometimes and have tested that claim.
Working from photos -- once you are liberated from the prison of painting a photo -- has advantages that working from life does not:
Much cheaper than hiring a model to sit for you.
Allows for adding other images to create complex compositions.
Capture of ephemeral subjects.
I've got a new shipment of parrot tulips coming next month.
The Drawing Stage
It might surprise that I've included drawing as a painting stage, but drawing for a painting is a different animal than a drawing that exists for its own reasons. When I am drawing something to paint I will emphasize things like form intersections, think about edge planes, notice where a curve flattens then recurves, and focus on edges.
It's how I become familiar with all a subject's characteristics, including its sub-forms, their sub-forms, etc.
Drawing is also important because if I fail to create the container, the big form, accurately the small forms will not fit properly within it. When I add color to the small forms it will appear incorrect also. In this way I can get quite far from my original vision, 1/32" at a time.
To prevent that, and have a form I can trust, I use an X, Y, method that is fast and precise. I look for important intersections of forms, or significant termini. For example, in drawing the lemon I found the center points in each bulbous end; the highest point of the lemon; and where the lemon and cloth meet on either side and in the middle. Everything else I drew by observation.
A phenomenon I experience frequently is that drawings that I know are correct appear to be quite wrong UNTIL the last form is placed. Then it snaps into correct alignment. It's not necessarily crucial when I'm drawing a lemon, which is why I only measured a few points.
A natural limitation: Those of you know me know how I chafe at the notions of limitations. But all humans seem to be working with a visual system that can see over three million different colors yet only just over 1,000 distinct gradations of value. This is true no matter what the lighting is. In fact, our eyes seem more in a reduced light setting. Dealers and collectors are excellent at seeing where my values are off, so I prefer to avoid as many mistakes as possible when it's still easy to correct them.
But if indeed the difference between genius and mediocrity is 1/32" then my figures need to be drawn well and accurately. For example, the top eyelids are critical in conveying emotion. Holbein lowered the eyelids in his portrait of Anne of Cleves to indicate her sleepy personality.
The upper eyelids of a person who is very interested in what she is seeing will flatten, while those of a person who is extremely frightened will rise to the same height but be higher in the middle. The amount of sclera we see is an indication of how much fear they feel. The difference, in your drawing, is minute.
Humans are excellent at spotting misshapen forms, especially in other humans but also in subjects we are very familiar. At one time lemons were so expensive only the richest people could afford them. Those peeled lemons decorating a platter in 17th cent. Dutch still lifes were there as a demonstration of the owners financial status. They could not only purchase a lemon, they could choose not to consume it.
Even though I have more leeway in drawing a lemon I want it to be within the bounds of lemon-ness. This is purely personal and you of course can paint as you wish.
Slowing down and getting the drawing right is perhaps the most boring yet important stage of a painting.
The Underpainting Stage
Before I get into underpainting, a subject I am still learning much about and am super-fascinated by, I need to talk about the difference between detail and information.
Detail is defined as:
Extended treatment of or attention to particular items.
a part of a whole: such as a small and subordinate part, a part considered or requiring to be considered separately from the whole.
Information is defined as:
Facts provided or learned about something or what is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of things.
Similar, but in a broad sense details are all equally important while information is clearly hierarchic. Thinking about information is an easier to decide what to include, what is important, than detail, which tends to be painted at a sometimes repulsively intense level.
I want to consider what is important to include at every stage, but the underpainting stage is really the information stage and I have many degrees of freedom in it. So much that it's really fun to play around with.
For instance, in the lemon painting I wanted to nail the reflected light off the white cloth on the left and middle corners of the cube the cloth is sitting on. In the underpainting I shifted value and chroma there, laying the groundwork.
I also wanted to hit the high chroma 5YR dark edge on the right side of the lemon, knowing that I'd go over it with 10YR in the finish stage.
As the hues shift so do the values. This is very tricky painting. I really didn't think it would be so rough...apologies!
But most of the underpainting effort on the lemon involved laying in a decent amount of information about the deceptively tricky hue shift in this lemon. It goes from 5YR on the right to 5Y on the left side to 2.5GY along the top.
