How to Make Gray and Brown Paint Using Primary Colors

This title was presented by the Editors as a challenge, so how could a painter resist it? My first reaction was to wonder why anyone would bother, when more subtle and compatible neutrals can be achieved in other ways. I could visualise how it might be done but I had not tried it in reality. So, still in my night-dress, I slipped out to the studio early this morning and experimented. See what you think of my results, below.

And for those readers who are taking the first steps on their journey towards becoming an artist, I will add some definitions as we go along.

  • So, What is a Neutral Hue?

Neutral hues: The Neutrals can be crudely classed as Grays or Browns. In experienced hands, they are a number of extremely subtle blends of the colours used throughout a painting. They can, however, be made by mixing the three Primaries. Here’s how:

1) Making Grays

The simplest way to achieve Gray from mixing the three Primaries is this: Blend equal parts of Blue and Red, resulting in a crude Purple. Into that mix add small portions of Yellow until a dark Gray appears. To lighten its Chroma* you can – very carefully – add small quantities of White.

*What is Chroma?

This value refers to the darkness or lightness of a colour.

2) Making Browns

Blend equal parts of Blue and Yellow, resulting in a crude Green. Into that mix add small portions of Red until you achieve a suitable Brown. For example, you may want a Brown of less intensity or Chroma for your current painting.

It might seem obvious to add White to your new Brown mix. But this would be a huge mistake. Instead, add more Yellow.

  • How to Avoid Making Mud

All of this mixing should take place on your palette, using a palette knife. This is the one and only way to achieve ‘clean’ colour mixes, vital when you are using Gray or Brown. In the excitement of creating a new painting, it is fatally easy to reach for a brush and start mixing colour straight onto your canvas. Despite what you see in Hollywood movies about famous artists, you can never get all the pigment out of the bristles by wiping your brush on a rag or by rinsing it in turps. The residue of colour will end up in the new mixes and turn them into mud.

TIP. I urge you to get into the habit of using your brushes for laying on the paint, never for mixing it.

  • Other ways to make Neutrals

You can make far more subtle Neutrals from the colours you are using in your current painting. For example, if you are painting a landscape with storm clouds above, you have likely used Cobalt Blue mixed with White in the sky background. If you wish to make a Gray to define those clouds further, you can do this:

  • Take some of your Cobalt Blue, mix it with its Complement* – Burnt Sienna – and you will get a subtle gray tone that you can vary by mixing in some White.

*What is a Complement?

This is the colour which is opposite the Dominant* Hue on the Colour Wheel. For example, the Complement – or opposite – of Blue-Purple is Yellow-Green.

*What is a Dominant Hue?

You’ve guessed this one, right? It is the colour or Hue used most extensively in the painting you’re working on. So, if your painting is a portrait and you need to enhance the subject’s hair colour with a dark but neutral Brown, try this:

  • Mix the Red earth, such as Burnt Sienna – that you have already used for skin-tones in your portrait painting – with Ultramarine Blue to make a deep but neutral Brown.

When you want to make Neutrals, either from the Primaries or in other ways, experimenting is the only way to find the mixtures best suited to your personal style and chosen subject matter. A bonus is the fun you’ll have doing it.(C)Dorothy Gauvin

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