Breaking the Rules

It is funny, when I think back to my college days and all that I learned, the concept that I remember most clearly to this day is to never use black when mixing colors. Why? Because black will dull your colors. Simple enough. At the same time that I was learning this concept, I was using black in my Color Concepts class. Years later, being removed from the college environment and working with pastels, I finally began to question the idea. It is true that mixing colors with black will dull them. But the same is true of white. The idea is that black and white mixed together make gray. But this is true of any complimentary color combination; yellow and purple, blue and orange, red and green, et cetera.

The other problem, that mainly happens with yellow, is that when black is added to yellow, the color that we mix doesn’t mentally correspond to the color we began with. It just doesn’t feel like a darker yellow. It doesn’t even look like a darker yellow. Looking at the color strip below, we see that yellow and black also make green.

I struggled with this idea in working with pastel. For one thing, all of my colors are premixed – one of the things I love about pastel. And for whatever reason, the darks in my palette were just not dark enough for me. Even when I look at “dark” sets, I still feel like the colors are just not dark enough. I was at a workshop with L Diane Johnson when predictably, my quandary came up. She challenged the idea.

I continued, struggling for years with this concept, using the darkest dark I had. And then I realized, when the manufacturer mixes colors, they use black. And I wondered, why am I avoiding it? I also started thinking more about white. We were never told not to use white. I realized that the way I worked with white would work with black too.

This is my Munsell Color Chart from my college days. This page shows the variations in yellow when yellow is mixed with different shades of gray. And I can plop, if I recall correctly, all of my pastel colors somewhere on the pages in this book. At one time I had arranged all of my colors according to their value. Value is the darkness or lightness of the color. In the Munsell System, the scale is made up of ten values.

Color Chart showing yellow mixed with various grays.

What to do? (Keep in mind that I am not dealing with the temperature of the light source or reflective color from other objects.) Let’s say you are painting something yellow. Naturally there will be shadows and highlights to deal with. In dealing with the highlights, instead of adding white, pick up some of the color that is next to yellow on the color wheel. First determine if the highlight is warm or cool. If the highlight is cool, then looking at the color wheel, add a bit of yellow green and a bit of white to your yellow. Continue adding more yellow green, and even green to the yellow, and with each addition, add some white as you develop the highlights.

Assuming that the shadows are warm, pick up some yellow orange and add it to the yellow for the shadow colors. As you work your way to the darkest parts of the shadow, continue adding orange. Eventually begin adding red and then, at some point,  you will start adding a touch of black. As with the highlights, continuing doing this to develop the shadows. Doing this will keep your colors vibrant.

So, how does this apply to pastel? With pastel, the pigments are premixed and are in stick form. Pastelists mix their colors as they apply each pigment to their painting surface. Here is another rule, we work from dark to light. This does not mean that I start with black. I either use it early on or at the very end to redefine areas.

They say that rules are made to be broken. They also say that you shouldn’t break the rules until you understand why you are breaking them. I am happy to say that I am now completely comfortable breaking the do-not-use-black rule, and I am am quite pleased with the results.


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