I’ve been asked how I do color studies and how I generally use my sketchbook to test color mixes. I don’t have a fixed system behind color mixing, but I like to test new paints whenever I get them to see how they react with other colors, and I often explore new mixes when I switch around paints on my palette to see how I can get the desired effect or a particular hue (for example when seasons change). Recently, I’ve shared my current palette, and shortly after I revisited my earth tones and did a few test swatches and comparisons. I’m tempted to make changes again, but first let’s take a look at how I test different color combinations in my sketchbook.
There are different ways to make color studies. The easiest is to paint swatches of colors or color mixes – this is particularly useful when you want to compare different hues directly, or if you’re looking for a particular color to add to your picture. I sometimes test colors next to my sketch somewhere on the paper, sometimes I will use a full page to make more organized tests. It’s good to note what colors and mixes you used so you can replicate them.
Some artists like to have a separate sketchbook for these color tests, you could also use a sheet of paper, or just keep it in your main sketchbook. What matters is what you learn from these experiments.
One technique I like as a standalone sketchbook activity is to collect local colors in a scene and add these swatches throughout my sketchbook. You can add a landscape with the same colors below, but you don’t have to. This can show you how the colors change throughout the year.
A great way to see how two colors mix is to paint small charts with different amounts of each paint. Start by mixing two puddles of each color, and then add in a bit of one color into the other. This is particularly effective with complementary colors (and you’ll get a beautiful neutral hue in the middle). If you’ve never done this, start by mixing Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Siena – the range of these two is amazing. See how you can produce subtle greys or browns, or how some colors intensify each other (like transparent colors with a similar color temperature), and others just darken or produce mud. Again, I usually note the pigment name along with the brand so that I know later how I got this particular mix.
Another way to test colors is to see for yourself how opaque or transparent they are. You draw a black line first, and then paint on top of that line. When the paint is dry, you can see how much it was covered up by the paint. I find this kind of test useful because you can’t always trust what the manufacturer says on the tube – particularly for earth pigments like Yellow Ochre that can end up quite opaque and chalky. Make your own tests if you see your sketches turn muddy again and again.
Another nice way of studying the capabilities of paints is to see how just a few select colors can make a basic palette. Of course, you will likely have more than three colors on your palette, but it’s nice to see how a limited palette can produce a sketch that works. Here I have painted different color wheels with just three colors – in each case a red, a blue and a yellow – but the results can really differ.
Mixing greens can be difficult, so it’s worth a look to see what types of different greens you can get from your paints. Here I’ve tested different combinations of blue and yellow to achieve a wide variety of greens. It’s always a good idea to note which colors you’ve used – at least I tend to forget this, and my ability to see which color I used doesn’t always work.
A more organized approach is to make a color chart with each color in your palette – this method is a bit more time-consuming, but you will have a very detailed overview of all the colors you can mix. I’m usually to lazy to make these charts, but it can be a great way to see the possibilities of your palette colors. You can see from the picture that I went through that arduous process once – with way too many colors. If I’d do this again, I would use much fewer colors, maybe 8 or ten at the most, and use better paper – one that I actually paint on. But I still take a look at this chart from time to time and it’s a good tool to use when you want to achieve a very specific hue.
All in all, I find these mixing exercises and color studies very useful to learn about my paints and how they react with each other, which in turn lets me make better decisions when I’m sketching. It’s a never-ending process, since we have so many different paints and pigments available today.
What are your favorite methods to compare and mix colors? Let’s discuss!
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