Sunday, April 8, 2012

Painting with just four colors

The more I paint the more  problems I encounter but also more creative solutions I get. Here is one that hopefully will help some of you get started with your paintings. Painters and painting students often encounter the problem of having too many colors to choose from and not knowing with what colors to start with. For that I propose an easy solution. Keep your palette as basic and limited as possible. Concentrate on your composition and getting the under-drawing and values right. The only four colors you will need for this approach are the following:

Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna and Titanium White

I first primed my white panel with a thin layer of Raw Sienna, a very nice dull orange like earth color that thins nicely and is easy to work over. Many of the works by the great painters of the Baroque like Rubens and Velazquez started with such a color just and you can tell by just looking closely at their work at the museum. By adding this warm thin earthy coat we get rid of the distracting  white gesso that often makes every color one applies, seem dark and dull. If this first layer is applied with just enough paint thinner (not too much for it would be too runny) it should dry overnight. You can also work on it while it's wet but consider the fact the it will get mixed with the colors you lay on top.

Ultramarine Blue + Raw Sienna
By mixing Ultramarine Blue with Raw Sienna you get two beautiful muted colors very appropriate for classical rendering. One is a greenish blue on the left which is very similar to those dull blue greenish skies that the old masters used to apply in paintings from the Baroque period. The second color is a greenish flesh color very appropriate for skin shading.

Ultramarine Blue + Raw Sienna + Titanium White

By mixing  the derivative colors made from Ultramarine Blue and Raw Sienna with Titanium White one gets a paler and cooler version of these mixtures that I am now ready to use on my painting.

Applying a thin layer of the mixture of Ultramarine Blue/white and a little of Raw Sienna

After I had drawn my figure over the Raw Sienna primed panel, I start coloring the background with my Ultramarine and Raw sienna mixture. Since I already have primed with Raw Sienna, the colors will blend as I apply them, therefore I need less of Raw Sienna and more Ultramarine Blue if I want a cooler sky. This will visually push back that negative area around my drawn figure, enabling me to concentrate on the figure.

Blending darks with lights in sky

I have applied a darker shade of blue on the upper level and a lighter version of the color on the bottom. Both are lightly blended with a large soft brush. This brush comes in handy in the early and later stages of the painting.

Ultramarine Blue and Raw Sienna depending on how much more of one or another can give a different color, perfect for muted skies and also muted skin tones. I use a green made by equal parts of Ultramarine Blue and Raw Sienna for the background.

Burnt Sienna added to palette

Now, here's another combination: Mix Burnt Sienna with Ultramarine Blue and you get a color very similar to Burnt Umber, a dark brown color, which I will use to color the hat, vest and also re-define certain lines in my drawing.

With this mixture of Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine Blue I can darken certain areas

By having a primed Raw Sienna panel I automatically have a good start for painting faces and figures as this color serves well as a warm middle tone that allows me now to work on the shades and lights to create a sense of volume.

Painting with cool greenish skin tones

The shades of the flesh in this case are made again by mixing Ultramarine Blue with Raw Sienna, having more Raw Sienna this time. This olive like color is often seen in the work of Leonardo Da Vinci's figures as well as in the figures of many other Italian painters from the Renaissance. For the lighter areas I just add white.

With a fine rigger brush I define smaller features of the portrait

Now this painting took off with a very good start and as you can see with very few colors and with easy to follow steps. There are additional steps to take obviously which I will cover in future blogs. Try this strategy for yourself and once you get good results in the beginning, this will give you creative boost and motivate you to keep painting. If you are impatient like me, you would see how this kind of strategy makes sense as you want to see results as quick as possible to know if it's worth following through a particular painting. Best of luck and enjoy your paintings!