Painting with Pastels: colour mixing

I did not use soft pastels often in the Drawing 1 course but as they bridge drawing and painting, they are popping up again in Painting 1 and so I must learn to use them … I love pastel paintings all the way from Monet to the work of  contemporary artists such as Wolf Kahn and the late Mark Leach.

I have been watching Michael Howler’s  Pastel foundation course on the Art Tutor website, which I have found to be very useful particularly with regard to colour.  Following his instructions, from six colours (a warm and cool version of each primary) and white, I created over 200 colours, tints and shades, which provided inspiration for different types of landscape and other subjects. Although working with only six colours and white would be time consuming as all blending of colour would have to be done on paper, it is nonetheless possible.  I am tempted to buy six expensive pastels to try this out and compare the quality with my much cheaper ones.  

I covered all of the exercises in Michael Howler’s series because it helps me to do something rather than just listen.  I did not intend to make up each of the colour charts but he recommends it and I am very glad to have done them because it will be a fantastic resource and just looking at the charts can suggest subjects.  I could also bring them to a landscape or other subject and see which palette seems most appropriate.  

I have not included all of the exercises here which are documented in my sketchbook but will focus on the colour charts because that is the area where I learned most. 

I have scanned in the colour charts to give an impression of the colour range; the reproduced colours are not entirely accurate but reasonable reproductions.

I used a mixture of Faber Castell pastel pencils and Jaxell soft pastels for this exercise.  Faber Castell’s pencils are numbered rather than named and I gave them names based on my own experience before later checking the names online.  The names that I have used in the sketchbook for warm and cool colours, respectively, are ultramarine and cerulean blue, yellow ochre and lemon yellow, and cadmium red and permanent rose.  (I have now printed out the full list of colours with their number codes for future reference).  The important thing is that the cool and warm shades were correctly identified as such, otherwise the exercise would not have yielded the correct outcome.  The names used on the pages below are my perceived names.  The manufacturer’s names of the colours used from left to right were: ultramarine, scarlet red, light yellow ochre, bluish turquoise, pink carmine and light chrome yellow. However, I have noticed that different manufacturers will give different names to essentially the same pigment. The important thing is the essential warmth or coolness of a pigment. 

First of all, the colour chart obtained by mixing all possible paired combinations of the primaries.  I did this twice, once on watercolour paper and once on a light grey card to get a sense of the effect that a different coloured and different textured ground can have.  The colours are obviously more vibrant on the grey background but I prefer the broken effect obtained on textured paper. A textured and coloured ground could create the best outcome. 

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The predicted secondary colour did not necessarily result from mixing. Warm colours mixed together do not necessarily produce the bright colours that we might expect, whereas combinations of cooler colours can produce fresh and vibrant secondary colours. This is explained below.

The next exercise involved creating tints.  Warm and cool versions of the different primaries were paired. Then, various amounts of white were added to create a series of tints.   On the page below. the first chart was created with warm blue and cool red, the second one with a cool blue and a warm red. The first combination produces a lovely range of mauves / lavenders; the second produces more neutral browns and greys.  

 

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It was interesting to see the contrast, especially as we learn at school that red plus blue blended together equals purple but this is not always the case… the warmth or coolness of the primary colour makes a difference because each of them can contain hints of the third primary colour.  In the first combination below, the blue is warm, i.e. it leans towards red and the red is cool, i.e. it contains a little blue.  Thus, only two primaries are involved and purple is the result.  

In the second chart, both the cool blue and the warm red lean toward yellow, which essentially brings the third primary into the mix, producing browns and muddier neutrals.  These are nonetheless useful colours.  

The charts on the page below show warm yellow and cool red, and cool yellow with warm red.  The first combination produces predominantly cool colours and tints, the second one much warmer ones. 

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The next charts show warm blue with cool yellow and cool blue with warm yellow. Both combination produced greens, one fresher, one sludgier / muddier but both could be useful, depending on the subject matter. The first produced a cooler range of colours and tints, although vibrant. Both combinations involve a hint of the invisible third primary (red) through the warm colours ultramarine and yellow ochre. 

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The next exercise extended the range of colours further into shades that are created using complementaries.  I used the first colour chart to identify the best pairings that produce true complementaries, to avoid unintentional muddy colours.

The first chart below was created using cool yellow with its complementary purple, created using ultramarine with the cool red (permanent rose/pink carmine).  

The second chart was created using ultramarine and orange, created using cool yellow and warm red (lemon yellow and scarlet red / cadmium red).

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Finally, I paired warm red with green.  I tried this using two different greens, one created with a cool yellow and the other with a warm yellow.  The blue each time was cool.  The difference is subtle, although my preference is for the second colour chart, which produced a range of slightly warmer neutrals and tints.  However, the blending on the second chart was better, which could also affect the outcome. 

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So, there are more than 200 colours, tints and shades here from only six basic primaries plus white!  I am amazed at the range and very pleased that I did this exercise because it has taught me more colour awareness and given me a better sense of the way in which even a limited palette can suggest a subject or a season or a feeling. 

Also, it has shown how to identify an appropriate shadow colour using neutrals, which will depend on the colour of the subject.  A simple example is that a yellow lemon will require purple shadows.  I understood complementary colours before embarking on this exercise but seeing this range brings home visually how subtly different these can be and how a shadow that incorporates a range of closely related shades will convey more realism and more depth.

I have also fallen in love with pastels. 

The exercises took a few hours but were very worthwhile. I added fixative at the end, which I gather can produce changes of its own, and have covered each chart in a removable layer of tissue paper to preserve it. 

The basic concept ought to be transferable to other media, as long as these can be layered transparently.  Theoretically, this could even include oils if they are diluted with their solvent sufficiently. 

 

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