I often (almost always) come back to my first underpainting and develop it further. Colors, especially those applied thinly, are always affected by the ground or tone of the canvas. The lighter it is the higher in chroma your colors will be.
Painting over dark colors is way too much work for me. Not that it can't be done, but I find it much easier to work on a lightly toned or white canvas and darken values as needed than begin with a dark tone and try to raise the values and the chromas at the same time. That's really uncertain work and lots of it.
In the second underpainting I will emphasize the goals I began the underpainting with.
As difficult as the colors are in the lemon, and as easy as the cloth looks, this is still a pretty straight forward underpainting challenge. It's very hard to make a mistake in this stage. Try to have some fun with it.
The Finish Stage
This is the really fun stage. The medium is wonderful to work with and depending your brush choice I can work very thickly or smooth it out to join any seams or edges.
The finish stage is when texture reveals the material nature of the things we are contemplating. Hopefully this implies that they are chosen consciously, not randomly. Not that there's anything bad about random. It's just not what I'm interested in. I'm not sure if I need to point this out, but I'm not trying to get everyone to paint like me! That would be a fail. I hope to give you some tools so that you're able to paint like you.
As in the underpainting stage, I will do my best to fully develop the forms each session, knowing that if I don't I can come back.
I was able to do just that with the lemon but the cloth was just too slippery to take enough paint to become as close to full white as I want it to be. You see, the cloth is possibly a star in this little stage play, equal to the lemon, which of course pretends that is impossible.
In this stage I'm using enough medium to make each color manipulatable. If I need it to be think in some area I'll choose a stiffer brush rather than add more medium.
Each of the tiny brush marks indicating texture work because they are slightly lighter in value and higher in chroma than the previous layer, and that was slightly lighter and higher in chroma than the one before.
If I want more texture in a form I'll not lay in a couché, which is meant for areas of really smooth value transitions and surfaces.
The delicacy of the touch is helped by using the Rosemary Rigger brushes. I know there's some issues with quality control so feel free to substitute any other brand you prefer if they give you the marks you want.
The Adjustment Stage
Usually, assuming I've done my work well, this is just time for touchups, popping chroma, etc. I always use the same medium as in the finish stage, 50:50 Venetian to Galkyd GEL.
As mentioned above, the average human can see over 3,000,000 colors, with some being able to see 4,000,000. With contemporary paints it is possible to mix a range of 3,200 colors, .1% of what we can see.
If my visual system system allowed me to lock onto a color I want to mix and hold it in mind while I turn away to my palette then I would not need Munsell at all. However, humans recalibrate what they see constantly, within microseconds. Another survival benefit which makes our goal harder to reach.
Learning colors from a 2D wheel just makes it worse. We have only the crudest of naming systems to work with. Color as it is usually taught is a 3D model, minus one dimension.
Those three dimensions are hue, value and chroma. Albert Munsell divided the available colors, which are keyed to those that can be mixed with oil paint, into 10 major hue groups, each of which is divided into 4 sub-hues. Though the book separates chroma strings into two-chroma steps, if I were to mix every color in the book, and the interim steps, I would have just over 3,200 total.
This isn't a course in color mixing, or Munsell, but it's important to have an idea of why using structured color is so valuable.
Structured color allows me to work much faster. I need to go back in and remix colors very seldom.
I achieve consistent color, and if I do need to remix I can go back in with confidence.
I know how to mix colors in order to extend my value ranges -- the biggest problem we face -- and hit the chroma targets I want.
I waste very little paint.
I am independent of paint makers, so if one changes it's formula because it's found a cheaper way to make paint but the color is different and does unexpected things, I don't care.
I can shift hues and chromas at will, independent of a model or photograph. Color can be what I want it to be, not what's in front of me.
I've learned a lot in doing it all. Especially in those things which I know because I've done them so many times I'm no longer conscious of doing them.
Edge planes are one of those things. Once HVC is understood edges become the frontier. I work them constantly. My focus is on turning edge planes, making sure that my curves are not rounded and the edge planes reflect the material nature of my subjects.