an experiment with colour

This morning I did a little experiment with my acrylic paints. I wanted to see what differences the addition of white and black made to the pigments.

I've read a lot about whether to use black in painting or not, and I must confess to a degree of confusion over this. Black muddies the colours, right? And muddying is not good, is it? It's better to tone down your colour with its complementary, isn't it? Or is it? Because I really like muddy colours...

I thought the best way to explore this properly was to see what really happened to my colours when black (and white, to create tints) was added. And so I did an experiment. I painted little squares of all my paints straight out of the tube (bottom left). Then I added white to each one to make a tint (top left). Next, I started with tube colours again and added a very little black to each one (bottom right). Finally, I tinted these muted colours (top right). And this was the result:

Looking at these, I experienced a strong attraction to many of the colours, as well as quite a dislike of others. I thought it would be interesting to see which 'palette' held the colours I liked the best, if any.

So, I tore up lots of little bits of white paper, and I covered over all the colours I didn't much like. This was the result:

Several of the pure tints went straight away, as did many of the original pigments. Then I decided to get more ruthless and leave only colours I actively liked:

Not many left! And most of the brights gone. All the pure tints obscured except the muddy earth colours. But I still felt I hadn't been quite honest. Did I really like that bright red, and that ultramarine tint? No. So I did a final cull, leaving only colours I liked a lot and felt I might want to use:

Half the colours gone now. But what did remain was of interest: eleven 'pure' colours to seventeen 'blackened'... nine tinted colours to eighteen untinted. An extraordinarily clear preference for the blackened but untinted palette.

So, what to make of this information? The blackened, muddied colours that I feel like I 'shouldn't' be using turn out to be my favourites... Now, because I am someone who likes playing by the rules, this worries me. I'm also wondering how to use this information... should I stick to this palette to achieve work I like, or should I see it as a challenge to introduce colours I don't initally warm to, in order to broaden and open out my palette?

I would really welcome comments from anybody with experience of these questions and of painting. What are your feelings about using black as a mixing colour?

Out of interest, the colours, in a clockwise circle from bottom left to bottom right were:

Titanium White
Lemon Yellow
Azo Yellow Medium
Yellow Ochre
Burnt Sienna
Napthol Red Light (Cadmium Red would be better)
Alizarin Crimson
Phthalo Blue (red shade)
Phthalo Blue (green shade)
Phthalo Green
Olive Green
Raw Umber
Burnt Umber
Mars Black


Acornmoon said...

I use lots of black in my work and often mix a bit in here and there. I always like the colours you choose, never having been a fan of pink or anything remotely girly.

I think we are influenced by our landscape, you have chosen colours which I am sure you will see in your garden right now.

Anonymous said...

Who set the rules anyway? Use the colours that you like, that way you will be comfortable before you start any new work, knowing that nothing will 'jar' your sensibilities. You can then, if you want to, introduce a shade or hue that you don't like to see how it reacts with those that you do. Experiment and make notes but don't be hide-bound, enjoy your journey.

Am I right in thinking that you use acrylic colours?

Heloise said...

Fascinating experiment. I use payne's grey rather than black. Something I picked up on a course years ago. I find that I am happier with the results of what I paint or make with textiles if I use the colours that I am drawn to.

The colours left after your experiment seem to fit with others that you have used when showing work on your blog.

Sandra Robinson said...

I also tend to use payne's grey rather than black, but looking at your experiment I really like the colours with the black added. This looks like a really fun experiment so might give it a go myself.

Pomona said...

I know nothing about paint, but I think it is important to go with the colours you like and that speak to you. It is a good idea to experiment every now and then, and get out of your comfort zone, because that is how you learn, but you have to be creative from the heart, and follow where your inner feelings lead you.

Pomona x

Annie said...

One of my tutors at art college once said to me that the older you get the more desaturated your colour choices become. I share your love for this palette, or certainly a very similar one, so maybe I'm biased, but I'd say go with it ... first and foremost your paintings should make your own heart sing :D
PS I mostly use Payne's Grey too.

Frances said...

Payne's grey often finds its way into my painting. I very rarely use any black, but now am reconsidering that notion.

Thank you, Sue, for showing the results of your experiment. I once treated myself to a tiny book, The Watercolor Painter's Pocket Palette, by Moira Clinch (North Light Books.) Similar books in this series examine oil and acrylic paint, with page by page by showing the results of combinations of two colors and also what happens when black and white enter the mix.

