Vibrant Neutrals: A Demo on How to Get the Most From Your Grays

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When you mix complementary colors, you get a gray neutral. Primary and secondary colors are saturated and powerful, but when two direct, powerful complements like red and green are mixed, they counteract each other’s visual power. On the other hand, when you mix near complements such as orange and green, you get a more lively neutral because it contains more color vibration.

Neutrals can be gorgeous alone, but their real advantage is in their supportive relationship to saturated color. When surrounded by a well-mixed gray, saturated color is at its powerful best. When I paint, I rely on what I see in my subject to determine how to mix my grays. The following demonstration of the painting Tangerine on White Plate (above; oil on canvas, 14×11) shows the process.

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I began with a placement drawing. Using Naples yellow thinned with linseed oil and a No. 4 bright, I mapped out my composition, based on my setup (above, top). (Naples yellow comes off the canvas easily with a bit of Martin/F. Weber Turpenoid Natural, which simplifies erasures and corrections.) I then found my lightest light, which in this painting is the spotlight highlight on the tangerine (above, bottom). A small rectangle drawn on the tangerine represents that highlight.

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Next I found my midvalues. Imagine a gray scale 0f 1 to 10 with one as white and 10 as black. I looked for the No. 5 value, which accounts for most of the values painters see. By mixing my midvalues first, I controlled how dark my painting would become. My white plate was a mixture of equal parts burnt umber and ultramarine blue, with enough white to bring the color to the correct value. I adjusted the color and added more orange to the plate directly around the ?tangerine to show the reflected color. The cloth behind the plate was made from the same pile of gray on my palette, with a bit of violet to make it slightly cooler than the plate. I blocked in my colors with a No. 12 bright.

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With the midvalues set, I colored the tangerine, knowing exactly how dark I could make it. For the light top I mixed cadmium lemon yellow, cadmium yellow medium and a bit of permanent rose. For the shadowed area I mixed cadmium yellow medium, permanent rose and burnt sienna. On the side of the fruit, I noticed a spot of violet, so I added it in.

I then added a lively shadow under the tangerine, using the colors I saw there—violet and orange. Note that the shadow on the plate is almost the same value as the shadowed side of the tangerine. I added the shadow under the plate using a darker version of my original midtone, tweaking the color with yellow ochre and cerulean blue hue, but making sure those additions didn’t change the shadow value. Looking for hints of color in the shadows, I exaggerated the blue to make a bolder visual statement.

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I blocked in the grapes with Naples yellow, permanent green light, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium lemon yellow and yellow ochre. Being reflective, the grapes picked up colors around them—the tangerine’s orange and the sky’s violet-blue. The shadows under the grapes were mixed with grape color plus violet and yellow to make a lovely gray. You’ll always find the color of the object in its shadow.

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At this point I looked for small spots of darker, more intense color, such as the thin band inside the plate and the area under the tangerine. The more color-saturated these smaller areas were, the more white my plate and tablecloth seemed. As painters, we need to establish contrast with color as well as value. I saw that my lightest light was very strong, and my value structure was working.

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Tablecloth stripes accentuated the neutral color of the plate and brought the painting together. I made the striped pattern larger than it really was because I knew that larger stripes would be a simpler, stronger element in the painting.

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Finishing the painting is sometimes the most difficult step. After taking a break, I realized the grapes needed to be greener, so greener they became with permanent green light plus a bit of white, cadmium lemon yellow and Naples yellow. I made the drawing in the grapes crisper, describing the planes with a No. 8 bright. I also repainted the plate rim to clean it up. White plus permanent rose toned down my tangerine highlight. Then I stepped back and looked. The painting held together. I liked the drawing and the way the brushstrokes described the form. Finis!

Read Karen O’Neil’s entire article, “Gorgeous Grays” by ordering the July/August 2008 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.


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