The purpose of the foregoing page on Tonal Progression is to demonstrate some ideas about color mixing. The important thing is that you get the ideas, not that you copy the mixtures exactly, though in the beginning you may want to copy them in order to get the ideas.
I call the mixtures in this progression ‘neutralizing combinations’ since they are combinations of strong colors that result in neutralized, delicately modulated tonalities. They consist of two compliments (dyads), such as violet-yellow, or three primaries (triads), red-blue-yellow.
The progression is organized as a value scale.
I work from dark to light, meaning that in any given painting session, and for any given form, I start with the darker part of the form and gradually paint up the value scale, across the form, toward the lighter part.
Normally I begin by making a mixture on the palette that corresponds to the dark part of the form. I’ll call this mixture the ‘base’. I brush some of that into the painting in the appropriate place, then coming back to the palette, into the edge of this first, base mixture, I begin to mix the next value up, using some of the base as the main ingredient of the next mixture. This new mixture becomes the base for the next mixture up the value scale, etc.
(Note: If I were a ‘master painter’ this process would proceed up the value scale in a perfectly orderly way, without any messes, distractions, or diversions. If I always managed with my brush to get just the right amount of just the right color for the mixture, if I never went off on a tangent, or followed a mixing progression that went sour, I’d be great!)
About the term ‘flesh tone’
Though we may think that a person is a given color, in fact we do not actually perceive a human being as having one ‘flesh tone’. Even a mannequin that’s been spray painted a single local color appears to our eyes as a range of colored values that vary subtly in hue and intensity.
It’s important to remember that the art of realistic painting represents the actual aspect of things as we see them, in other words appearances. Things may or may not have a color in themselves (this is a philosophical question), and we may apprehend things in themselves (this is another philosophical question), but I think we can agree that we see and experience them through their outward aspects and qualities. In the case of visual experience this means that, with regard to a given form, we see the result of its interaction with light.
This means, for instance, that for ‘white’ form (white in terms of it’s local color), we may see it in as a varied range of tonalities, many of which may have white as a component, but of which none is white in its pure form.
The surface of a human being is more complex than that of a plastic mannequin. For every given person there is always a range of local skin tones. Skin is translucent and varies in thickness and exposure to the elements. In places hair follicles, freckles and capillaries change the color. Then again, there’s the effect of the light, with its particular coloration, creating variations of light and shadow, with their attendant changes in value, hue and intensity. Furthermore, we never see people in isolation, but always surrounded by surfaces that bounce reflected light in differing degrees into their shadows. And, on top of that, they themselves reflect light into their own shadows in certain places, or block the light, creating dark accents. Consequently, the colors by which we see an individual person vary in value, hue and intensity from the darkest accent to the lightest highlight.
In my experience, from the visual point of view, seeing the model as a graphic object, a complex shape filled with color, a person is an organization of subtle tonalities, a cloud of colored light shaped and disposed in accordance with the drawing. A person’s ‘color’ is in reality a family to related tonalities. We might think, for instance that a person has a ‘light, pale, northern European complexion,’ or is ‘Mediterranean, olive skinned,’ or ‘dark, African-American.’ But these descriptions relate to color themes, or to use a musical analogy, to the color ‘key’ in which a person’s tonalities are composed.
Once you get the hang of it color mixing isn’t that difficult. It’s not something that only a gifted few can master. It requires an understanding of color, of the properties of the paints that we use, and of the idea of tonal progressions.
Color is a property of light, which we perceive by means of the light and color sensitive cells in the retina of the eye. These cells, the cones, permit us to differentiate the range of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation known as the visible spectrum. The term ‘frequency’ refers to the vibrational rate of light energy. Light, like sound, is a form of vibrating energy. The frequencies of light emitted in the visible spectrum correspond to the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet
White light, as it comes from a source like the sun, consists of an evenly balanced blend of all the colors in the visible spectrum.
The apparent colors of the things that we see have to do with the way light interacts with those things. In most cases, when light interacts with objects and substances, some portions of it are absorbed, while the remnant is either reflected or transmitted. The reflected or transmitted light that comes from the object radiates in all directions. It carries with it only a portion of the spectrum, the part that wasn’t absorbed. It is the frequency of the light in this part that conveys the color of the object we see.
(Note: There are other color effects that don’t have to do with absorption of a portion of the light. Scattering, for instance. The sky is blue not because the orange light which passes through it is absorbed but because, as the white sunlight passes through it, some of its blue frequencies are scattered. Our eyes pick up this scattered blue light and as such we see the sky as blue.)
Normally, our minds operate on the assumption that things have their own color. For instance we would say of a given apple that it is red, while of another, that it is green. From the painter’s point of view, we refine these statements a bit and say that the local color of one is red, while the local color of the other is green. We understand that this has to do with the pigmentation of its surface.
