How Strong Are They?

I was always taught that effective color mixing starts with discovering the tinting strength of each color on your palette. For me, that is the basis of understanding how to mix colors, because it tells me how they will react when combined.

A Breath Away by Joseph McGurl, oil on canvas, 24 x 36.
A Breath Away by Joseph McGurl, oil on canvas, 24 x 36.

I'm a bit embarrassed to say that until a professor pointed this out to me in school, I was oblivious to it. I assumed all colors would tint similarly when lightened with the same amount of white. But, as I am sure many of you know, that couldn't be further from the truth. For example, Prussian blue and alizarin crimson have very strong tinting strengths—just a small amount of either color added to white makes a vivid tint. On the other hand, terre verte and raw umber have weaker tinting strength and turn pale when mixed with just a little bit of white.

Once I understood this, I went a little crazy with my art colors to better understand how each color has its own quirks and personality. At the end of all my experiments, I came away with a color-mixing guide—more like a chart, really. I painted a dab of each color on my palette and mixed it with different colors to see the result. I started by adding the same amount of white to each color on my palette to see how each pigment was affected, and I went on from there.

Camelback Twilight by Joseph McGurl, oil on canvas, 22 x 34.
Camelback Twilight by Joseph McGurl, oil on canvas, 22 x 34.

That chart now is more like a free-form color-mixing guide. It's more disorganized than a formal color wheel, but it works for me,  and I refer back to it often when I can't remember quite how a color will mix with another. If you've made a similar "cheat sheet" marking your color schemes, you'll know how useful they can be—especially when you are trying to eke out the delicate nuances of color.

A great way to apply what you know about your own art colors and learn more from an expert is with Brian Keeler's new art instruction DVDs, Skies and Light. The artist shows you how to achieve clean color, adjust color values, and add dimension all in one sitting, which you'll be able to apply to every painting you create from here on out. Enjoy!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

2 thoughts on “How Strong Are They?

  1. It is also helpful to understand the different characteristics of whites. For instance, Titanium white is more powerful than zinc white. Titanium will ‘cool’ a warm color a bit while zinc white simply lightens and brightens any color. Once I learned this, I could control my values better and choose the correct white. I created color guides for the different whites and found the exercise very enlightening.

  2. Thanks, Courtney, for new insights to understanding color mixing, but also for acquainting us with the artist Joseph McGurl. Works like his illustrate so well what you describe; depicting light is not always about just about adding white, but focus, balance, contrast and intensity, as well as tone of the ‘white’ used to define ‘light’.