Mixing Colorful Grays in Oil
By Charles Sovek
The Artist's Magazine - November, 1992
A clearguide to painting sparkle into the gray areas.
Like a fine gourmet chef basting a carefully prepared dish with his own uniquely blended sauce, the grays in your painting should also smack of individuality. Exactly what is the difference between a gray and a color reduced to a dull intensity? The gray lacks an obvious color identity, whereas a low-intensity color still retains a recognizable cast of its original hue.
Seeing color in gray subjects takes practice and an open mind. At this very moment there are probably numerous examples of gray all around you, many of them pulsating with color. Opening your eyes to these possibilities is simply a matter of becoming aware of what you see. Study the shadows of a white kitchen sink or bathtub, for example, and see if you can identify any hints of color. At first, your vision, conditioned by a lifetime of habit, will take in nothing more than dull variations of light and dark.
Shades of Gray - When you begin looking carefully at the gray areas, you can discover a kaleidoscope of color that jumpstarts a painting While color-filled, grays don't have to be complex mixtures. All the grays in San Xavier Mission, Tucson, Arizona (14 x 14) were made by mixing various proportions of white with ultramarine blue (the color of the sky), alizarin crimson (the color of the flowers) and cadmium yellow pale (mixed with ultramarine for the green foliage). Aside from the clean color harmonies inherent in such a limited palette, the resulting grays have a compatibility that gives the picture force and clarity. Equally key to the success of the painting is the handling of the warm and cool grays in the foreground arches. Notice how the warm, reflected light from the sunsplashed courtyard sets up a pleasing contrast to the cooler passages that are angled toward the sky.
Now take a second look and try to shake off any preconceived ideas that gray is gray and that's all there is to it. Let your eyes meander over the subject. Trust your impulses, trying to monitor even the slightest hint of a color as your eyes roam over the forms. Perhaps an orange scouring pad or brightly colored shampoo bottle is lying near at hand. Dismiss the objects for what they are and see them instead as reflectors of color, imparting subtle warm and cool hues onto the surrounding surfaces. You'll soon discover that any seemingly gray item can be a treasurehouse of subdued color.
The easiest way to make gray with an opaque medium is to mix black and white. Remember, black is colorless and white has only a marginal cast of hue, making an unexciting gray. One workable option is to vary the black-and-white mixture with other colors. This alternative is practiced by many tonal painters who are less concerned with having "colorful" grays than with adhering to a particular tonal system.
The richest grays, however, are made by mixing complementary colors. Theoretically, mixed complements will form a perfect gray. In practice, they don't because pigmentary hues -what comes out of oil paint tubes -are not as pure as optically mixed spectrum colors. This is actually an asset because it gives the artist a rich choice of colorful, muted grays.
Using Complements - The richest grays are made by mixing complementary colors. Try making a color wheel from the hues on your palette to discover the possibilities inherent in it.
THE RIGHT MIX
The best way I know to discover the possibilities in grays is to render a quick study of six three-dimensional shapes (blocks are best). Keep your color wheel handy for this project as well as a full palette, including black and white.
Sketch six blocks on your canvas. Paint the shadow of the first block a middle-gray value made from a mixture of black and white. Next, adding just enough black into a generous portion of white to form a very pale gray, mass-in the two light-struck sides of the form. Repeat the procedure with the second block, except this time add a small daub of cerulean blue into the shadow mixture and a touch of cadmium orange to the light gray.
Each of the next three blocks will be made up of complementary mixtures. To identify these, place a daub of the following pairs of complements above each of the blocks: cadmium red light and permanent green light; cadmium orange and cobalt blue; and cadmium yellow light and cobalt violet. Beginning with red and green, mix up equal amounts of color, then paint the shadow side of the block. Add some white if necessary to lighten the mixture to a middle-gray value.
When painting this or any other combination of colors, begin each mixing procedure with the warmer of the two colors - in this case, red. This is because it's far easier to cool a color than to warm one, since cool colors tend to overpower warm ones. Also avoid overmixing the paint. You're not after a flat, house-painter's gray here but a muted yet colorful neutral; so keep the mixtures loose and don't be afraid to leave a few of the accidental bits of purer paint intact.
Moving on to the light side of the block, add the smallest amounts of the red-and-green mixture to white, then paint the two light-struck sides of the form. Repeat the same procedure with the next two blocks, using the complements above the forms as the basis for your mixture.
The sixth block in the set will be painted with a mixture of burnt sienna and ultramarine. Remember, burnt sienna is a shade of orange, so you're still working with essentially a complementary blend. Also realize that the home value of most of the colors used here is darker than the tones required, so be sure to lighten the mixtures to a consistent middle gray in shadow and to near-white in light.
Study the completed exercise (see below) and notice how varied the blocks are. Observe that while all the mixtures result in gray, each combination appears colorfully unique. Also notice how each of the grays made from complements renders the blackand-white block lifeless.
Making Comparisons - These quick studies show the dramatic differences in the gray colors and their effects. Begin with black and white (A), and note how the cube appears colorless. Next, add cadmium orange to the light gray and cerulean blue to the dark gray (8), and see how the block takes on a luminosity absent In the first cube. Now, use only complementary colors: in C, without black, the mixture of cadmium red light and permanent green light has a warmth absent in the first two cubes. Another combination of complements - cadmium orange and ultramarine (D) - offers a wide range of brownish grays. With cadmium yellow pale and cobalt violet (E), the golden lights become heightened by the violet shadows. Try the combination of burnt sienna and ultramarine (F) to capture the grays of rocks and weathered wood.
INCREASE YOUR OPTIONS
The six mixtures you've just completed are only a small number of the many possibilities your palette offers. If you have time, sample the various blends possible with other complementary mixtures. Or you might stray slightly from the complements and explore combinations like viridian and alizarin crimson, cerulean blue and cadmium red light, or ultramarine and burnt umber. Then there are the numerous possibilities of adding various colors to black and white.
Eventually you'll find yourself developing favorites. This is natural. The important thing, however, is to know your options and to build a base of mixtures you can rely on while remaining open to experimentation and new possibilities.
THE EYES HAVE IT
As you begin to trust our visual sensations, your eyes will meet the challenge and start presenting you with increasingly sophisticated problems to solve. But try not to take the whole thing too seriously -color is meant to be a spontaneous reaction, not a chore. Watch a child with some poster paints jabbing on an outrageous color combination and simply letting the picture paint itself. He's not preoccupied with what anyone thinks or how his work compares to others'. He's simply enjoying himself. So trust your vision, have some fun, and let your color sense evolve at its own pace.