Pigments are substances that both reflect and absorb light. Red pigment reflects red light while absorbing the green light. Green pigment reflects green light and absorbs red.
A leaf appears green because the chlorophyll in its cells absorbs red light. The remnant of the white light that shone on it in the first place, after subtracting the red light, is the green light. The green light is reflected and transmitted, while the red light is absorbed. We would say that the chlorophyll as a green pigment. It absorbs red light and reflects green.
Whenever we see anything we do so through the light that radiates from that thing. What we see may be a light source, like a candle or a lamp, which emits light itself, or it may be an opaque object that reflects light from its surface, or a transparent or translucent substance or object through which light is transmitted. Whether the object is a light source, or an opaque, transparent or translucent substance, it radiates images of itself in all directions. We pick up two of these slightly different images or patterns of light with each of our two eyes, according to the perspective we have of that object.
As I’ve already said, color is a property of light, which is emitted in various frequencies or wavelengths. These correspond to the colors of the rainbow. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet are families of hues having each a range of frequencies. They are arranged on the color wheel like a pie cut into six equal slices. Orange, for instance, is the slice of the pie between yellow and red. Within the orange pie slice the parts on the side toward the red pie slice tend toward red, and so we have a range of red-oranges getting redder as they approach the border, while toward the yellow side the hue becomes increasingly yellow-orange. Only in the very center of the pie slice is the hue represented in its pure form. The same principle holds true for all the hue families.
Hue is one of three characteristics of color. The other two are value and intensity.
Value is the lightness or darkness of color. In terms of light it has to do with ‘how much’. Lighter colors reflect more light than darker ones. Value is often understood in relation to the gray scale, with white at the top and black at the bottom, and a series of steps, or a continuous progression between the two ends.
For any given hue there is a value scale. For instance, we can make a value scale by mixing cerulean blue (a slightly greenish blue) with white (going up the value scale) and with black (going down the value scale). We can do the same thing with all the hues.
(Note: Sometimes when we mix black with a color not only the value changes, but the hue also shifts. This is clearly demonstrated with cadmium yellow that turns green when we add black.)
Intensity is the purity of the hue of a given color. If we imagine hue to be a function of the frequency of light, intensity is the degree to which one frequency predominates. When various frequencies (colors) of light mix, the result is a blend of colors approaching grey.
White, black and the tonalities of the grey scale between white and black have no hue and zero intensity.
By adding black or white to most colors they become more neutral. In the cerulean blue value scale mentioned above, the saturation or intensity of the cerulean is at its maximum when we first squeeze it from the tube. As soon as we begin to mix it with white or black, it begins to grey down.
(Note: Some intense, transparent colors, like alizarin crimson, phthalocyanine blue and green, dioxazine violet, etc, don’t appear to be very colorful when they come from the tube. As we gradually mix them with white the mixture becomes first more and more intense. Then, past a certain point, as the mixture becomes lighter with the addition of more white, it looses intensity, becoming increasingly more pale, until in the end there’s nothing but white.)
Hue, value and intensity are the three elementary qualities of any given color. They are physical properties of light and with practice we can train ourselves to perceive them by eye. The confusion and perplexity that some students experience when they begin their training gradually give way to understanding and clarity of perception.
Our spoken language, in so far as we use it freely and in the common parlance, addresses the phenomena of color with expressions that serve quite well the needs of everyday life. But these expressions somewhat cloud the more specific understanding of color that we need as painters. In general conversation, when we talk about the colors of things, we use language in a way that is well adapted. In painting, however, we need to be more particular. Imagine that you want to pick up a pin. Everyday color language is like an oven mitt. The kind of color thinking we need to employ is like tweezers.
In particular, we need to learn to think in terms of hue, value and intensity. The word ‘color’ is generally synonymous with the word ‘hue’, as in “The color of the sky is blue. The color of the sea is blue. The color of your eyes is blue. The color of ultramarine is blue. I will paint them all with ultramarine because they are all the same color, blue.” Actually, sky, sea, eyes and paint may all be the same hue family, but they may not be exactly the same hue, nor the same value or intensity.
Consequently, in discussing the technicalities of the painting process, and in order to avoid misunderstanding, I prefer to use the word ‘tonality’ rather than ‘color’ when referring to specific color effects. Thus, on the palette a ‘tonality’ is a mixture having hue, value and intensity. On the model a tonality is a point or a region possessing the same characteristics, hue, value and intensity. When I use the word ‘tonality’ it’s as if I’ve taken off the oven mitt of everyday language and picked up the tweezers of the specific technical language of painting.
The properties of artist’s oil paints
Artist’s oil paint is a mixture of powdered pigment with a drying oil (usually linseed oil, but sometimes walnut, poppy or safflower oil). Drying oils absorb oxygen from the atmosphere and polymerize; they turn into a natural form of plastic. Oil paint, when applied to a surface and exposed to the air, hardens into a plastic film.
