93 – Seeing Color to Mix Color

As a painter, one of the big challenges is to mix and paint color accurately. This can be a big challenge for the beginner for a number of reasons, not least of which is that our direct observation can sometimes be inaccurate or be “tricked” by our brain. So we need to learn to see through the eyes of a painter. That means things can get a little messy! Beginning painters are often encouraged to use direct observation and paint what you see rather than what you know. This is definitely good advice! We have to get over our assumptions that such as the grass is green, the sky is blue and the roses are red. For me, it’s helpful to think in terms of proportion. The grass might be mostly green but all the colors are really present. The sky might be mostly blue, but again all the colors are there. An understanding of basic color theory is key to good color mixing. But let’s talk about a few things to consider that can help us get off to a good start!

Color Constancy
It gets messy because is visual perception is in the brain and our human brains have a number of tendencies that we have to overcome when we are trying to mix color accurately. One of those  things is referred to as color constancy. Color Constancy is our brain’s tendency to see local color as consistent no matter what the lighting condition

The bowl of fruit on the left is pervaded by warm light and the one on the right by cool light. The bananas in the photo on the right are actually green but our brains still want to see them as yellow.

Simultaneous Contrast and Values
Simultaneous contrast is another powerful factor that we have to take into account. It refers to the way in which two different colors affect each other when they are adjacent; one color can change how we perceive the tone and hue of another when placed side by side. The colors themselves don’t change, but we see them as altered.

Let’s break this down in terms of value first. Value is always relative. Something is light in value only in relation to something darker next to it. This is why it’s important to quickly establish the value relationships in a painting. Keep in mind the saying “color gets the glory, but value does the work”.

The values adjacent to the horizontal swatch changes its appearance. The horizontal swatch is the same value. It doesn’t gradate although it appears to.
Another example is this sphere. It is a solid grey, but appears to gradate because of the values surrounding it.

Simultaneous Contrast and Color

The effect of simultaneous contrast between colors is most evident when complementary colors are placed side by side. Think of Van Gogh’s use of bright blues and yellow-oranges, or reds and green. The same color in two different context is not the same color. The painter John Ruskin warned: “Every hue throughout your work is altered by every touch that you add in other places; so that what was warm minute ago, becomes cold when you have put a hotter color in another place, and what was in harmony when you left it, becomes discordant as you set other colors beside it”.  Keeping the concept of simultaneous contrast in mind can help us orchestrate color in a painting.


Using The Value Scale

For me, a value scale is a necessary tool to help me see and mix color accurately. I like to use a six-step value scale. It simplifies things for me. I really only need to be in the ballpark when I’m first determining the value of any element. I’m going to need to make adjustments and more nuanced value shifts while painting because, again, everything is relative. When I’m beginning a piece, the initial blocking in of value and color notes is always subject to change, but you have to start somewhere. A value scale can help you do this.

I determine the values of each of the main shapes in my composition using a six value scale. I reserve the darkest darks (black) for accents and the lightest lights (white) for highlights.

Matching Color Chips

A great exercise for upping your mixing game is matching paint chips. Head to your local hardware or paint store and pick up a handful of random sample chips. Lay out a co-primaries palette and try matching each of the chips. A co-primaries palette is based on a warm and a cool version of each of the primary colors plus white. I would add Burnt Umber to this. For more details on a co-primaries palette, see the two books I reference below.

Can’t we just throw some colors together and get it close enough? Sure you can do that. Most seasoned artists mix color almost intuitively, but for the beginner it’s just not possible to get color right by mixing haphazardly. We all do a lot better when we have a process to follow. Here are the five steps I take when matching any color.

Matching a Color:
1. Examine the subject color.
2. Choose the nearest tube color or secondary color – Source color
3. Adjust the Value, keeping the Saturation high.
4. Adjust the Hue.
5. Adjust the Saturation.

I highly recommend two books, Betty Edwards book, Color and Michael Wilcox’ book, Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green. Both of these books will really reinforce all of what we are working on and just further your understanding of color mixing. There are lots of books on color and you can definitely go super deep into the science of color perception and color interactions and so on, but I like these two books because they are specifically for painters and have simple clear explanations and examples.

Seeing color accurately and then mixing it takes some dedication but will pay off in your paintings!

As always, Happy Painting


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