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Color Mixing Secrets for the Plein Air Painter

This is an example of the kind of in-depth articles available to our members. If you like what you find here, won't you consider supporting The Artist's Road educational mission through your membership today?
Color Mixing Secrets
for the Plein Air Painter
Photo of John Hulsey's plein air set up in New Mexico
Plein Air Painting in Abiquiu, New Mexico. Look at all those great colors!

  Painting outdoors on location poses unique challenges compared to the well-controlled studio environment - no question about that! With the explosion of interest in plein air painting, there has been a commensurate increase of interest in educational workshops taught by experienced artists. Perhaps this is because upon beginning to paint outdoors, one quickly realizes how difficult and frustrating it can be to create even a small, pleasing picture from hours spent hard at work. There is so much to learn, and the quickest way to get there is to study with someone who has spent years learning the ins and outs of landscape painting. We teach plein air workshops in order to help cut years off of the plein air learning curve for our students. This article shows the unique method that we have developed and that we teach our workshop students to quickly analyze the local color and values, premix all the colors needed for the whole painting and develop a consistent color harmony among the premixed colors.

   Every successful plein air painter we have come across uses a disciplined, systematic approach to analyze the subject in front of them, simplify it, and then restate it in painterly terms. This is how we approach the task of mixing correct values and harmonious color relationships:

photo of 6-color plein air paletteStep One: Arrange the colors on your palette, from warm to cool as shown at left. We recommend that you read our article: The Educated Palette first and be thoroughly familiar with all the concepts there. After you have done this, mix the three secondaries from the primaries in your palette. To save time in the field, we suggest that you mix these secondaries up in advance in your studio.

            Six-Color 'Split Primary' Palette


Photo of palette color mixOver time, you will arrange your primary colors to your liking. As shown here, I have moved my reds and yellows around a bit to reflect my own preferences, but I still keep the warms and cools separated so that I can reach for them without thinking about where they are. Once you arrive at the optimal arrangement, don't change it and your brush will always find the right color. This green mix is perfect -  neither too blue nor too yellow.


Green Secondary Mixed from Yellow and Blue Primaries


Photo of palette color mix Why mix secondaries when we can easily buy them ready-made? We believe that the only way to truly understand color relationships is to experience mixing them. The confidence and speed you get from knowing which colors will make what mixed tone and how colors affect each other will automatically improve your paintings.




Orange Secondary from Red and Yellow Primaries


Photo of palette color mixTake your time when mixing the secondaries!  It is very important to mix them so that they do not lean toward one or the other primary. They should sit right in the middle. Compare them to the pure primaries as you mix, using your palette knife like a trowel or cake spatula to smooth the colors into each other with a flat, sawing motion. Then place them in your palette where you can cross-mix them to develop those beautiful grays.

Violet Secondary from Red and Blue Primaries

Photo of Abiquiu, NM., landscape
My Painting Subject in Abiquiu, New Mexico

Step Two: Once you have located your subject and set up your gear, develop an effective composition and get that drawn on your canvas or board.  If you are unsure of how to achieve this, refer to our article, The Artist‘s Road Guide to Composition for exact information.
Step Three: Using your palette knife, premix the colors in your landscape subject. We suggest that you first mix only the one or two largest masses of color, which you determine by squinting. As you mix these colors, constantly compare them in value to your subject. This process is made simpler by the use of a sight-through gray scale, as shown. First match the actual observed value of your major masses to a point on the scale, and then mix your color to match that gray value, using a palette knife.

Photo of John Hulsey's plein air set up You will use the gray scale for every plein air painting. To modify it like the one we use, see: Perspectives No. 86, Hit the Right Values Every Time. In this painting, one of my main masses is green, which is a secondary color, and the other mass is violet, another secondary, so this is an easy-to-understand example of our basic principles.





photo of harmonized color mixes

Step Four: Placing your two piles of accurately mixed color in your palette as shown, start blending one into the other. Use the flat of a large palette knife with a sliding, sawing motion to do this. Move a small amount of color A over to color B where you’ll get some of that mixed in and then work that back toward A again.  Repeat this operation until you have a gradated set of colored grays that represent all the various tones of the two colors as they change in hue from A to B.  You have just harmonized your two colors to each other! These are sometimes called 'color strings'.
Step Five: Let’s take this a step further and create some more harmonized greys on either side of our two main colors. I like to use complementaries or even tertiary colors to do this, so that I can get a nice range of cools and warms. In this example, I’ve used Cadmium Orange to the left of A, and Alizarine Crimson to the left of B, and mixed them with my knife as above. Look at those beautiful grays! Joaquin Sorolla is said to have called grays "the money colors", and he was right. 90% of our paintings should consist of colorful grays such as these, with only touches of pure colors here and there to bring it all together. These are now all the colors I will need to complete my painting, and because they all share something of each other, they are all in harmony together.

photo of colors and palette and painting by John Hulsey
Step Six: Paint the entire picture with only these colors, not adding new colors after this point. They will stick out like a sore thumb. If you run out of a color, stop and remix it the same as before. Over time you’ll get a sense of how much paint to mix up front.  My original two colors now work as pure hues, while all the other mixes are gradations of those main tones. It is a simple matter at this point to add white to any of these colors to effect a tint or highlight, or add black to make an accent. Note: when you need a lot of highlight color, start with a pile of white paint first, and then add small amounts of your premixed color to it, not the other way around. You’ll avoid wasting lots of white paint this way.
This is an example of the kind of in-depth articles available to our members. If you like what you find here, won't you consider supporting The Artist's Road educational mission through your membership today?

 

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About Us
Photograph of John Hulsey and Ann Trusty in Glacier National Park
We are artists, authors and teachers with over 35 years of experience in painting the world's beautiful places. We created The Artist's Road in order to share our knowledge and experiences with you, and create a community of like-minded individuals.  You can learn more about us and see our original paintings by clicking on the links below.
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 Hulsey Trusty Studios

We are also regular contributors to the Plein Air blog at Artist Daily.

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