I finished a complete color chart of my current palette a few weeks ago and have been meaning to write a post about the process. It was funny for a little while – people would ask me what I was working on in my studio, and I would answer, “Mixing paint. Making color charts.” It sounded silly – why wasn’t I working on some epic new portfolio piece featuring my usual cast of fantasy characters? Well, making these color charts has actually become one of the most useful tools in my studio, so much so that I now reference them almost every painting session. Here’s a breakdown of what makes them so integral to my practice.
Having all the charts behind me as I paint is incredibly useful. When trying to get a particular hue, I often would spend a lot of time mixing different colors on my palette, basically guessing until I found something that sort of worked for what I wanted. While mixing paint this way is very meditative and calming, it’s not particularly fast. Now when I’m stumped to figure out what I need, I simply glance behind me – and most of the time I can find what I’m looking for. How does this work?
I won’t take credit for this process – that would go to Richard Schmid, painter and author of Alla Prima. His technique regarding color was my inspiration for this entire project, so if you’re interested, the best way to do it yourself is to pick up a copy of his book.
The first step is to take all the colors in your current palette and mix them out to gradations of white, establishing a stepped scale of tints. Step 1 is the color straight from the tube – easy. Steps 2-5 are successive mixtures of Titanium White added to the color in a steadily lightening gradation, with Step 5 being the very lightest.
It immediately becomes obvious that as colors are lightened with white, they actually get much cooler in tone. The lightest tints are very cool. While I already knew this basic concept of mixing, having it so readily demonstrated is a great reminder of what white actually does. The cooling effect is subtle in the lower gradations, but it always happens.
The next step is to go through the palette and mix what I call the “children” charts. The above chart is for Cadmium Yellow Medium. For each column, Cadmium Yellow Medium is mixed with every other color in the palette with Cadmium Yellow Medium “predominating” in hue. Predominating means that the mixture is not overwhelmed by the other color – so the first mixture of Cadmium Yellow Medium and Radiant Lemon has more Cadmium Yellow Medium than Radiant Lemon, allowing its basic qualities to be the main hue in the mixture.
Next, that mixture is again gradated out with Titanium White, from steps 1-5 the same as was done for the mother chart. By repeating this tinting process, it becomes evident where the color mixtures have the greatest amount of individuality, right around steps 2-3 in hue. By the time it gets to step 5, the hue is so light that differences in mixtures are very subtle.
It was actually quite time consuming to get those stepped gradations just right. But once it’s all finished, the amount of information regarding color is astonishing. The chart above basically unlocks all the possible combinations of Cadmium Yellow Medium in two color mixtures plus white. This is incredibly useful information!
I won’t discuss every child color chart in depth. Even I know that would get dull. But just look at the difference between the Cadmium Yellow Medium and Radiant Lemon child color charts. Both colors are yellow in hue. Cadmium Yellow packs an intense, warm punchy hue. In contrast, Radiant Lemon is so light and cool that its practically almost white when it is squeezed from the tube. It’s much more pastel in hue. There’s a reason why Cadmium Yellow Medium costs twice as much at the art store – just look how much more literal color there is in those mixtures!
Was this project worth it? Definitely. Each chart took me around 2.5 hours, so with all the panel prepping, taping and mixing, the project probably took around 32 hours. Now though, I have a complete guide for every color I use. Eventually, the time I’ve spent will be regained when I’ve eliminated the guesswork while trying to mix a particular color on my palette. If you’re curious, the rest of my charts are below. I highly suggest mixing your own. The investment is worth it!