Trad Basics Week
When learning how to paint traditionally, most people pick their colours two ways: buying a kit of basic colours
, and/or buying random tubes
that look like they might resemble
the colours in the finished piece the person is envisioning. Unfortunately a lot of beginners don't have a teacher standing over their shoulders advising them which tube of red or white is going to be most useful in the long-run, or how that one $12 tube will last fifteen times longer than the $4.75 "student grade" tube beside it - and be easier to work with.
Student-grade cobalt violet hue is not amused with my elitism.
In this article we're going to examine the basic painterly palettes at the pigment level
instead of the common name, and how to piece these palettes together
with tube colour for the lowest cost and best result. We're also going to review some basic pigment properties
and how they can impact your colour choices. While I will mainly be covering oils and watercolours, most of the basic rules - transparencies, temperatures, tinting power, lightfastness - apply to acrylics, oil pastels, regular pastels and encaustic media as well. Now buckle in, because this is going to be a long one.
... Tube Colour? What?
Tube or pan colour is what you're probably calling "paint" right now - it's the concentrated mixture of pigment(s), binders and media
that they sell in a tube or pan. (In this article I'll be referring to both tube colour and pan colour as tube colour in the general, just for ease of writing.) Paint, conversely, is what you put on your canvas
- tube colour that's been tinted into white, mixed, diluted, dissolved in media, prayed over by your grandmother, or sometimes even applied straight from the tube. A typical oil tube colour is pigment suspended in linseed oil, whereas a typical watercolour is pigment blended into gum arabic solution. Watercolour pan colour is a mixture of pigment and gum arabic that's been prepared dry.
When you pick up a tube colour you will usually see two cryptic symbols - a square that's either white, black, or half white and half black
and either 1-3 stars or a Roman numeral between I and IV
On this example they're right below the colour name; this is true of Holbein, Grumbacher and Old Holland too last I checked. Other brands might put them on the back of the label, like Winsor-Newton does.
The square represents the opacity
of the pigment(s) in the tube - if the square is black, the pigment is opaque and will hide anything it's painted over, even in thin glazes; if the square is white, it's transparent and won't hide anything, even as straight tube colour. A square that's half black and half white is semi-opaque, and one that's white with a black line through it is semi-transparent. We will discuss opacity in more depth later in the article.
In this example, cadmium scarlet is opaque and perylene scarlet is transparent; scarlet lake is semi-transparent, and would skew to semi-opaque if it was less diluted.
The stars or Roman numeral represent lightfastness
- how likely a pigment is to fade over time if exposed to light. More stars or a lower numeral mean the paint is more lightfast, or has better staying power. You might think that means it makes the most sense to always buy super-lightfast pigment, but for some colours - especially transparent reds/yellows, most pinks, almost all purples, metallics and fluorescent dye-based colours - the most intense pigments are fugitive (not lightfast)
; these pigments have their place in illustration, or in originals that will be scanned and sold as prints, but you'll want to avoid them for mantelpiece portraits or other high-value wall hung works that you don't want to look wrong in a decade. You can also use lightfast pigments if you are framing the painting with glass
since UV-glazing will prevent most of the fading you would otherwise get.
The cerulean-looking blue here is EXTREMELY fugitive; all the others are lightfast.
You'll also see one other thing you want to take note of on the tube: the pigment number
. Any tube colour worth using will list every pigment it contains, and often artist-series paints only contain one pigment (like Holbein's vermillion oils, which contain only PR106 Vermillion). The fewer pigments you use, the less muddy your mixed paint will be.
Some single pigments, especially phthalos and a few of the natural pigments and their synthetics, are downright cheap
, so if you're starting out and want a brown earth or a titanium white or an ultramarine blue, those ones are usually safe with consistent properties across any line - though the ultramarine might have some phthalo pigments added to it to increase the intensity a bit. As a general rule, artist-grade tube and pan colours have more concentrated pigments
while student-grade ones are more dilute.
If you see a tube of something ridiculously expensive like cadmium lemon for the same price as yellow ochre, though? Well, usually if a tube has the same name as a pigment it contains just that pigment, but if it has "hue" at the end it probably is a single-pigment synthetic lookalike of lower value or a blend of pigments, and may have different properties than the pure pigment would
. Some pigments are very expensive or highly toxic so student-grade and lower-cost artist grade tube colour versions are "hues". For example, true vermillion from above, which we established is PR106, is over $40/tube, toxic, and turns black if exposed to lead so it's fallen out of fashion.
Most "vermillion hue" paints contain a naphthol pigment PR188, which is similar in colour to a true vermillion, non-toxic, resists the discoloration that vermillion gets, but is significantly less opaque than the real thing.
Sorry for the driest two paragraphs ever but you just learned something useful dammit.
For this article we will use a mix of pigment numbers and common names for convenience when you're shopping. When in doubt, check the pigment code - it's the only way to get mostly consistent results across brands and grades.
Now, onto the first colour on the list:
Warning:White paint has no place in watercolour.
