How to Select Neutral Colors AND Win a Porcelain Palette

Color is the key element for creating harmony, mood and expression in a painting. Many painters feel that if the color isn’t working, a new color needs to be added. When a painting is “corrected” in this way, it may soon have too many disconnected colors, and the work will feel disjointed. To avoid this, when introducing color, ask yourself these three questions:

1. Does this color harmonize with the color scheme and fit the mood of the painting?

2. Should this color be lighter or darker within the existing color relationships?

3. Should this color be brighter or duller (more neutralized) within the existing color relationships?

I’d like to focus on the third question by discussing different ways of mixing neutrals and then using those neutrals to make brighter colors sing.

Learning to neutralize or dull a color is incredibly important because the semineutral colors (sometimes called “earth colors”) and neutral colors (sometimes called “grays”) are pleasing to the eye. A painting filled with pure, bright hues overwhelms the viewer’s eye. Using semineutral and neutral colors with some carefully selected brighter colors brings the painting to life. Sensitively mixed and placed neutralized colors give emphasis to the brighter colors.

Four Ways to Mix Neutrals

How, then, can you neutralize colour so that it works within the existing colour relationships of a painting? Some neutralizing methods are more effective than others.

Adding black (for example, lamp black or ivory black) is a simple way to dull colour; however, this method can make a painting monotonous. The black pigments absorb light while the coloured pigments reflect light, so the neutral appears unattractively flat.

Adding white or, in the case of transparent water colour, adding more water, also neutralizes a colour. Adding white makes the colour more pastel and thus less bright.

Mixing true complementary colors (colors located directly opposite each other on the color wheel) creates beautiful semineutrals. Depending on the ratio of the elements in the mixture, the two colors more or less cancel out each other to produce exquisite grays.

How to Choose Complements

You may have taken a class in which the instructor had you create a painting with burnt sienna and ultra-marine blue. These complements mix to a beautiful neutral. Burnt sienna is warm while ultramarine blue is cool. Both colours are composed of mineral- or earth-based pigments; as water colours, they granulate and lift easily. Burnt sienna and ultramarine blue can also make a nice black. You can learn a lot by working with these two colours; however, if you understand how to use a 12-color spectral palette, you’ll be able to select from many other complementary pairings to create neutral, near-neutral and semineutral colors . The goal is to create your neutrals from complements that suit your painting.

For instance, if the color scheme of your painting is predominately yellow-green and green with red-violet and red, does it make sense to mix your grays with burnt sienna and ultramarine blue? Obviously the pigments of these two colors would be foreign to the theme of your work. Mixing the complementary colors phthalocyanine green (green) and quinacridone rose (red) or permanent green light (yellow-green) and manganese violet (red-violet) would produce beautiful neutrals that fit the color relationships of your painting, thus creating harmony and unity.

How to Combine Complements

There are actually several ways to create neutral visual effects with complementary colours. You can premix your neutral or semi neutral colours, which simply means that you mix the complementary or near-complementary colours on your palette before placing those colours on your paper or canvas.

You can glaze the complement, which involves washing a thin, transparent layer of colour over its complementary under colour. If your medium is water colour, you can charge one complementary colour into another. To do this, you load your brush with one colour and then let that colour flow into its still-wet complement on your painting surface. The pigments move and mingle, creating exciting effects. If your medium is oil or acrylic, you can apply your complements as broken colours: without premixing, load your brush with the two complementary colours and then, in a painterly manner, apply the colours to the canvas. The viewer’s eye mixes the colours visually.

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