Thursday, 15 November 2012

An introduction to colour (Part two)

Day two: Mixing colour
One of the main changes to art college life is the smell. When I started all the studios smelt of a combination of turpentine and cigarettes. Both of which have been eradicated. First of all came the smoking ban, I think that came in round about 1990 and the use of turps was gradually removed by the rise of health and safety officers, and  I must admit, the smells also went away due to better ventilation systems being installed.
Returning to day two. If we go back to the 1970s all the students would be asked to use oil paint. Gradually this would change, Colin introduced Liquitex in about 1980, we also started to use gouache and eventually switched over to using acrylics permanently. I did though always prefer oils and still do for this sort of work. So I shall therefore imagine this is a foundation session from about 1978.
Students are asked to squeeze out a small amount of red (or other primary). They would be asked, “What sort is it? Is it a warm red or a cool red?”
The staff would wonder about picking out paint issues such as how a particular vermilion could be quite scarlet in hue and compare this to a much more blue shade of cadmium red. A particular Holbein Chinese Vermilion, might be compared to a Napthol red, qualities of colour saturation and considerations as to differences between student oil colours and professional artists colours are made. Alizarin crimsons are looked at as good transparencies but poor surface mixes, it’s pointed out that other reds can be added to help the mix and move the colour away from its cool tendency. The problem was that we were not supplying the colour. Every student would have a different set of paints. This though was also an advantage. It meant that the reality of colour mixing was something all students would face right from the beginning. The first problem was the common language of colour. You just had to get used to it. Scarlets were supposed to be strong warm reds, vermilions were orange reds, cadmium reds perhaps closer to a mid–red.  However every manufacturer had their own idea of what these things were, and you had to get your head round what vermillion hue might be as opposed to vermillion. Scarlet red was however something else. This shifting mess of language variation was then converted into something more meaningful by asking students to go back to the previous day’s activity and to look at the colour and make a decision as to where it sat within the colour wheel. Mid red, or orange red or violet red. Then of course to decide how far off mid-red this colour was. A tiny fraction or so far away it could almost be an orange.
I really liked the fact that so much discussion was going on, but I’m also aware some students were bored and later as oil was phased out, the course would simply buy in a basic set of colours and that would be that, every student would be made equal.
At some point colour mixing would begin. Task one was to achieve a mid red (or other chosen primary). Once you had made your thoughts clear about the red you were starting with, you could adjust it. An orange tinted vermillion could be sent back towards mid red by adding a tiny amount of violet, a cool scarlet might have a touch of yellow added to it. Once the primary mix was established its complementary would be mixed. So if we started with red a mid-green needed to be made.  Again lots of talk about colours would go on. What was for instance, an olive green, was it a green or really a dark yellow? This would allow us to introduce the issue of mixing with black. Some students would be able to demonstrate in their mixes that yellow had been reduced to olive green by being mixed with black. We would tend to argue that the black was actually a very dark blue; these conversations again making students more aware of the complexity.
Students would make notes in pencil alongside their colour mixes, which were usually done using palette knives. This would lead to talk on how to mix paint properly, (no streaks allowed, mixes must be opaque, so lakes would have to have other colours added to them) and of course there was the issue of grounds. Patrick’s favourite quick fix was to rub margarine into the paper with a rag. It was probably fine for these sessions, but we would also let students mix on un-primed scraps of paper as well so that they could see the difference in tonal and colour value once the ground had sucked out the warm oil. This was all very organic. Mixes would spread over the paper forming natural clusters of related colours, each mix slightly different; again these would get talked about as if they were images in their own right. Each student producing different dynamics from these mixes, some making tiny neat squares, others messy patches, some working out from the centre, others starting on the left and working to the right, moving from top to bottom etc.  It was important to allow for this other element to enter the situation as it was part of the diagnostic element of the course. Years later I returned to do some work in foundation and everyone had to put their mixes into measured grids. By then however student numbers had reached about two hundred and those conversations Patrick would start about the nature of British Racing Green had become impossible.
At some point in the morning everyone was supposed to have mixed these two colours. The next stage was to set about mixing the found primaries and their complementaries again, but this time in enough quantity to start making other mixes. This itself took some time; even though students had made notes on the mixes, remixing larger quantities was hard, it wasn’t just a case of remixing proportionally larger amounts, mixing would always need to be optically judged, in particular tonal value changed due to the fact that larger amounts were perceived differently due to the continuing change in visual context.
Once mixed, the colours were gradually added to each other. Tiny amounts of mid red to mid green, tiny amounts of mid green to mid red.  Students would have to watch the mix carefully, it should stay on mid. Of course the colours gradually moved into the neutrals as they negated each other, but these neutrals were very different as you examined each student’s individual worksheet. We would put these sheets up and read from the pencil notes. Winsor and Newton Artists’ Oil colour would produce far less ‘greying out’ and you could get much closer to a black mix than with using cheap student grade paints. We would point out how whiting added to cheap paint mixes made them ‘pale out’.
By the end of the day students should have produced six mixes (blue/orange, orange/blue, red/green, green/red, yellow/violet and violet/yellow. (It might seem perverse to make students do both blue to orange and orange to blue mixes but doing this really got them to understand pigment staining power.)
The organic nature of the shapes that would be made by the different colour mixes would help students illustrate the pigment staining power. For instance, some pigments, such as Prussian blue had enormous staining power, a tiny amount would effect a change on another pigment, whilst others, such as yellow had to work hard to effect change.  Therefore as mixes were made patches of colours emerged with smaller or larger qualities of pigment that had been used for the mixing. More yellow needed than Prussian blue etc.
Finally the neutrals were compared. These were seen as vital colours that could be used in various ways to bring back life and movement into a coloured surface.
The quality of a blue/orange mix would be examined. Often the cool aspect of a blue/orange neutral would be picked out in comparison to the green/red mix which seemed to stay warmer. (In theory they should be the same, but in reality paints have limitations and it was these limitations that were of interest to us). The issue was, look carefully, you might expect one thing to happen, but because of the chemical consistency of the paint and different manufacturer’s individual grinding techniques (the toothpaste quality that comes from over grinding), unexpected things will occur. The job of the painter is to look and respond.
Finally we would have some pigment in powder form available and students could get small amounts of it to add into their mixes. They would be asked to look at the ‘bite’ and ‘tooth’ of the mix as well as the opaqueness and covering power. Hopefully they also achieved better neutral mixes, some students if I can remember rightly sometimes managing to get mixes very close to actual black.
At a later time during the course if students went on to specialise in painting they would get an introduction to grounds and under-painting etc. but at this point it was useful to see who just loved moving the stuff around and mixing it.
Because I was running a print area, I used to have glass and stone grinding slabs, oils and powder pigments, so I used to get heavily involved with this, students coming to me, often with Patrick in tow, to have extra 'oomph' added to their mix by grinding in pure pigment. Patrick would just test it for 'tooth' once ground, "a little more oil I think" or "it's still too much like toothpaste". 

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