Wednesday, January 04, 2012

How to see Colour and Paint it

I'm wondering about what colours to buy for encaustic painting... indeed I'm beginning to worry that I may have to make my own colours using pigments...

Sometime in the 80s I got Arthur Stern's "How to see Color and paint it" (now sadly out of print Update: It was republished in 2015 with a different cover but same content - still only available in print so far as I know). I worked through many of the exercises at the time... but I don't seem to have kept any of the still lives (in oil) that I painted... the greatest tool in the book was what he called a spot screen - to make one cut out a 2" x 4" piece of neutral grey card - I use the backs of old sketchbooks - and punch a small round hole centrally about 1" from one one end:

Spot Screen held at arm's length

You use it to observe what a colour really is rather than what it appears to be when seen in context.

To do this hold the spot screen at arms length, close one eye and half-close the other - look through the hole in the spot screen at the colour area you want to match - name it - he uses a system based on the colour wheel and one that I've used ever since - red, red-orange, orange, yellow-orange, yellow, etc...., its luminosity that is light, medium or dark, and its saturation e.g. bright, middling, dull... then of course if one is painting one mixes a colour to match what one has observed... but what is so illuminating is that one looks at something one would say was obviously red, then when looking through the spot screen it turns out to be a shade of blue!

Which is all a lovely diversion from what I'm really looking for today... I want a palette of colours that I know how to use and that will give me the whole range of colours I've been used to paint in... which is why I originally got this book off the shelf...

Stern's oil colour palette suggestion is:
  • Alizarin crimson (see warning below)
  • Cadmium red light
  • Cadmium orange
  • Cadmium yellow pale
  • Phthalocyanine green
  • Phthalocyanine blue
  • Ultramarine blue
  • Titanium white
For me now there is a huge over-reliance here on cadmium... I would prefer to avoid cadmium... I may end up with a little in my palette but really its a substance that I'd prefer not to be a consumer of... in any sense...

Another book with a similar take on the mixing of colours is Michael Wilcox's "Blue and Yellow don't make Green"... though it doesn't have that great spot finder tool in it...  it does go into great detail about how colours work... he also covers transparency and permanence which are important aspects of pigments though in his examples he uses a lot of cadmiums too... his principle however is to have a warm and cool version of red, blue and yellow which is what I've always aimed to have since doing Stern's exercises.

BTW the pedant in me has always wanted to change Wilcox's title to "Violet-Blue mixed with Orange-Red doesn't make bright pure Green".... though I realise that lacks a certain punch!

Wilcox's suggested palette is:
  • Orange-biased red - Cadmuim red
  • Violet-biased red - Alizarin Crimson (see warning below)
  • Green-biased blue - Cerulean Blue
  • Violet-biased blue - French Ultramarine
  • Orange-biased yellow - Cadmium yellow pale
  • Green-biased yellow - Lemon yellow (Arylide yellow preferred, otherwise he suggests cadmium or barium).
He specifically excludes the strong staining colours... so now I'm wondering if in fact one of the things I might benefit from is strong staining pigments... you see the problem is that colour mixing is not the only consideration... pigments have all sorts of other attributes apart from colour.... of course how they mix with other colours matters but also how transparent / opaque are they? How permanent? Good for staining? Glazing? and so on... no wonder I end up wanting the whole shop!

Doing a virtual shop from R&F for encaustic paints:
  • Orange-biased red - unfortunately the most obvious choice is Cadmium Red Medium, though an orange-red that looks worth playing with instead is Alizarin-orange, if one could cope without the sheer redness of the cadmium... also worth a look is Rose Madder... which is the one I like the look of most but there is a warning about it not being light fast in not suitable as the only orange-biased red in one's palette...
  • Violet-biased red - Quinacridone Red... 
  • Green-biased blue - Phthalo Blue... 
  • Violet-biased blue - Ultramarine Blue
  • Orange-biased yellow - hard to avoid the Cadmium Yellow medium here... though Indian Yellow (quite orange looking) might be worth using
  • Green-biased yellow - Cobalt Yellow
I don't seem to be much closer to choosing which encaustic paints to buy...

I would like to know which pigments people have had most success using to make their own, Judy demonstrated using Titanium White for instance... anyone have any other really good choices for home made paints?

Update: Warning about Alizarin Crimson - see next post - Avoid Alizarin Crimson!


    Stephani Gorman said...

