Karen Weihs: Mixing Oil Colors

Written by Karen Weihs, Fine Artist and Royal Talens Art Ambassador

From a Colorist

Sharing Color Mixing Ya’ll

Painters today have pigment choices to select from that would have mind blowing effects even on the color-loving Impressionists. Despite this abundance, many artists and art educators such as myself endorse the use of a restricted or “limited” palette as a way to develop an easy-mixing solution of creating a harmonious painting. Here are the two limited palettes I prefer to teach.

The Zorn Palette

Limited palettes aren’t just for beginner painters. Many professional artists limit the number of pigment colors that they work with. Perhaps the artist who is most well-known for doing this is Anders Zorn, a Swedish painter active during the late 19th and early 20th centuries who developed a color palette that bears his name. Known today as The Zorn palette, it results in subtle, tonal paintings that require thorough mixing to get the richness of color. It may not satisfy artists with a passion for color, but subtle color is also amazing to go for. Even Zorn himself didn’t use it exclusively, and as a colorist, I find it invaluable to learn restraint in color mixing, as well as my passion for pushing color. When my students learn to really mix from the 4 tubes of paint, they get the impact of it. The four colors of the Zorn palette are Zinc White, Ivory Black, Yellow Ochre and Vermillion Red. I use Rembrandt brand by Royal Talens or Cobra water-mixable oils, also by Royal Talens, as my go to products. These four tube choices make one really stretch the impact of color mixing. Once choosing a little of this and a little of that and one part of one to one part of another, it teaches patience and wonderment to watch color evolve into something so chemically lovely. Blues are hard to achieve with this palette, but once the subtlety is achieved, that addition can be determined.

The 6-Tube Popular Palette

Painters who want the potential for both bright color and greyed color can choose this palette of 6 tubes to make a broad range of color, a simple palette made of saturated red, blue, and yellow pigments, plus white, is key. The three-color primary! I use Titanium White, Cold Grey, Cadmium Red Medium, Ultramarine Blue Deep, Cadmium Lemon Yellow and Naples Yellow. I recommend Rembrandt oils by Royal Talens. As with the Zorn palette, this palette can make a version of every hue, but the saturation level is much higher. Cadmium yellow lemon mixed with cadmium red light produces clean, high-chroma oranges; mixed with ultramarine, it results in saturated, slightly warm greens. The beauty of this palette is the big range.

The weakness of this palette is in the purples. It’s excellent for depicting shadows, but incapable of painting the high-chroma purple flowers. (Substituting cool alizarin permanent for the warm cadmium red light results in high-chroma purples that could do justice). Every three-color primary palette will have some weaknesses in color rendering, and artists who want to be able to achieve pure purples, oranges, and greens will have to add colors to it. But I find this palette satisfying and predictable, since I like to mix not only on my palette but directly on my canvas. I am known for blending color with my skinny palette knife just like a sculptor would, actually scraping it up over and over to mix so thoroughly that when stopping at the right mix, it changes in tone. A fun way to allow paint to perform. This six-color palette contains enough warm and cool versions of each of the primaries—red, blue, and yellow. Exploring the greens alone with this palette shows the broad range of hues—from warm olive to cool lime—that can be achieved with the two yellows and the deep blue. No single green you purchase can achieve such variety.

Transparent Paint Color To Start or Finish:

I like to begin a painting using a transparent color in one of my limited palette tubes. Applying a tone of transparent pigment on a cloth soaked with a medium is a great way to start. When you are choosing your colors, transparency in one of the pigments is important. Many pigments are sold as an opaque or a transparent. You just have to read the label. If pigment is mixed with Zinc white, which is transparent, with a medium, you can achieve a pigment that mimics stained glass. Transparency allows the white of the canvas or paper to show through. When you begin, the lean or transparent paint application build-up to the fat or thicker more opaque paint is how I start and finish. Therefore, fat over lean is a technical term. Best to start lean and end up fat. Because the value of the actual mixture is limited, you create values by the thickness of the paint you apply - the thinner the paint the lighter the value; the thicker the paint the darker the value. In oil paint you can modify the paint as you go by scraping to allow what is underneath to reappear or dabbing it with a damp cloth/wet ones. To do this successfully you need a good quality canvas. If the canvas is not properly gessoed, the colors will stain oddly and limit the light values.

Pushing Paint

I often use the term, push the paint. In palette knife work, you mix a lot on the canvas. That is why I like temperature controlled paint families of color. For instance, if I want a sky effect, I start with a mixed cool blue, a mixed warm blue, it's complement of a warm orange, warm white, cool white and possibly a neutral mixed gray from the tube called Cold Gray. Then I mix ON the canvas to get the nuances of all the sky like colors and neutrals of clouds or weather. Mixing the colors over and over on the canvas, into each other, warm then cool, produces the right effect. Patience to push, mix, push again, mix again. and then keep applying patterns of palette knife movement to get a result worth waiting for. Push and push, then wait and see. I do the same pattern of mixing colors in my abstract work. The secret to working monochromatically is choosing two colors that neutralize each other. This means that the pigments you choose should be complimentary. Blue and orange is one compliment choice, or green and red, or violet and yellow can be mixed together to create a grayed or "grayish" toned down chroma. Compliment mixing is necessary and strong! Even though you cannot match colors, you can use these mixtures to explore the effect of warm and cool temperatures depending on the amount of pigment used in the mixtures.


One last note. Organize your palette. Put the piles of color around the perimeter, thus allowing for ample mixing space. I've seen many students place colors at random, scattered all over the palette. This makes it difficult to find ample room to mix - not to mention the struggle of finding the color wanted. Then if color is running out, they squeeze another pile in whatever clean space they can find. Talk about frustration! I sometimes have a few palettes mixed. Make mixing easier on yourself. Organize your colors into an arrangement that makes sense to you. Then keep them arranged that order - always, so it is easy to find them again and again. If you are interested in learning more about using the palette knife as a primary tool to paint, more about color mixing using Rembrandt oil paint or Cobra water mixable oil paint, contact me through my website, it links to karen@weihs.com or by cell, 828/226-4024. I teach at my home in Highlands and offer retreat experiences to learn more about painting.

"If you want to live your life in a creative way, as an artist, you have to not look back too much. You have to be willing to take what ever you've done and whoever you were and throw them away. The more the outside world tries to reinforce an image of you, the harder it is to continue to be an artist." Steve Jobs

"Life is a continually exploration of Ideas and the desire to make those ideas real." Karen Weihs

Ambassador PostRoyal Talens