Perhaps you already know about these books?


Anonymous said...

I was really interested in this post because I've just been through a similar - although not nearly so thorough - experiment. I too was educated to believe that you don't use black, but recently when doing some work, I felt something was needed and when I reluctantly resorted to the black tube - low, I was delighted with the results. So, for what it's worth, I'm with many of your other commenters - go for it, after all, it's the results that matter.
I will probably give the Payne's Grey a try though - sounds useful.

sea-blue-sky & abstracts said...

Another Payne's Grey user here, though like to create an interesting black using French Ultramarine and Burnt Umber.

I like all of the colour combinations shown!! Lesley x

Anonymous said...

I have to say first that I would have kept many of the colours you took out and got rid of those you kept. But it is intriguing how we all are drawn to different colours and I think we should be true to that.

Sod rules - who made them anyhow? Besides all black is, is a mixture of all the other colours, so you could get there without adding black if you wished. However, why bother doing that when black has already been mixed? Do what you want and go for it. Stupid rules are what holds us back. Like blue and green should never be seen. Erm yes they should, think blue bells or any other blue flowers in the grass.

People love to get people tied up in knots with their silly rules. Break out of self enforced boundaries and do what you want and need to do to achieve what you want to achieve.

Unknown said...

I know nothing of painting but read this post with complete fascination. I think that in Art of all places the rules are absolutely there to be broken and surely you will ultimately not be quite happy with your work if you are not happy with the colours.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post and thanks for doing it. I was only chastising myself yesterday for painting some teacups and putting too much grey in the mix because they have turned out really...grey!
I'd already got to thinking that i needed to shade with a different colour and then you did all the work for me! :)
Monet used purple to make shadows. In fact the Impressionists banned black and only used 'colours' to add depth.
i love a bit of Prussian Blue myself.

michele said...

This is an interesting experiment and one I am tempted to do myself. I was recently told by my tutor at college that she always does a colour story before she starts a painting because it helps her focus. I also use paynes grey but don't consider myself a painter so not good at giving advice!

Hollace said...

This is very interesting and I commend your perserverance in doing the exercise. Just for interest's sake, I wonder what would have happened if you had done another sample using the complement instead of black.

I have always been a fan of Roualt, so I guess you know I like black. I think it makes everything stand out.

I don't like following the rules in art. The folks who 'push the envelope' are the ones who get famous. Invention comes from breaking with the old way of doing things.

Helen said...

What a great idea to do this. I have never tried mixing black to my colours but have always been interested in using black.

I used to play by the rules of painting, but now, as I have painted more and read more and seen amazing art, I would suggest breaking those rules and using the colours you like, even if it does include black. Go for it....try a painting with those colours and see what happens. See how much it influences your art and if you like the finished painting.

You already have your own unique style and this will just add to it! Have fun painting and I look forward to seeing the results.

moira said...

Hi Sue, A book you might like
if you don't already know of it.
"Collins Artist's Colour manual"by Simon Jennings.
I would agree with all the comments
about forgeting so called rules.
You have an excellent "eye" so perhaps it is about experimenting
to find out what is right for you
and then allowing yourself to trust
your own judgement!

Sue said...

Many thanks people and Moira - thank you for the tip. It sounds great.

suz said...

I'm primarily a quilter and just dabble in painting, but one thing I've learned working with color in my quilts is to break the rules. Sometimes the results are scary, but more often I end up with a wonderful piece. Maybe using payne's gray would help you gently move in that direction. While muddy isn't my absolute favorite palette, I have friends who use it extremely successfully. You've taken this first step - now keep going and see what you can do with that palette! Maybe you'll end up creating new rules!

Sue said...

Hi Suz and thanks for your comment :-)

Elizabeth Musgrave said...

I am in no way an artist but like Pomona I am a great believer in listening to yourself. This is a fascinating experiment in establishing what speaks to you and I think you should listen!

Anonymous said...

A fascinating experiment and one I'm going to do for myself.
P x

Jackie said...

I don't know if I'm qualified to say anything on this subject but it occurred to me that there are certain particular colours I would say I like and use often, but then if someone asks I use colours I wouldn't have thought of using and I might find I like them . then I accidentally drop a bit of fabric on another and a new combination is born. I also wonder if the colours we like spring form our environment. Northern muddy landscapes....?
OOh the word for verification is: restive!