    Hi Caroline, Great post! I spent all day yesterday off and on, trying to decide on wax colors to order.I had found a sale going on and wanted to make good decisions! Sale or not still expensive.:( Anyway... got an order on it's way! I will post pictures when it gets here. Thanks for shaing your blog! :)
    Hugs, Stephani

    Lynda Howells said...

    interesting blog Caroline. I have not started yet as l have had a busy work/art load, family problems and Christmas ect! But l have got all the "stuff" as they say. I intend to make my own wax colours and be more in control of what l use.x All very intersting on colour though, l study this quite a bit when doing my Art and design degree, 7 or 8 years ago. xxl Iynda

    Caroline said...

    Stephani - that is the problem isn't it ... if they weren't expensive I'd buy the lot and blog about all their properties!!

    Lynda - I've made my own colours using oil paints and they worked well for some techniques but I've run up against a problem using them for monotypes - really need greater intensity... which is why I'm now wondering whether to buy pigments (which I don't really want to because of health issues) or good quality ready-made.... which are so expensive... Hope you get time to do some encaustics soon!

    Sue Cottle said...

    Great blog Caroline - I love your detail! So it sounds to me as if the monotyping results are the main problem, is that right? Does that mean you should look at how much you want to do monotyping and how much you intend to do? Would Don's suggestion of using Hue's work? Or do you lose the intensity you want when you work with them?

    For the work I intend doing, I think I'm ok with the oil-paint mixes. If you think the price in the UK is crazy, down here it's totally insane, and the range is pathetic.

    Must admit, I would be inclined to save up (or just make a really bad excuse) and buy the good quality ready-made ones, especially if you want realistic colours.

    Good luck with all this - and stay healthy!

    Oxana said...

    Hi Caroline! Great post!
    Thank you for your comment in my blog! means that I am really strruggling with Photoshop... I am not so good yet.
    Have a nice day

    Caroline said...

    I am really keen on the monotyping... I've already spent more on the big hotplate to help do that than on all the rest of the equipment put together!

    If I'm happy to compromise and buy "hues" then I might as well buy the hobby encaustics... which are much, much cheaper...

    My mother went to art school so I was brought up to always aspire to use artist-quality products... and more importantly to KNOW what the properties of the materials are... and though I've not been doing it recently I have exhibited and sold paintings in the past and I feel using good quality materials is necessary... plus I am entertaining ideas of exhibiting again... or getting something into a juried show again...

    No idea where my compromise position on all this is going to be!

    And yes I hear you on the NZ prices...

    Caroline said...

    Oxana - thank you and thanks also for helping me with that translation - it wasn't what I'd guessed at all - I'd thought maybe it meant that you'd distressed the images!

    Sue Cottle said...

    Well. the answer is simple then. Buy the absolute best, even if you can't afford them (right now) because one day, in the not so distant future, they'll pay you back in sales of your art, and the comments people make when they see your work, and go ... "Oh, Wow, amazing, awesome, fantastic, look at those colours ..." etc etc etc.


    Caroline said...

    Thanks Sue - you are good at telling me what I'm actually saying!

    Trace Willans said...

    I only ever work with natural pigments so don't get these dilemas.

    Kathleen Conard said...

    A great post! I bought dry pigments and made my own colors, but I am nowhere near as knowledgeable about the whole color-thing as you are, so I have no idea how to give you feedback about the colors I made. I don't know if you saw my color-mixing post, but you might be able to tell a little from it about how the colors turned out and if you have any questions, I can tell you what dry pigments I used. I do have to confess I did use Cadmium red. I bought it before I realized how bad it was for us and the environment. I will still use it, but will also try to find substitutions. Here is a link to the post I referred to in case you didn't see it and want to take a peek:

    Caroline said...

    Soewn Earth - I wish I could be satisfied with earth colours - but they don't make my heart sing.

    Kathleen - thanks for reminding me about your blog post on colour mixing - I find it hard to comment on you blog as the style of comment form you have is incompatible with my normal browser - your ultramarine looks especially good (one of my favourite colours!).

    Anonymous said...

    And you write very little about the book. Did you actually read it?

    Caroline said...

    Better than that I worked through the exercises, as well as reading, both of the books mentioned.

    Which book did you want to know more about?

    Stern's is a great method for painting with oils - the exercises involve setting up carefully colour selected and single-point lit still lives - he suggests working with a palette knife and a very specfic palette of colours. I've not used this method in years but the exercises certainly improved my ability to see and mix colours.

    Wilcox's book is about watercolours and that particular book is out of date. I've not read his next edition.