How to Select Neutral Colors AND Win a Porcelain Palette

We have lots of exciting news today, so I’ll get right to the point. First, it’s time to clear your calendar because you can view any and all of the 500+ workshops at ArtistsNetworkTV, for free! Use the code ATV4FREE and you’ll receive a one-month free trial (you’ll need to enter your credit card info, but you won’t be charged if you cancel just before the free trial ends on April 30).

This brings me to the next topic, which is today’s newsletter. It features an article from The Artist’s Magazine, in which Stephen Quiller (who has 28 workshops at ArtistsNetworkTV!) explains how to select neutral colors with care so that they offset your brights for maximum effects.

And lucky for you, at my desk I happen to have THREE valuable Stephen Quiller porcelain palettes that are looking for a good home. Simply “like” our Facebook page and look for today’s comment contest for an easy chance to win* one! ~Cherie

Color theory with Stephen Quiller | ArtistsNetwork.com

Most of the neutrals in “Hidden Pond Off Shallow Creek” (watercolor on paper, 13×15.25) are mixtures of two pairs of complementary colors: (1) permanent orange and ultramarine blue and (2) cadmium yellow and ultramarine violet. I used these “grays” to set off the yellow, yellow-orange and yellow-green of the willows. (PIN THIS ARTICLE!)

Neutral, But Not Indifferent by Stephen Quiller

Color is the key element for creating harmony, mood and expression in a painting. Many painters feel that if the color isn’t working, a new color needs to be added. When a painting is “corrected” in this way, it may soon have too many disconnected colors, and the work will feel disjointed. To avoid this, when introducing color, ask yourself these three questions:

1. Does this color harmonize with the color scheme and fit the mood of the painting?

2. Should this color be lighter or darker within the existing color relationships?

3. Should this color be brighter or duller (more neutralized) within the existing color relationships?

I’d like to focus on the third question by discussing different ways of mixing neutrals and then using those neutrals to make brighter colors sing.

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Color theory with Stephen Quiller | ArtistsNetwork.com

I started “Fireweed and a Transitional Burn” (acrylic on panel, 42×28) with an application of black gesso to an Ampersand Aquabord. The color theme of the painting is predominately yellow-green, green and blue-green plus the complements of those colors, red-violet and red. I created all the neutral, near-neutral and semineutral colors in the interior of the painting with this palette, applied with charged- and broken-color methods. I added white to the colors in the upper areas to create soft, pastel, neutralized hues that lend an atmospheric look. This piece has very little bright color, but notice how the gray tones surround and set off the yellow and yellow-green aspen foliage of early autumn.

Learning to neutralize or dull a color is incredibly important because the semineutral colors (sometimes called “earth colors”) and neutral colors (sometimes called “grays”) are pleasing to the eye. A painting filled with pure, bright hues overwhelms the viewer’s eye. Using semineutral and neutral colors with some carefully selected brighter colors brings the painting to life. Sensitively mixed and placed neutralized colors give emphasis to the brighter colors.

Four Ways to Mix Neutrals

How, then, can you neutralize color so that it works within the existing color relationships of a painting? Some neutralizing methods are more effective than others.

Adding black (for example, lamp black or ivory black) is a simple way to dull color; however, this method can make a painting monotonous. The black pigments absorb light while the colored pigments reflect light, so the neutral appears unattractively flat.

Adding white or, in the case of transparent watercolor, adding more water, also neutralizes a color. Adding white makes the color more pastel and thus less bright.

Mixing true complementary colors (colors located directly opposite each other on the color wheel) creates beautiful semineutrals. Depending on the ratio of the elements in the mixture, the two colors more or less cancel out each other to produce exquisite grays.

Mixing near-complementary colors (a pair of colors in which one is located slightly to either side the other’s complement) also neutralizes the colors within the mixture, producing beautiful “near grays.”

Color theory with Stephen Quiller | ArtistsNetwork.com

For “Late Light on Poxen’s Run” (acrylic and casein on paper, 23.5×37.5), I first toned my rough watercolor paper with transparent yellow acrylic, a color that can be seen in the distant mountain. To set off the yellow mountain, I glazed ultramarine violet, a transparent, granulating color. The violet, a complement of the yellow, neutralized the sky and provided a textured look. I made more applications in the middle ground and tree areas in order to dull the yellow. Then, on the trunks and trees, I lifted (removed color with a dry brush) back to the undercolor, following up with the addition of some pure hues. For the horizontal bands of soft blue snow, I premixed blue with white casein to give the color a neutralized pastel look.

How to Choose Complements

You may have taken a class in which the instructor had you create a painting with burnt sienna and ultra-marine blue. These complements mix to a beautiful neutral. Burnt sienna is warm while ultramarine blue is cool. Both colors are composed of mineral- or earth-based pigments; as watercolors, they granulate and lift easily. Burnt sienna and ultramarine blue can also make a nice black. You can learn a lot by working with these two colors; however, if you understand how to use a 12-color spectral palette, you’ll be able to select from many other complementary pairings to create neutral, near-neutral and semineutral colors (See 12-Color Spectral Palette Wheel). The goal is to create your neutrals from complements that suit your painting.

For instance, if the color scheme of your painting is predominately yellow-green and green with red-violet and red, does it make sense to mix your grays with burnt sienna and ultramarine blue? Obviously the pigments of these two colors would be foreign to the theme of your work. Mixing the complementary colors phthalocyanine green (green) and quinacridone rose (red) or permanent green light (yellow-green) and manganese violet (red-violet) would produce beautiful neutrals that fit the color relationships of your painting, thus creating harmony and unity.

How to Combine Complements

There are actually several ways to create neutral visual effects with complementary colors. You can premix your neutral or semineutral colors, which simply means that you mix the complementary or near-complementary colors on your palette before placing those colors on your paper or canvas.

You can glaze the complement, which involves washing a thin, transparent layer of color over its complementary undercolor. If your medium is watercolor, you can charge one complementary color into another. To do this, you load your brush with one color and then let that color flow into its still-wet complement on your painting surface. The pigments move and mingle, creating exciting effects. If your medium is oil or acrylic, you can apply your complements as broken colors: without premixing, load your brush with the two complementary colors and then, in a painterly manner, apply the colors to the canvas. The viewer’s eye mixes the colors visually.

The three paintings that accompany this article exemplify ways I’ve used neutrals, near neutrals and semineutrals to emphasize the brighter hues around them. I hope they’ll inspire you to experiment with neutrals on your own. ~Stephen

*Palette winner will be chosen Monday, April 25. Must be a US resident due to international contest rules and regulations.

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Preview Stephen Quiller’s “Color Foundation 10: Neutrals, Near Neutrals & Black”

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