Oil paints come in all the hue families, in light, middle and dark values, and in varying degrees of intensity. Thus for instance in the yellow family, there are light, intense yellows, such as cadmium yellow lemon, as well as light, relatively neutral yellows, such as Naples yellow light. There are also middle value, semi-intense yellows, like raw Sienna, and dark, drab yellows, such as raw Umber. In fact there are dozens and dozens of yellows.
There are likewise light, middle value and dark blues, greens, violets, oranges and reds, including many relatively neutralized versions of all these, as well as white, black and grey oil paints.
This, then, is the first thing we need to know about oil paints: that they exist in a wide range of hues, values and intensities.
But there are other characteristics of oil paints. In terms of working qualities, the most important (to me) are strength, opacity, consistency and chemistry. (Also there are cost, toxicity, drying time, and permanence and probably others, but these, with the possible exception of drying time, don’t enter into the question of paint handling and application.)
This may sound like a lot of information, but by working with the paints on our palettes we gradually get to know all these things. When I first began to study painting, I didn’t know chrome oxide green from viridian or phthalo or sap green. But I learned by working with these paints.
The power of a given tube color to affect a paint mixture is its strength. Some tube colors are very strong, and only a little bit may be needed to move the mixture in the desired direction. Others are weak, and may not seem to have much effect at all. And then there are those that are somewhere in between. Below is an incomplete list based on my own experience working with a limited selection of the hundreds and hundreds of tube colors available in many different brands. I don’t recommend that you memorize this list. I’m offering it to you so that you will begin to understand that the strength of tube colors is a quality that you will someday know all about. You will naturally incorporate this knowledge into your working methods. You will acquire this knowledge by trial and error. From working with the colors themselves.
Some strong, opaque colors:
Chrome oxide green
Some strong, transparent colors:
Phthalocyanine blue and green
Transparent oxides (yellow, brown, red)
Some colors with an in between degree of strength:
Many of the pre-mixed tints, such as Naples yellow, brilliant pink, green gray, which consist of mixtures of a strong color and white pigment.
Cobalt violet deep (transparent)
Ultramarine violet (transparent)
Many of the natural earth colors also fall in this middle strength range.
Payne’s gray (transparent)
A few weak, transparent colors:
Cobalt violet light
Cobalt green light
Opacity and Transparency
Opacity is ‘covering power’: the degree to which a film of a given tube color, as applied by a paintbrush, blocks out the surface beneath. Transparency is the opposite of opacity. It is the ‘see-throughness’ of the paint.
Really opaque colors are usually also really strong. The list above of strong, opaque colors, is both a list of opaque colors that happen to be strong, and of the colors that are most strongly opaque.
Transparent colors vary in strength. Some, like phthalocyanine blue are both very transparent and very strong. Others, like Payne’s gray, while quite transparent, are only moderately strong. Cobalt violet light is transparent and weak.
All colors may be made more transparent by thinning with solvent or medium.
Consistency is the dryness, thickness, stiffness, density, stickiness, gummy-ness, smoothness, grittiness, looseness, slipperiness, buttery-ness, or oily-ness of a tube color. It affects the ease with which we mix the tonalities on our palettes and the brushing quality of the paint. It varies from brand to brand and pigment to pigment. Some colors, like deep ochre and cerulean blue, depending on the brand, are visibly more gritty than the norm. A certain brand of jaune brillant is very dense, like clay, while in other brands it is light like mayonnaise. This may have to do with the oil content of the paint and the presence of fillers and stabilizers.
The chemistry of the colors we use has to do, on the one hand with pigments, and on the other hand, with oils, fillers and stabilizers.
(Note: In general I recommend to all painters, students and professionals alike, that if they can afford to use ‘professional’ as opposed to ‘student’ grade paints, they should do so. Student grade paints are watered down with additives, making them less effective.)
The chemistry of pigments is a vast subject with a long history. To be an authority one would need a very substantial education. I do not possess such an education, but I do have practical experience with paint, combined with a smattering of book learning. I’ve also talked with other painters over the years. Though undisciplined, I have an enquiring mind and I enjoy an everyday, common sense approach to scientific learning.
The only thing I would say here, with regard to the chemical properties of paints, is that the names of tube colors are sometimes ambiguous. These names may refer to one, specific pigment or to several different pigments that have similar, but not exactly the same, qualities. For instance, Naples yellow was originally a pigment with the chemical name of lead antimoniate, meaning that it was a molecular compound of elements lead and antimony (both highly toxic). Nowadays, it is still sometimes possible to find this ‘authentic’ Naples yellow, but in general, most manufacturers make ‘Naples yellow’ with a mixture of titanium and zinc white, plus one or more yellow pigments.
The point I’m trying to make is that the different chemical composition of the paints will affect their behavior in mixtures. For this reason I recommend to all students that they read up on pigments, and begin to get to know at least a little bit about the paints they work with.
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