If you want to follow acrylic or oil paint mixing advice with white in watercolours, you're now using gouache instead of "true" watercolour and might as well be using a chalk pastel. When painting with watercolours, you tint by adding water
. Your paper acts as your white in the mix; you just have to thin your tube colour to make it lighter. If you really need some pure white as a final touch in a watercolour piece, use white acrylic paint, acrylic ink, or a white gel pen
- if you use white tube colour it's going to blend into the layer beneath it and give your piece that typical chalky gouache look you're probably avoiding if you aren't intentionally using gouache.
Fat Over Lean
It's literally impossible to discuss the differences in white oil colours without touching on fat over lean - the concept of using faster-drying paints on the lower layers of a painting and slower-drying paints on the higher layers
. If you ignore this rule your top layers will crack as they dry over the still-wet lower layers
; basically, the top film stabilizes first, hardens, then the bottom film constricts and laughs its ass off at the top layer's new wrinkles since the substrate that hard top layer was stuck to is now shifting in every direction.
Remember, fat describes the paint, not the painter.
Most artists use varying media concentrations to get their fat-over-lean mixing right, diluting their bottom layer with a 2:1 or even 3:1 mix of mineral spirits to linseed oil, 1:1 mix for the middle layers, and 1:2, straight linseed, or a thicker linseed oil called "stand oil" for their top glazes. This is how fat over lean gets its name: the "fat" oil dries more slowly than the "lean" mineral spirit. The principle of fat over lean colours the choice of which white pigment to use at which stage of an oil painting too - one pigment dries much
more quickly than the other two common pigments.
Titanium and Zinc (Chinese) Whites: PW6 and PW4
Titanium and zinc are the two "basic" whites in oil colour, with titanium being the standard white across most other media - gouache being the exception, where Chinese white is the typical opacity-inducer. Both are fairly slow drying neutral whites; titanium has a bit more neutral of a colour temperature and zinc has more of a warm skew in linseed oil, though sometimes skewing to cool if it's diluted in non-linseed oils or mineral spirits. Titanium is fully opaque and zinc is slightly semi-opaque, and zinc dries a tiny bit more slowly than titanium. Zinc is also a bit softer and butter-y-er than titanium as a tube colour, the latter feeling a bit like chalk when you work with it, even in "soft" formulations like Grumbacher's soft mixing white.
Titanium is also significantly cheaper than zinc and comes in gigantic tubes, so it's the most used white, even though zinc is inherently better. Zinc is the Biggie Shorty of white tube colour.
Lead (Flake/Cremnitz) White: PW1
Lead white isn't available everywhere, and is highly toxic since it's obviously lead - but it has a place in the oil arsenal since it is the fastest-drying white, drying in half to a quarter of the time it takes for zinc to dry. Lead white is a common go-to for artists for underpainting, where you want your base layer to dry quickly before you glaze over it with the thinner zincs or titaniums. It's also a bit more flexible when dried, unlike the stiffer zinc and especially titanium. Lead is super lightfast like the other common whites, and has a neutral-cool temperature and slightly iridescent sheen. Cremnitz whites are suspended in safflower instead of linseed oil and have a cooler hue but dry more slowly, while flake (sometimes called foundation or underpainting) whites are suspended in linseed so dry more quickly but tend to yellow over time when exposed to light - not a huge concern if you're going to glaze over it, but it may be an issue if you're painting a piece alla prima.
When people discuss a limited palette by the number of colours, they usually state "x colours" where it's implied you're using that number in addition to one or more whites. For a one-colour palette, you're picking a pigment and using it in tints
, or white dilutions. For watercolours this just means adding water to your paint, but for oils it means adding white tube colour.
The standard classic one-colour palette isn't used for finished pieces, but instead for the base layer of a painting: PG23 terre verte
, a colour usually marketed either by that name or by its English translation, "Green Earth". It's a fast-drying, transparent, lightfast earthy greyish-green pigment with low tinting strength (which means it takes very little white to brighten it) that was historically made from actual soil but is now more often produced synthetically. Terre verte is neutral enough in hue that it makes a good ground for skin tones as a foundation to glaze over with yellows and reds. In oils it's usually mixed with a PW1 lead white, and in watercolours it's used straight, diluted in water. Terre verte also has a fun property in watercolours: it granulates
, meaning on a rougher paper the pigment will settle out of the paint and fill the little dents in the fibre. Here's a picture to show you what that looks like:
And here's a picture to show you how that makes me feel:
Using a brown earth pigment
like an umber or sienna will give you similar effects but a different basic colour, and the browns tend to have slower drying times, lower transparency and much higher tint strengths than terre verte. They will also inherently make your skin tones skew to Snooki orange, so throw some blue glazes in there somewhere for your own sanity. We will discuss browns in the next segment of this article on two-colour palettes.
Working in Monochrome
Another option for a one-colour palette is black in white
, which we'll discuss a bit later since it's a tricky group of pigments to master. This combination is more often used for pieces that are going to be black and white from beginning to end, since blacks can skew colours a lot when glazed over. Of course, the sky's the limit for monochrome paintings, so any pigment can be used
, really - experiment and see if you find one you particularly like! You may find high-tint pigments (I'll highlight them as I mention them later in the article) to be hard to work with in monochrome, though - they take a lot of white and tend to dry a lot more slowly than the low-tint alternatives.
