In the past couple of weeks the season has turned from Summer to Autumn here in the UK, and with it comes characteristic shades of gold, red and copper leaves – a source of much creative inspiration. If you’re inspired by the colours of Autumn or simply want to warm up by working with some hot yellows, oranges and reds, here are some suggestions of how to structure an exploration into warm colour mixing.
How Do I Choose Which Colours to Work With?
This article is part of a series on Colour Mixing, across which I have suggested a consideration of tonal value, transparency and colour temperature that will allow you to make colour choices that are balanced and versatile. If you want to make a warm or hot-looking painting, you need to remember that colour exists within context, and so some presence of a cool colour will help to create the contrast needed to bring out the heat of your warm colours. When you paint with a very limited palette of very similar colours, any subtle differences between the colours you have chosen become accentuated and you are likely to find that you need to manipulate the paint to make these differences more apparent to achieve depth in your painting. This can be done by applying paint thickly and thinly, as well as transparently and opaquely (perhaps by adding white), and contrasting single pigment colours with mixes of multiple pigments. If you start your exploration into limited palettes by only working with paints made of one or two pigments and have at least two colours plus white, you really do have enough to start painting and exploring colour. For this article as with all the others in this series, I am working with Jackson’s Artist Acrylic paints, although the principles can be applied to oil and watercolour.
For this article, I have explored three palettes, each of which can be thought of as a model to follow when choosing colours for a warm palette. As an aside, I started my decision-making process by looking at colour field paintings by Mark Rothko. His paintings clearly show the effect certain colours have alongside others and are a great point of reference for selecting colourist palettes!
Palette No. 1: Cadmium Orange (PO20), Cadmium Yellow (PY25), Cerulean Blue (PB36): Two Warm Colours and a Cool Colour
A palette of two warm colours and a cool colour allows you to have cool accents which will show the warm colours in context, and allow them to appear comparatively warmer. If you want to make a warm painting, then ensuring the majority of the canvas is a warm colour is imperative – this palette is capable of a cool painting as well – all you’d need to do is apply more blue than any other colour to the surface of your work.
At the top of the image, you’ll see mixes of yellow with orange, and then these mixes with white added. You could say that the body colour of the orange is a mid-tone and the body colour of the yellow is light, so the resulting mixes are mid-light in tone. If you were to only use orange, yellow and white in a painting you would end up with a mid-light-toned painting. The blue has a dark body colour as well as a degree of opacity. The bottom half of the image shows how its presence opens up the tonal range, the potential for earthy mixes and cooler neutral hues. The yellow-green achieved by mixing yellow and Cerulean blue feels quite warm. Using the blue sparingly in mixes that can be used as accents alongside large expanses of yellow and orange colour mixes will allow them to appear warm or hot. There is a great colour balance in this palette and a wide range of possibilities to be found within the mixes.
Palette No. 2: Rose Madder Quinacridone (PV19), Cadmium Red Genuine (PR108), Napthol Red (PR12): 3 Variations of One Colour
A world of red! This palette works well when three contrasting shades of one colour are used. Here, Naphthol Red is a dark purple-red, Rose Madder Quinacridone is a mid-tone pink and Cadmium Red is more opaque and more orange. By reducing the saturation of each (by diluting the paint with water), you can create washes that bring these differences out, expanding the tonal range of these colours from very dark to very light. When you mix them, you produce in-between mixes that bridge the gaps between each tube of paint, which would be of use if you are painting something very close-toned and meticulous, with lots of minor colour shifts. At the bottom of the page, I have demonstrated how to vary the thickness of the paint, and by adding white, you can use three reds to paint a work with a wide tonal range, as well as the ability to increase or decrease colour saturation and temperature to create a painting full of depth. I have never painted a purely red painting before but having mixed these colours I am now itching to!
Palette No. 3: Paynes Grey (PB29, PBr7, PBk7), Cadmium Yellow Deep Genuine (PY35), Titanium White (PW6): Black, White and a Strong Warm Colour
If you’re going to try a palette like this, I suggest a strong warm colour – something with a degree of opacity, and is bright, so that the warm colour has an impact on the palette (otherwise the black may overpower it). The Paynes Grey has a bluish undertone which means that when it is mixed with yellow it can create an earthy olive green mix. When the Paynes Grey is mixed with white it creates a soft and warmish grey. Mustard mixes can be made with Cadmium Yellow, Paynes Grey and a touch of white. When you leave the Paynes Grey out of such mixes, you can make soft buttery hues.
As with the previous palette, I made a quick arrangement of colour mixes from this palette in a little abstract sketch at the bottom, to demonstrate the range of tone and temperature that can be achieved with this palette. It’s a subdued warm palette, the yellow and black remind me of the work of Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell and has a very organic and powerful feeling.
These three very different models for warm palettes result in very different sets of colour mixes. The Orange / Yellow / Blue has a sense of exuberance about it, while the red palette feels sultry and the black and yellow palette feels more earthy. But of course, these suggested moods may alter depending on how you apply the paint – whether you make sharp marks or thin washes, glazes or thick impasto, whether you paint a sunny scene or a vision of hell! Seeing how you can manipulate mood with colour, mark-making and paint application is an exercise in endless discovery, and one that is worth embarking upon if you haven’t already.
What is Colourism in art?
The concept of Colourism can be thought of as the approach to painting where colour leads the way. The colours you work with are what you decide on first, and will determine how you interpret representational motifs or the theme of an abstract work. The colours you apply to canvas may not reflect the reality of the subject you are painting, and whether or not you pay attention to the tonal value of shapes in your subject matter is, like every other consideration in painting, your choice. The Fauvist Movement of the early twentieth century is an example of when a group of painters discarded realistic tonal values and colour in their work and instead unleashed colour as if it were a wild beast, applying colour for the sake of it, creating a riot of vibrant colour on portraits, landscapes and still lifes. Matisse’s portrait of his wife Amelie, often referred to as The Green Stripe, 1905, is a prime example where the subject provides a vehicle upon which the artist can carry colour – allowing a green stripe to separate the left and right halves of Amelie’s face, blue-black hair, a jawline outlined in burnt orange, and colour fields of pink, red and green behind her. The result is a painting that stops you in your tracks and demands you to look, and wonder about the woman portrayed, and the relationship between the artist and sitter. Or it might just invite you to simply appreciate the colour relationships – warm against cool, light against dark. It is hard to feel indifferent to such a painting, which you might argue, means it is a great work of art.