This Color Chart Exercise Saved My Career

In my studio shortly after completing the color chart exercise. You can see the panels on the studio wall.

My life as an artist was at a crossroads

I was preparing to leave my job of thirty-five years as an art director to start a new career as a professional oil painter. I had years of design experience, but for two decades I had worked primarily in digital media.

I had good drawing skills, but my color mixing skills with real oil paints were weak. Even though I had a thorough understanding of color theory, I didn’t understand how each oil color has a personality of its own. The colors looked familiar enough but the way they behaved was at times mystifying and unpredictable. I could see the color I wanted in my subjects, but matching that color with paint often involved educated guesswork, and too often I guessed wrong. My weak skills undermined my confidence and nearly derailed my career before it began.

Richard Schmid’s book changed everything

That’s when I discovered Richard Schmid’s fantastic book on painting, Alla Prima – everything I know about painting. In his chapter on color, he describes this color chart exercise his teacher, Bill Mosby, assigned it to his class. Most of Richard’s classmates dismissed the exercise as a boring waste of time. But Richard took it seriously, enjoying the challenge of executing it perfectly. It paid off for him. And, it really paid off for me.

This exercise accelerated my career

It took me several weeks to complete the twelve color charts in this exercise (see the complete set of charts below). I not only learned how to mix colors, but also the nature of the each color. Their staining power, transparency, temperature shifts when mixed, even drying times and how glossy or matte they dry. The confidence I gained with such thorough understanding of my palette helped to rapidly advance my painting skills. In less than two of years, prestigious galleries were representing my work, and I had my first of many solo shows.

Care and patience pay off

There is power in the simplicity of this exercise. In a nutshell, you’ll mix all of the possible color pairs on your palette and chart out five different values (dark to light) of each mixture. Its power is in its careful execution and paying close attention to the way the paint behaves. 

 

“It is the doing of the charts and the how they are done that matter.” ~ Richard Schmid”

To learn how to do anything in art requires doing the physical work. Just looking at the charts doesn’t come remotely close to teaching you what this exercise has to offer. To get the most out of the exercise, pay close attention to what is happening.

  • How a panel of various colors mixed with one predominant color creates a wonderfully harmonious color scheme.
  • Which colors have strong staining power.
  • How dark colors are hard to identify until white is added.
  • The cooling effect of adding white.
  • Mid-tone colors tend to be more vivid.
  • Accuracy, not speed, is the friend of mixing the right color.
  • The list goes on . . .

51xEBTnp1DL._SY436_BO1,204,203,200_Alla Prima II Everything I Know about Painting–And More
This exercise is the smallest sample of the riches in Richard Schmid’s Alla Prima. In my opinion, it is the best book available on the art and craft of oil painting. Richard gracefully leads you through the subtleties of painting theory and technique with refreshing directness and technical authority.

Let’s get started

Limited Palette Version If you would like to try a 3-color version of this exercise, see my Zorn Limited Palette Exercise here.

In this tutorial I am using my 11-color palette. If you have a set of colors you are currently using, I encourage you to use them. Just keep the following in mind:

The number of panels you will need is equal to the number of colors on your palette plus one. In this tutorial, I am using an 11-color palette so I needed 12 panels.

You will be painting a series of 1″ squares separated by 1/4″. I used  8″x15″ panels for the job. If you have more than 11 colors you need to adjust the width accordingly. I used 1/8″ MDF primed with two layers of gesso, lightly sanded.

STEP 1: Draw the Grid

On a your panel, draw a grid of 1 inch squares with 1/4 inch space between them. 11 across and 5 down.

STEP 2: Mask the Grid
Using the drawn squares as your guide, apply 1/4″ house painter’s masking tape to mask the edges of the rows and columns.

STEP 3: Mixing and Painting the Grid

This is where the fun begins!

Using a small palette knife or brush, paint the grid with the colors mixed as follows.

TIP: Remove the tape before the paint dries completely. Removing it when it is dry is not pleasant. Attach new tape if you need to make corrections.

Your goal is to create five equally progressive stages of lighter values for each top row color. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but worth the effort.

COLOR ROWS

TOP ROW – 100%
These are the BASE colors. They’re either a single color or mix of two colors straight out of the tube.

ROW 2 – 75%
Mix 3 parts BASE to 1 part white

ROW 3 – 50%
Mix 1 part BASE to 1 part white

ROW 4 – 25%
Mix 1 BASE to 3 parts white

BOTTOM ROW – TRACE
Mostly white with just enough color to shift to an off-white tint

KEY

CYL: Cadmium Yellow Light
CYD: Cadmium Yellow Deep
CO: Cadmium Orange
YO: Yellow Ochre
CR: Cadmium Red
TR: Terra Rosa
AC: Alizarin Crimson
TRO: Transparent Red Oxide
V: Vermilian
U: French Ultramarine Blue
CB: Colbalt Blue

Titanium White is added to create values

I use M Graham oil paints. The base color will vary when using other brands.

CHART ONE: Palette Colors

Top Row: Unmixed palette colors.

Lightening in Five Steps
This process is repeated on each chart

Each column is then lighted by adding white to the top row color. Your goal is to create five equal steps from 100% color to an off-white in the bottom row. The percentages in the margin are only suggested starting points. Depending on the staining power of the colors, you will need to adjust the ratio of white to the color. You will notice the mid column, Terra Rosa (TR), got away from me a little.

ALL OTHER CHARTS: Mixed Colors

TOP ROW: Signature Color plus palette color

For each of the remaining charts the first column will be the palette color that will be the predominant color for that chart. In the case shown below, the predominant color is Viridian (V). Subsequent columns are mixtures of Viridian and the next color on your palette chart. In this case, the second column is a mixture of Cadmium Yellow Light (CYL) with Viridian predominating, the second column is Cadmium Yellow Deep with Virdian predominating, and so forth through to Cobalt Blue (CB). Avoid mixing equal amounts of each color, but enough color of the first signature color to predominate while allowing the other color’s character to be recognized.

Lightening in Five Steps
This process is repeated on each chart

Each column is then lighted by adding white to the top row color. Your goal is to create five equal steps from 100% color to an off-white in the bottom row. The percentages in the margin are only suggested starting points. Depending on the staining power of the colors, you will need to adjust the ratio of white to the color.

All of my charts on shown below for you the reference.

PALETTE COLOR CHARTS

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