This article will cover different meanings of “How to mix color for oil painting” such as how to get the right color, the physical mixing of the paint itself and more.
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2 Color Philosophies
First, as a background, it is important talk about two different color mixing philosophies, for lack of a better term.
The first one would be, from what here on out, I will call “formulaic color mixing”. So, let me explain what I mean by this…The old masters did have formulas for mixing colors. It’s quite obvious when you look at their paintings. I mean the skin color of many of their figures are the same no matter who they actually painted. Most of Rubens’ women all have the same skin color, same of Rembrandt, Titian, I could keep going, but you get the picture.
Remember, they were making many commissions and were running workshops. They were not how we think of the painter today, alone in his studio sitting at his little easel. Their workshops were like factories producing products. I think everyone can understand that a factory has to be very efficient otherwise, it would go out of business. Plus, their paintings, many times, were of very important people such as Kings, Queens, Duke’s and all that nonsense. These people either could not, or would not sit for long periods of time and multiple sittings. When they did grant the artist a sitting, the artist used the time to establish a likeness with a drawing and made “color notes” such as a purple robe, or if the person had more ruddy skin or olive skin.
Then, they could rely on their formulas for the colors later in their studio. The sitting with the model could be done to establish tones and once you have the right tones, you could put any color in those tones. Maybe they had three different skin mixtures they relied on and depending on the person’s skin they would use whichever was closest.
This formulaic color mixing would be for landscapes too. They would have certain basic mixtures they could use over and over again. A certain green for foreground trees and maybe a different bluish green for background trees to give the impression of distance. On those large pictures you say with landscapes in the background, you can be sure Titan wasn’t walking through the park trying to find a scene he liked and then painting the landscape outdoors.
And of course, he couldn’t photograph it and use it later.
Even for still life they wouldn’t so much focus on the exact color they saw, they would focus on representing the color they saw with the color paints they had. If the final painting of a bowl of fruit didn’t exactly match the color of the fruit they used, who cared?? The painting would be viewed on its own rather than next to the subject matter so people could compare it to the real thing.
Remember that sentence people!
Okay, this formulaic color mixing all changed in the 1800s when painters started to observe nature more closely and started to paint outdoors more and started caring more about representing what they actually saw. The older formulas of applying paint were not used as much as a direct application of paint.
Artists such as John Constable and Camille Corot were among the artists who really took the painting right in front of nature to the next level. They would still finish off their pictures back in their studio but they were more concerned with getting the actual observation of nature and applying paint to mimic actual light effects and colors.
Of course, the impressionists took it even further. They started painting the complete picture in front of the subject so they were really less concerned by applying painting in a formulaic way and by mixing colors in a formulaic way. They essentially forgot what the subject matter was and just painted, very directly, what the light did to the subject matter and it’s local color.
So when they were painting Jimmy outside in bright light under a tree, Jimmy’s skin color may be strong, but dappled with shadows from the leaves. But, if they then painted Jimmy in their studio in subdued light, Jimmy’s skin color would be totally different.
Bye bye skin color formula.
I’ll refer to this as the impressionist color mixing to distinguish it from the formulaic color mixing.
So there you have it.
1) In the old way, (formulaic mixing) they relied on their formulas, such as – I’m going to paint Jimmy, so here’s my normal shadow color mixture I use and here is my normal body tone mixture, etc. Premixed colors, applied by formula.
2) The new way made painters more aware that color and light effects can be fleeting and more people became concerned with capturing the actual colors rather than painting by some mixed premixed color formulas.
Physical Mixing of Paint
So how about the actual physical process of combining paints on your palette. Well, most of the time it is simply dipping your brush into one color and bringing that color into a clean area of your palette and then dipping into another mound of paint and bringing that into the same area of your palette and then swirling the colors around with brush until the mixture is achieved.
Nothing too complicated there, but here are some tips and notes on the actual physical mixing together of colors.
1) When you are mixing a color with white, start with the white always and mix the color into white. For example if you are making pink, don’t start with the red and add white into it. Start with the white and add the red.
2) As a general rule, start with the lighter color and mix the darker color into it. And, there is nothing lighter than white.
3) Know the tinting strength of your different colors. How much of a color do you need to change the color combination you are mixing. As an example – Venetian red is a strong color. A little of it goes a long way. Even more of it will turn your first color venetian red as if you didn’t even start with the other color. So when you using a color like that it’s beneficial to start with the weaker color first and take ever so slightly little amounts of the stronger color and add that into it.
4) If the paint globs up at the ferrule of your brush (the metal part holding the hairs) – clean your brush before you apply the mixture you just made. You’ll be much happier 🙂
How to get the color you want
Another meaning of how to mix colors for oil painting is “what colors do I mix to get X” Where X can be anything from skin, to hair, to trees, to sky.
Just a note: Like I said above, sometimes you’re better off using the color that you need rather than fussing around trying to get the actual color that you see. That goes beyond the scope of this article and it will be covered in my other instruction.
The 3 properties of color
There are three properties of every single color. These are the things you have to get right if you want to get the color you want. If you get these 3 things right, you’ll get the right color.
First, the body color, prismatic color, color family – any of these definitions will work. This means is it orange, red, blue green etc.
Second, the tone of the color. Meaning how light or how dark it is. There are dark reds and there are light reds.
Third is the intensity of the color meaning is the color strong or is the color very grayed down.
Knowing these three properties, how to think about them and how to see them, etc will help you to mix any color at all.
This applies to both color mixing theories the formulaic one and the more impressionistic one.
As an example if you want to paint the hair of the redheaded person, I think you would agree as an example, you might aim toward an orange color because a redhead is usually in the orange family as far as their hair color goes. However you just couldn’t dip into something like cadmium orange and paint the person’s hair, you’re going to have to know how to darken the orange to paint the hair in the shadows whether you are using the formulaic color method or the naturalistic color method. Of course, you’re going to have to know how to lighten the orange as well.
And don’t forget – is it a very strong orange or a duller orange?
Indirect mixing of color
I just want to touch on this briefly here. When you lay your color on in layers over an underpainting you can get a lot of color variation from just one mixture of paint simply by varying how thick or thin you apply that color. The layer underneath will show through a lot, a little less or not at all and it creates variations in color that can’t be obtained any other way.
Personally I love painting this way. It is done using the layering process and underpainting and all that sort of thing. But, in a way it makes painting as close to “drawing” as I have seen.
For Further Study
If you want more in depth instruction, videos, tutorials, and more then check out the oil painting with ethan program
Or, if you’d like a 7 DVD set of oil painting instruction, check out oil painting formula.