Thursday, March 26, 2009

Premixing Color

Recently blog reader S. J. asked me whether I premix colors on the palette or just mix each color from scratch from the component pigments.

It’s a good question, and I don’t recall any of my teachers ever talking about it.

The answer is that in the studio I usually do premix colors. It saves paint and it saves time. If you don't premix you waste effort with the mechanics of color mixing and you use up a lot of palette area. Mixing with the brush alone often leads to skimpy mixtures. There’s also the tendency to end up with habitual mixtures—reaching for the same colors over and over again.

Early in my career I was influenced by the teaching of Art Student's League instructor Frank Reilly (known mainly now from the excellent instructional works of his students and grandstudents).

Mr. Reilly had his students mix several strings of colors from light to dark tones. He used a 10-step value or tone sequence of each principal hue, along with a corresponding scale of grays. But I think ten value steps is more steps than you really need. Mixing four or five steps gives you plenty of control for intermediate values.

If you’re curious about that color wheel at the top of the palette and how those colors were chosen, I’ve done a lot of blog posts about my color wheel masking system. If you click on the “color” button at the left of the blogroll, you can read those back posts.

In a future post I’ll show how I use premixed color for plein air painting.


René PleinAir said...

Wow, what a ingenious palette table you've got! Could you show some more about that, It looks like you have some sort of tissue roll worked into it, and that it is all collapsable, ...

Unknown said...

Someone just gave me a ton of oil paints. Looks like I'm getting back in the painting game. I appreciate this post and I'm going to have to go back through the Gurney Journey archives and educate myself!

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have read all of your posts on color mixing and color wheel masking. I would hope you would post everything you know on this subject' I myself tend to paint in darker less clean colors. I am darker and less clean myself.

Do you know a way to make a color wheel that could be masked to produce the earthy tones of the old masters,say Rembrandt,Rubens or Veronese? Might it be a color wheel made with 3 or 4 earth colors?
I may experiment with this myself. I have a feeling you covered that idea long ago though. You are a genius, mr.Gurney.

Bowlin said...

I'd definitely like to know more.

I've noticed in "The Fantasy Art Techniques of Tim Hildebrandt" that he premixes his paints before he applies it, perhaps in more precise tones?

Do you make this premix colors,that you show in the picture,and then mix them more accurately on a separate pallet before you apply them on the painting? Is it possible to have a video demo?

Unknown said...

I really need to make my color wheel and try your masking method to get the color scheme. It is pure genius. Just a quick question, the colors of the wheel are grayed down with actual gray as they go towards the center, correct? Also, in a painting when you're adding darks how do you figure which colors to use if the darkest tone on the color wheel is the pure pigment? And to what Mr. Kearns suggested about the earth tone wheel, I may have to try that myself. As usual my daily visits to this blog teach me more than what I learned in art school :) Kudos, James

armandcabrera said...


There are some books on the Reilly method by some of his students.
I know of three that go into his palette. Jack Faragasso's book, A Students Guide to Painting,
Angelo John Grado's Book, Mastering the Craft of Painting, and Apollo Dorian's book, Values for Pictures Worth a Thousand Words. Only the Dorian book is still in print and it is the most technical of the three.



Daroo said...

Thanks for this post. I'm always looking for better ways of dealing with color.

I should probably wait to comment until the post about how you premix colors for plein air painting but...

If you are creating a painting in which you are inventing the color scheme, because you have a specific idea in mind and by imposing a certain color design you can better communicate your idea, I can see this method being a benefit. (i.e. illustration or a studio painting done from plein air studies)

But when you are painting from life
and responding to your subject it seems to me, premixing wouldn't be very accurate. I strive to mix accurate colors on my palette but then when I put it on the canvas, in the proper spot, in the proper shape, I find that it is probably too warm or too cool or too saturated or too gray (and yes too light or too dark).

This is because color is relative and its appearance is affected by those colors around it (our perception of a color is influenced by its context). So while I see how this method could speed you up (after all the colors and values are mixed) and break the painter out of the bad habit of habitual mixtures, and keep your colors clean -- on the down side, it could lead to accepting only loose approximations of the colors in your subject. (Because once you've spent all that time mixing, are you really going back to re-adjust all your piles?)

And as for saving paint -- what happens if, after mixing out all your colors and values, you get called away? Or you struggle with the drawing in the flesh tones and never get to all those pretty blues? Or your sunny day turns overcast? ( I guess this is where your paper palette comes in handy -- do you roll it up and throw it in the freezer?)

When painting from life, color mixing for me is one of constant incremental adjustment.

Anonymous said...

It was great to finally meet you yesterday! Here are the photos ...

Mike Monroe said...

God I love this blog

Tim Dose said...

Daroo- the point of premixing the colors (at least the way that Reilly advocated) is not that those are the only colors you use, but that it gives you a closer starting point to mix other colors from when compared to colors straight out of the tube. It also has the advantage of helping you keep track of where you are in color space. And it dramatically lessens the time you spend mixing paint while the model is in front of you. In that sense, it's ideal for painting from life.

