Color in Oils #1: Achromatic

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From left: black, dark gray, lighter dark gray, mid gray, lighter mid gray, light gray, white

We begin our study of color in oils with black. In a painting, black or darkness indicates the absence of light. Black is the absolute darkest dark and is often not used directly out of the tube because it is so strong. However, for our purpose today we’ll use black to demonstrate the absence of light and white, the presence of it.

Begin with the two extremes: black and white. In this demo see Ivory Black and Titanium White.

Use a palette knife to make a mixture of the two which approximates middle gray. You can start with a blob of white and bit by bit mix black into it until a mid gray appears which is called gray #5 or #6 out of 10.

Divide that blob into 4 more blobs, so you have a row of; white, 5 gray blobs and black. 7 blobs of paint total.

Mix black into the blob closest to black, less  into the next blob. Mix white into the blob closest to white, less white into the blob closer to middle gray.

Continue to add black or white to make a scale of grays which are distinguished from each other. Chances are you will not use any tube back in the actual painting but instead dark grays.

Pre mixing the palette is essential for this exercise. Once all the grays are mixed turn attention to the still life set up.

Choose a white or light colored object and place it in enough light so you can see a cast shadow and a highlight on the object. Light coming from the side of the object, called raking light, will give the best cast shadows and form shadows.

A wooden goose egg painted white was used for this exercize. Other suitable objects include porcelain cups, toothpaste tubes, bottles, or simple natural forms including fruits or vegetables.

Use a round brush to map in a light outline of the object. Like drawing with a pencil. Map in where the light shifts lighter or darker. Map in the cast shadow.

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Large, medium and small bright brushes, round brush

Choose a large flat or bright brush to begin the painting.

Begin by filling in the larger generalized shapes of light, “value shapes”, and later move to smaller shapes and smaller brushes for detail.

Try to find a place in the painting for each value on your palette. The process is essentially one of comparing values and getting it right. When it’s right, the image will look realistic, like it’s sitting in 3-d space.


Drawing with a round brush on canvas paper taped to a board

Make a value scale at the top or bottom of your painting surface to see and compare your mixed values to the values in your still life. Make adjustments as necessary.

Don’t Forget the Golden Rule of Value: SQUINT, SQUINT, SQUINT

Apply paint thinly at first to get the values right. Add a little Gamsol mineral spirits to this first layer. Thin paint is much easier to wipe off. Use soft cotton rags if correction is necessary. Next layer, add a little linseed oil to the paint to help it flow. This technique is called “Fat over Lean”.

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Using a bright brush to lay in large value shapes.

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Egg study

For work at home, set up a simple still life with a strong light source.

  • Make a gray scale.
  • Sketch the image lightly on the canvas with paint thinned with a very small amount of Gamsol odorless mineral spirits.
  • Map in where values shift in lightness or darkness. This usually occurs at the edges of objects, but not always.
  • Begin painting with a large brush for large areas of similar value. Move to smaller shapes of value within the large areas, use a smaller brush.
  • Try to not mix paint on the canvas until after most areas of the canvas are covered with patches of differing value.
  • Soften edges to produce the illusion of receding space, fade and burnout where appropriate.
  • Clean up: Wipe excess paint from brushes with viva or shop paper towels. Swish brushes in mineral spirits. Wipe spirits and remaining paint from brushes with paper towels. Massage brushes with dawn dish soap and a little water. There should be very little, if any, paint left in brushes at this stage, rinse with water. Squeeze remaining water from brushes with rag or towel, lay flat to dry. Store upright.

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Achromatic: No Color.

Gray Scale: A successive lightening of black by adding white.

Value Scale: A successive lightening and darkening of black or a hue by adding white or black or the hues complement.

Round Brush: Used to make linear marks.

Bright Brush: Used to make controlled rectangular marks.

Flat Brush: Used to make loose rectangular marks. Slightly longer and holds more paint than a bright brush.

Palette Knife: Used for both mixing paint and applying paint. For our purposes use a tapered spatula shaped knife for mixing paint on the palette.

Fat over Lean: A technique developed by Peter Paul Rubens where by each layer of paint applied to the canvas has less diluent (spirits or medium) in it. This ensures each paint layer adheres to the next, preventing poor bonding and instability.

Supply list items appear in italics:

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