If you’re like me and you rely on using bright, luminescent colours in your paintings, one of the things that can work against you is when your colours inadvertently mix. We’ve all accidentally mixed mud – that indistinct, dull, brownish colour you get when you have contaminated one colour with an unintended other colour. I don’t find this colour particularly useful (though I am sure others do). To me, it’s a mistake, not a happy accident. There are some simple things you can do to make sure your colours go on cleanly and to keep your hues pristine.
- Use lots of brushes, or knives – For my workhorse brushes (the ones I use all the time) I actually have three or four of each size. That way, if I am using a number 6 filbert, for example, I can keep one brush for lights, one for mid tones and one for darks, or I can dedicate one for each colour I am currently applying. I seldom have more than three colours on the go at a time. If I keep my brushes separate, I can keep my brushes clear from contamination. With acrylics, you need to be careful not to let the paint dry on the brushes while you are working, but that’s one of the many reasons I use the re-wettable Atelier Interactive acrylics. If they begin to dry, a little water opens the paint up again on the brush. The paint has a medium to long open time anyway, but some acrylics don’t and if those dry in your brush bristles, the brush is generally unrecoverable. I use three brushes of the same size at once, or else I discard a brush to the water pot, when I want to go to a new colour and pick up a fresh, clean brush, especially when changing from a dark colour to a light one. I find you can never quite wash the pigment out of the brush in the water pot well enough to keep the lighter colour completely uncontaminated by the previous darker one. Especially if you are painting rapidly. With palette knives, the same rules more or less apply, except that paint dried onto a palette knife is generally removable, if you get to it quickly enough.
- Wash your brushes and knives thoroughly – I have been known to walk away from my easel, mid painting, to do the “washing up”. This gives the paint on the canvas some time to dry (a good thing to prevent mixing of wet paint on the canvas itself), but it also lets me thoroughly clean the pigments out of the bristles of my brushes or to restore my palette knives to “as new” condition. Going back to the canvas with clean tools is amazingly refreshing. It’s also therapeutic, actually. The act of walking away from the canvas and temporarily immersing yourself in cleaning your tools gives me a change to think, reflect and let my imagination work. I find it helps my art.
- Clean your palette – I use those Stay Wet palettes for acrylics and the paper tear off kind when painting with oils. I like both, because I do not adhere to the theory of putting every colour out in the same position before starting. That just seems like a waste of paint to me, when there is no chance of me choosing to use all of the colours in my palette on a given painting. I rather prefer to lay out a custom palette with my colour choices for the work only on the palette. However, because I often have to cover largish canvases, the palette can get confused, muddled and become a source of colour contamination. With both of the palette types I use, you just tear off the messed up palette and discard it, then start again with a fresh one. This is really important when you are finishing a painting with bright highlights and your palette is already covered in darker hues. I don’t know how people survive with those wooden or plastic palettes. To me, I would never understand how they would achieve bright vibrancy in the colours they apply to the canvas. Painters like Charles Evans, to me, always paint in muddy hues. It works for him, but it can’t work for me.
- Don’t mix on the canvas, if the colour looks better when mixing it on palette – This is not an absolute rule, but more of a rule of thumb. Sometimes you want to work one colour into another directly on the canvas and don’t mind the mixed transition, but quite often I find that the colour you are able to mix on the canvas is much less satisfactory than mixing the colour on the palette first, then applying the mixture to the canvas. It seems more under control that way. It would be hypocritical of me to suggest this is always better, however, because I do both. Mixing on the canvas is sometimes just the ticket and get the shade just right, but mixing on the palette is also a very powerful technique to have in your arsenal, as a painter.
- Glaze – This is a fantastic way to keep your colours clean and pristine and it permits and produces colour effects that are unobtainable any other way. Unfortunately, the technique takes time. You need to wait before one colour wash dries before applying a glaze of another colour. It is of no practical use to painters that paint alla prima, but if you can spare the time and have a project that can stand the delay, then glazing (as I have said before) is amazing!
- Paint on white, not a warm coloured background (like sometimes advised by those adhering to the “atelier” rigour) – If you want to get an antique effect in your painting, then start with an un-gessoed canvas or cover it in a wash of burnt sienna, but if you want colours that hit you in the eye and sear into your retina, you need to consider painting on white. White reflects the most light and this is what you want, especially with tints and transparent pigments. I have been know to go back to a painting, then paint some areas in titanium white, let it dry, then apply the colour over those areas, just to get the colours to leap out. Weaker pigments, like yellows, are lost if you try to paint them over a blue or darker colour. The only way to make them stand out is to paint them directly on a white ground, or to paint some white where the colour will be to make a ground for the yellow. White is your friend. I almost always use white canvases and use lots and lots of white paint (both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide – you get different colour mixing effects with the two).
- Drying time matters – If you paint quickly (I often do), then you can run into trouble simply because you don’t let under-painting dry before adding the next feature to the work. If you paint a sky, for example, then try to add some yellow autumn leaves over the top, you’re going to get green, no matter how much yellow you apply. If you want to get yellow, you have to let the sky dry first. This can be done a number of fast ways (as opposed to just waiting it out). With the Atelier Interactive paints, you can use a fixer, which tends to dry a skin over the colours so that you can paint over them in not much time. I’ve found this to be a bit hit and miss, but it’s still a useful property of these paints. Alternatively, choose to paint the sky with short open time acrylics (the older Winsor and Newtons dried quite quickly). Finally, because acrylics dry by the evaporation of water, a hair dryer applied gently can speed things up. Controlling the open time of the paint – short when you need it to be and long when you need to blend and mix on the canvas – is what this is all about. None of these tips work with oils. With oils, you’re pretty much left with no way to dry the sky before painting yellow leaves over it. You just have to wait. It might take a while.
- Use gels and mediums – To make the paint tacky or take wet paint over moist paint, I find that gels like Heavy Structure Gel can adjust the paint’s open time and give you some sort of thicker body that you can apply thinner paint to, before it is dry. The gel seems to dry in a linear way, so waiting a few minutes completely changes the character of the surface and you can achieve all sorts of interesting scumble and dry brush effects, if you time it right. This stuff is great with palette knives. Experimenting with gels is a great way to move the open time of your paint in the direction you need.
So those are the things I do to keep my colours bright, vibrant and exciting. I hope they help you too.