Achieve Smooth Color Transitions In Your Painting

In the April 2009 issue of The Artist’s Magazine, Jane Jones discusses the challenges of blending colors in a painting.

Transitioning Color Seamlessly

Keep gradations smooth and simple—glaze one color at a time.

By Jane Jones

Garden Party (oil, 12×9)

Painting objects that have more than one color can be difficult, especially when you’re depicting gradations to show dimension. The task gets even more difficult when the objects, such as petals or drapery folds, are broken up with splashes of light and shadow. You can find yourself with an area where four or more colors come together, all needing to be blended seamlessly.

The flower petals in Garden Party (above) are good examples. Their colors transition from white to red, and most of the petals are partially in light and partially in shadow. By painting these petals in five layers, I needed to control only one color of wet paint at a time. That’s much easier than dealing with five colors at the same time!

I painted this demonstration in oil. The same principle of laying in one color at a time applies to watercolor and acrylic, although the handling of the background and the sequencing of the values would differ.

For instructions about painting the tablecloth, stems, leaves and vase, see The Rest of the Painting.

1. Establish background and underpaint petals

First I painted the background with mixtures of Payne’s gray, alizarin crimson and titanium white. Alizarin crimson is a unifying color in this painting, used in almost every color mixture.

After the background dried, I transferred the outline of my subject. Then I just filled in the petal areas with a very smooth layer of titanium white. This opaque foundation eliminated the influence of the dark background, allowing me to keep subsequent colors bright and clear. When layering for color transitions, keep in mind that you should start with the lightest color. If I had been painting petals transitioning from yellow to orange to red, I would have begun with yellow rather than white.

For the flower petals, I mixed alizarin crimson with viridian to create a dull gray-violet. Then I created different values of that color by adding titanium white. For the lightest areas, I warmed the white by adding a little Naples yellow light to the titanium white.

2. Begin with a soft transition

When the white petals had dried, I lightly glazed them with rose madder genuine and a bit of Winsor & Newton Liquin. Rose madder genuine is a delicate, easy-to-control color—a good choice to begin gradations from white to red. Notice that I painted over the entirety of the red areas—not just the lighter portions. This is for two reasons: First, the intensity and depth of color necessary to complete the more vibrant areas of these petals require several layers of paint. Rose madder genuine is just a starting point. Second, using the same color throughout this layer sets up the color unity of the painting.

When the rose madder genuine dried, I added a whisper of yellow to the warm areas of the petals. Indian yellow is an intense hue, but when used very lightly with a lot of painting medium—such as Liquin, or water if you’re painting with watercolors—it becomes a soft, golden yellow. I used only one layer of the same yellow color throughout. Notice that the light and shadow areas of the white petals modulate the lightness and darkness of the yellow glaze.

3. Strengthen the red

With the softest transition from red to pink established, I began intensifying the red portions of the petals with quinacridone red. This transparent color allows the shadows established in the first layer to show through while appearing as a beautiful clear red in the areas where the light strikes. By gradually increasing the ratio of paint to Liquin, I gently transitioned the red from very light in the pink areas to darker and more intense in the areas that are redder.

I also added another light, transparent layer of Indian yellow to some of the yellow areas. By not painting over all of these areas, I allowed for variety in hue.

For the center of the middle rose, I began with cadmium yellow pale mixed with some of the grayed violet from the white layer. Then I added a touch of alizarin crimson to the mixture to keep it from appearing green.

4. Further intensify the red

For the reddest areas, I added another layer of quinacridone red. I wanted to keep the gradations from light to dark gradual, so with each additional layer of paint, I covered less and less space. Notice how the gray areas established in the first layer work as shadows for both the white and red areas.

5. Add final details

I warmed some of the red areas with a light glaze of Indian yellow. Then I delicately darkened a few of the shadows on the petals with a glaze of the transparent alizarin-crimson-plus-viridian mixture from the original white-petal colors. I painted the flower centers with dull yellow mixtures from the colors used for the flower center in step three.

By comparing demonstration photos one and five, you can see that the first layer of paint on the flower petals established the light and shadow pattern for the subsequent colors. Since all the colors—white, red and yellow—have the same underpainting or foundation, there is unity among them that would have been much more difficult to achieve if I had used light and dark whites, reds and yellows all at the same time. The method I’ve demonstrated is not only technically easier but allows for a more cohesive and unified painting as well.

The rest of the painting

Tablecloth: The stripes have hard edges, and the only blending is within each stripe, so I painted one at a time, left to right, to keep from smearing them. (If I were left-handed, I would have painted them right to left.) I began painting each stripe at the front edge of the table with the lightest value, adding darker values for the shadows as I got to them. To keep the colors pure, I used one set of brushes for the white stripes and another set for the red. I even used separate paper towels to wipe off the different sets of brushes. To make sure I wouldn’t accidentally pick up a brush for the wrong color, I placed one set of brushes to my right and one to my left.

I painted the lightest areas of the white stripes with a mixture of titanium white and just enough Naples yellow light to warm the white slightly. For the shadows falling over the white stripes, I used background mixtures (see step one of the demonstration) lightened with white. To create the illusion that the stripes on the tabletop are receding into the background, I used a little of this shadow color mixed into the white-stripe mixture.

The light areas of the red stripes are cadmium red. For the shadows falling over the red stripes, I added Payne’s gray plus alizarin crimson.

Leaves and stems: I painted the leaves and stems with mixtures of cadmium yellow pale, French ultramarine blue and Payne’s gray, adding white for the lightest areas.

Vase: To paint the glass vase, I used the background color (see step one of the demonstration) with some white added. For the stripe reflections, I used the colors from the tablecloth stripes.

JANE JONES, author of Classic Still Life Painting (Watson-Guptill, 2004), is a popular workshop teacher. For more information, go to www.janejonesartist.com.

This article appeared in the April 2009 issue of The Artist’s Magazine, which is available for order as a digital download. Click here to learn more.

More by Jane Jones:

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