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Avoid Danger with Black and Make Magic with four Extra Pigments in your Paintings

February 18, 2012

When I first set out to get my training, representational painting was out of style among the art educators of this country. In fact, one lecturer stated that the true history of painting began in New York in 1960...

Because I was determined to make paintings, rather than designs, I had to find for myself a classical artist who would take pupils. As it happened, he taught the 'tonal' method.

So, we students spent the first day drawing up a grid on which we made all the gradations from White through to Black. Over the following two days, we laboured at developing every value of the many pigments he believed necessary, by mixing them with the greys we had made in the first exercise. Then, for the next two lessons, we applied this method to our models: a stack of three books, a rag-doll clown. In my memory, I can still see the results: competent but dull.

When this poor man suffered a heart attack on the golf course and died, my sorrow for his family's loss was selfishly overtaken by my dismay at losing my teacher. In hindsight, his tragic exit was the best thing that could happen to my development. With time, I found another teacher, who taught me how to really see colour. I am eternally grateful to her.

Now to those four magic extras:

  • Raw Umber is extremely versatile. Used with plenty of glaze medium, it can quickly reduce any passage of colour that appears too bright in the composition. As well, mixed into White, it perfectly renders a wintry sky or such things as the pages of a book or a piece of much-laundered linen.
  • Madder Brown, when mixed with varying amounts of White, produces a range of purples ideally suited for mountain ranges or evening skies, free from the rather cloying effect of ready-mixed pigments.
  • Burnt Sienna is a reddish earth pigment, invaluable for underpainting in a landscape that will be mainly greens and blues. Mixed with ultramarine, it produces dense browns for tree trunks, hair tones of people and animals and for clothing. Used as a transparent glaze, it can impart a warm, 'tanned' appearance to skin tones.

A Note: A small amount of Burnt Sienna is mixed into White to produce the pigment manufacturers call 'Flesh.' Obviously, you do not need it! In any case, flesh is usually covered by skin, and for that you will want to make a much wider range of colour mixes.

  • Viridian is essential for painting the crystalline waters that surround a tropical island or for rendering the iridescence of mother-of-pearl or of opals. Its only other use, I think, is its role in mixing lively, transparent darks for shadows. A beautiful range of darks results when Viridian is combined with Alizarin Crimson and Ultramarine.


If you want to improve your painting, the best thing you can do is practise using The Colour Wheel. This is one of the most useful tools ever devised for painters, cutting through the mystery and confusion. You can find how to use it and copy my two versions of it from my website at  http://www.artofgauvin.com/colour-wheel  ©Dorothy Gauvin

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