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Mixing Ocres and Umbers (earth tones) using a Limited Palette. By Don Finkeldei:  I've been recieving some interesting questions lately. I thought a couple of them were worth passing on along with my answers.


Question 1:
How do you mix colors like yellow ochre and burnt umber from the primary colors?

Yellow ochre and burnt umber are technically grays because they contain a little of all three primary colors. You can mix a perfect yellow ochre or burnt umber that actually has more saturation power than a standard tube of yellow ochre or burnt umber (which contains weak earth compounds). I don't necessarily have to have those exact colors on my palette but if you're used to using them here's how.

Watch the Video: Mixing Yellow Ochre and Burnt Umber with a limited palette.


That's the beauty of learning how to mix paints with a limited palette. It's so easy if you stick with it. You learn how to mix whatever you need rather than buying more tubes of paint. After all, isn't that what painting is about? Getting the right hue, value and intensity you need for the next brush stroke! All of the pre-mixed grays I mix are only intended to get close to what I need. I use them to refine and modify other paint all the while thinking about Hue, value and chroma intensity. Too intense but the right color, add a neutral gray (even white is technically a gray). To light and too intense, add a darker neutral gray. Wrong color, mix primaries to get the right color then modify it with neutral and chromatic grays to get the right hue, value and intensity. Back and forth and after a while it becomes extremely simple to do.


Question 2:
How did you learn how to use a limited palette with pre-mixed grays?

I mainly arrived at this approach on my own but it's not a new concept. Lots of artists use a limited palette. Some of them pre-mix grays and some by modifying paint with other paints as they need them thinking in terms of complimentary colors. I had the advantage of knowing a lot about chromatics, colorimetry, and chromatography. It's not a new way to paint. Just a logical way to understand how to modify paint thinking in terms of hue, value and chromatic intensity instead of complimentary colors. When I started to paint seriously, I naturally approached painting from what I already knew previously. A lot of it is just common sense. It simply evolved and developed into a way of logical thinking about color in terms of "HVC" (hue, value and chromatic intensity) instead of complimentary colors over the years. After teaching this approach I found it accelerated the learning curve of beginning and intermediate artists because it's so logical and easy to understand.

It's obvious that if you mix a flat neutral gray into a paint with a lot of color, the result should be less intensity without changing the hue (color) of the paint. Also, the value of the mixture should be related to the value of the gray you mix with it. That said, and knowing you can theoretically mix any color of paint from the three primaries it simply unfolds into a highly logical way to arrive at the perfect mixture for the next stroke with the least amount of effort, trial and error. A limited palette with pre-mixed grays.

Of course, the caveat is that you have to use paint that mixes well with other paint. Paint composed of high quality Cadmiumns and Lapis (Cad red, yellow and ultramarine) compounds are balanced. These paints have been the mainstay workhorse of artists through the centuries because of their mixing qualities. They may not have known why, but they all arrived at the conclusion that they mix in the most consistent logical manner.

Lots of student grade low cost paints don't contain these compounds. They contain other cheaper compounds that don't obey the color chart. For example: a student grade orange mixed with a student grade blue almost never cross the neutral gray area. It crosses through a sickly gray green area which isn't neutral. It's impossible to get a gray from student grade orange and blue. They're made to sell to students cheaply... but how can a student be expect to mix correctly if the paint doesn't follow logical color chart mixing rules?

I think the worst crime committed by art instructors is recommending "cheap" artist grade paints to begin with. I think another mistake is recommending a very large array of paints on the palette, encouraging people continually try different colors, and of course using a cheap painting surface (like Fredericks panels).

Most of the best master artists in the world have usually evolved over time to a somewhat limited or restricted palette. A lot of them don't use grays the way I do (a lot of them do, though), but by knowing their paints and what is needed for each mixture, they attain exactly what the use of grays will do. They just don't premix the grays ahead of time. Much easier to learn if you premix them.

Thank you for reading my articles and newsletters

Don Finkeldei
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