For example, if you were painting a model with a pale complexion, for the light tones you might mix the light yellow and light red mixture, and neutralize with a bit of the light gray mixture (note that the gray in Reilly's palette was black plus white plus raw umber to produce a truer neutral than just black and white).

craigstephens said...

Another fantastic piece of Mr. Gurney's absolutely free and incredibly comprehensive internet correspondence art school. You deserve some kind off award. Thanks again!

James Gurney said...

Thanks everybody. You are way too kind. I'm just regurgitating other people's ideas.

Tim Dose, you answered Daroo's perceptive questions just the way I would have. The premixed colors are just to give you a more accurate starting point.

For an imaginative landscape, I might mix the primaries of the reduced gamut of the color wheel mask (as I did in the illustrated example).

Or for a given passage of skin tones, hair, or fabric, that I'm actually observing, I might simply mix warm and cool color strings that cover the range of variations in the actual observed form. The warm and cool strings are important because they give vibration and energy to mixtures and avoid the tendency for monochromatic modeling that sometimes results from the strict Reilly approach.

I hope all this makes sense--a video would make it clearer.

Yes, Stape, this would work really well with any close mixtures, neutral or otherwise. And Armand, thanks for the Reilly booklist!

(from a Japanese restaraunt in Toronto. Gotta dive into that bento box.)

Matthew Gauvin said...

I actually used this technique on one of my recent illustrations and I originally read about it from one of your color posts. I just want to thank you for sharing all the great info whether it's your ideas or regurgitating the ideas of other artists.
I also ended up using a color scheme very similar to those you used throughout the Journey to Chandara. It just seemed to fit the subject matter and I think worked out quit well. You can read about it under my blog titled "Graduate Pinball Process". Of course I gave you credit James because I've learned so much from you in this area. Thanks!

VickiRossArt said...

I couldn't find the post on color wheel

Craig Daniels said...

click on the link below James post that says color. After that you'll have to go a couple pages back.

Or click here to start

Richard J. Luschek II said...

Interesting post.
I have often wondered about premixing, but I have honestly never tried it. I usually just start from scratch each day, and get a few puddles going that will eventually be a collection of colors that correspond to areas that I am working on. For example, there will be a red puddle for the apple, and all around that puddle I have areas of adjustment where that puddle gets lighter- darker, warmer- cooler, and more or less saturated. I work from these puddles, doing subtle adjustments as I go. The end of the day, I scrape down and start over the next day.
I have thought that it may be a time saver to premix some larger colors, but have feared that it might result in monotony.
A contemporary portrait painter (whose name I will omit) has books on using premixed skin tones. I have always felt that to be a weakness in his work. If you have seen one of his portraits, you have seen them all. They seem to be missing the sparkle of life you see in any great portrait painter. Sargent was not using premixed colors.
Obviously, your work is anything but monotonous, and has a lovely sparkle of life. I have often showed others your illustrations, suggesting that they have a plein air feel to them.
So, I am not arguing, I am just trying to wrap my head around this concept.
Could you maybe use an example to show how premixed colors would work in a picture without making it seem as though you are grabbing from the same "premixed colors" over and over.

Richard J. Luschek II said...

I was thinking about this in the shower this morning and thought I would add more on this. So I have new thoughts and I am sparkly clean!

Would you say that the idea of premixing colors is more a methodology for illustrative work?- meaning that this is best used when working from your imagination than if you were working from life.

James Gurney said...

Craig, thanks for providing the link to the color masking stuff. I realize that if you click on a category like "color," you only get the top 15 or so posts, and have to click "older posts" at the bottom to get more.

Richard, those are great questions, and they help me clarify the thinking in my own head, too. The premixing is useful both for imaginative paintings and observational ones.

For the former, it keeps you within a range of colors, helping you to stay within the limits that you want for the sake of mood and atmosphere.

For observational work, it's the same as the puddle mixing approach that you describe, only a bit more organized, since you're setting up your colors in the full value range that you'll be needing. You're mixing those colors as you look at your subject, so the mixtures depend on the particular local color, the color of the light, the atmosphere, etc.

This is anything but the kind of premixed flesh tint hues that can lead to monotonous handling. Since you'll probably want to mix a warm and a cool string for something as important as a skin tone, you're actually more likely to get vibrancy and variation because you have the colors ready at hand to bring to the painting.

Anonymous said...


gbenaim said...

Hi Jim, have just found your blog and been reading older posts. Curious how you apply this approach with watercolors, especially w the little pallettes in the field.

James Gurney said...

You can premix three or four batches or pools of watercolor in palette wells. You can control those mixtures in terms of hue and chroma, and the value of each mixture then can be raised by adding water to your mixtures. Intermediate colors, such as greens, would be mixed only with those pools.

So, for example, you might have three premixed pools--say a grayed down cobalt blue, a raw sienna, and a dull red, and then paint the whole picture from those ingredients. It's a good way to achieve harmony, and a lot of the old guys, like Turner, and the new generation, like David Curtis, sometimes use a method like this.