Make this your attitude toward picking pigments for a one-colour palette.
The Two-Colour Limited Palette
For two-colour palettes, you can safely assume that at least white is included
without being one of the two colours (white paint in oils, white paper in watercolours); we'll also say black or grey doesn't count for the purposes of this article, because I want to include Zorn here as a bridge to the second part of this series. More on that later.
The Basic Two-Colour Palette
Your most basic two-colour palette is any two colours that, when mixed, give you a more or less true black
. This means we're going to lean heavily on complementary colours
- colours directly opposite each other on the colour wheel like blues with browns, greens with reds, yellows with purples.
You'll notice that in the above image, the truest black is about a 60/40 mix of a phthalo green (I'm assuming PG7 but don't quote me on that) with a cadmium red PR108. This is because both are high tint pigments
, a property you want if you're trying to get a true black. The reason the split is uneven is because phthalo pigments are transparent
, so it takes a bit more of it to fully "hide" the super-rich opaque cadmium - it's sort of a counterintuitive property, since phthalo pigments are much higher tinting in white than cadmiums. This is also why you may need to adjust the ratios when you add white to the mix
if you want a neutral tone.
In the row beneath, cerulean blue PB35 is a very-low-tint blue, cadmium orange is a low-tint orange, and while you get a nice neutral grey
it's not nearly dark enough
for the most intense shadows. When working with two colours, it's ideal to go for high tints; you can always add white to get your mid-greys.
Brown and Blue
The classical two-colour palette is a warm brown
with a neutral blue
or PBr7 Burnt Sienna
with PB29 Ultramarine
. These are two pigments made synthetically now but historically harvested from nature - soil for the former, lapis lazuli for the latter - and they've been used since the ancient Egyptian period at least. They're also two of the cheapest pigments
, which is a big deal when you're playing. By mixing them about half-and-half you get neutral black and along the way you can get a range of blues, browns and greys:
You can swap out the burnt sienna for an (also PBr7) raw sienna or burnt umber for a cooler or warmer
, respectively, palette; or you can play around with some novelty browns like NBr9 sepia ink or PBr11 magnesium brown if you want to try lowering or raising
, respectively, the transparency of the final mix, but both of those pigments are going to cost you a lot more than a brown earth.
An example from DA of brown with blue - note the really dynamic shadows you can create with this combination.
If you want to test a different blue, PB60 indanthrone is a good choice
for substituting ultramarine in terms of shade and transparency, but has a higher tint strength so you'll not need as much of it; you can try PB27 prussian blue for a cooler gradient, or PB15:1 pthalo blue red shade for a warmer one
, and both of these are high-tinting too.
Sepia ink and natural indigo are Nene's mix of choice for a two-colour palette because she just absolutely loves hemorrhaging money.
Zorn: Where Black Is Blue
Anders Zorn was a portly Swedish fellow who is viewed as one of the better portraitists of the turn of the 20th century, and his trick for realistic skin tones was using a limited palette based on the primary colours of red, yellow and blue - specifically PY43 ochre, PBk9 ivory black and PR105 vermillion with PW1 flake white
Some works from DA using Zorn or modified Zorn palettes</suv>
In this palette of natural opaque colours the yellow and red are both quite warm in shade, with a cool-neutral white and a cool black that tints to a deep blue-grey in white. He would often add one "novelty" pigment to each painting for an accent colour, but we're not going to cover those quite yet.
Like the tiny little bit of vermillion in the tie on this one.
If you want to pull off a modern Zorn, you'll want to make a couple minor changes. First, vermillion and flake white are actually really bad together
and cause weird darkening of the colours over time; flake's also not widely available anymore, so your best bet is either a zinc or titanium depending on your painting style. (Or, use the palette without the white if you're painting watercolours.)
You'll also have a hard time finding vermillion
, and it's now super expensive,
among the most expensive pigments. It's only made by certain companies and the prices are sky-high - I paid about $50 Canadian last year for a small tube of Holbein's vermillion. Vermillion is also one of the most toxic pigments
, so if you use it it's a good idea to not touch or eat your paint.
Obligatory Disclaimer: Project Educate takes no accountability for the consequences of you eating paint after reading the above line.
Good modern substitutes for vermillion include PR108 cadmium red
(in a deeper, warmer shade if you can find it) which is also highly toxic, opaque and expensive but won't react weirdly with flake white; PR254 pyrrole red
which is a high-tint synthetic but a bit cooler in tone than true vermillion; or PR188 naphthol scarlet
, which is warm like a true vermillion but a bit more transparent so you may find you use more in your tints (good thing it and pyrrole are about four times cheaper than vermillion and three times cheaper than cadmium!).
The Zorn palette on a canvas will not make you inherently look painterly like Anders, sorry.
Tune In Tomorrow...
... For more discussion about pigments and how to build a comprehensive six-colour palette!