Painting lessons: earth tones are easy

Every artist chooses the palette he or she likes best.  I’m going to tell you about my palette, why I use it and how I think about it.  I hope that will be helpful for you too.

In my mind I divide my paints into two groups: colors and earth tones.  Most painting books I’ve seen start with colors.  But I’m going to start with the earth tones, because that is how I start (nearly) all my paintings.  What do I mean by earth tones?  The colors shown above are what I usually work with: red ochre (also called venetian red or english red), yellow ochre (also called transparent iron oxide or transparent gold ochre), payne’s gray (a pale purplish blue-gray), raw umber, and titanium white.  What do these colors have in common?  They are unsaturated (meaning gray, dull, the opposite of intense, saturated, colorful).  They are weakly tinting (meaning it takes a fair amount of paint to shift the color of a mixture).  And they are opaque.  Sometimes I’ll include a couple of other colors if I can find ones that meet these criteria.  A weak turquoise (like some brands’ versions of cerulean blue or manganese blue) or a dark red like alizarin crimson.  There are lots more earth tones, like raw sienna (similar to yellow ochre but less yellow) and burnt sienna (similar to red ochre but more orange).  And there are colors made from quinacridone (quinacridone burnt orange, quinacridone sienna) that look like earth tones but behave totally differently—using these pigments as earth tones can get you in trouble.  I like the group of five shown above because it keeps things simple.  I think of them as earth red, earth yellow, earth blue, neutral, and white.

Why start with these colors?  Well, most things in the world are earth-toned.  So if you want to paint “realistically” these colors are extremely useful.  Because they are weakly tinting they are forgiving to mix.  And because they span the full range of color hues (red, yellow, blue), they let you easily create pictures that look “full color” without worrying too much about whether all the colors “match.”  You may read about old masters who painted with a only a handful of colors.  The colors they used were something like these.

Personally I love earth tones.  But even if you prefer bright colors, here are some reasons to get to know these colors:

  • They are cheap.  Traditionally earth tone pigments were made from colorful dirt.  Now only the expensive paints are made from real dirt.  Most are made from synthetic iron oxide.
  • Pretty much any combination of these colors will look good together.  So they are a great way to try out color mixing.
  • They provide a base on which to add bits of more saturated color.  Colors glow more when placed on a ‘dull’ background.  Earth tones provide the dull.

A couple notes about buying paints:  Each brand formulates their paints a little differently, although nearly all will have versions of each of the colors I listed above.  Some paints are pure pigments (like titanium white), others (like payne’s gray) are mixtures and so vary more across brands.  The pigments that make up watercolors, oils, or acrylics are all the same.  So what you learn about color mixing in one medium transfers very well to the others.  Many brands carry both “student” and “professional” lines of paint, with the student line being cheaper.  The big difference between these two is how much pigment (versus binder) is in each tube.  The paints with more pigment really are brighter, but you can learn just fine on student paints and upgrade to professional when you feel ready.  (That’s what I did).  The one thing I wouldn’t compromise on is to buy paint in tubes (not flat cakes of watercolor).

Exercises: Washes, gradients, and mixtures

Here are a couple quick exercises to do with earth tones (or really any paints).  The first is to make a “wash”— a large flat area of color.  Big areas of color are the skeleton of a painting.  In oil they are sometimes called “masses” instead of “washes” but it’s the same idea.  A gradient is the same thing but with a gradual mix of color.  I’m going to do this demo in watercolor but you could do the same thing with oil or acrylic.

Start by picking three colors and squeeze out some of each onto your palette in a triangle.  Take a large natural fiber brush, one that holds a lot of paint.  Dip it into water (or medium) and pick up a bunch of water.  You may want to do this several times.  Now dip into one of you colors and start to drag it out toward the center of the triangle.  Add more water or medium until you have a good pile of color.

Now pick a second color and drag some of that into you mix.  Add more water and vary how much you add of the two until you like how the mixture looks.  (Note: if you are doing this with oil you might want to mix with a palette knife.  For watercolor or acrylic a brush will work fine.)  Make sure you have a lot of paint.

Making sure your brush is full, go to your paper and start laying down color in big strokes.  Each successive stroke should overlap some with the last so you get continuous color.  The most important thing is that the area stays wet as you are painting (this is easy to do in oil and harder in watercolor and acrylic).  When you go back for more paint the edges should stay wet.  That way you can continue painting without getting a hard edge.

Another trick is to wet the page first, then add color to it.  You can do gradients this way too.  Wet an area of the paper and start a wash with one color, covering only half the area.  Then choose a second color (or mix of colors) and start another wash coming from the other direction.  Where the two colors meet you will get a smooth gradient.  This will continue to smooth out and blend as it dries.

Why so much paint?  Why does the paper need to stay wet?  Try it with a drier brush and see what happens.  These strokes have more energy and movement, but don’t fill the space evenly with color.  Sometimes we want one and sometimes the other.  Putting dry energetic brushstrokes on top of large washes generates depth and contrast.

You can add other colors made from mixing any of your three original tones.  Because you mixed them all from the same three colors they will all look good together and complement one another.  Try it!