I often start students off with some color studies, such as these. I got the idea, of course, from Richard Schmid’s Alla Prima book. I’ve done these several times over the years, as my palette changes, and it never ceases to provide me with a ton of new insights. At the very least it deepens my understanding of the parts of color – hue, value and saturation.
In fact, I think color charts are so important I liken them to scales that beginning music students learn to gain proficiency with their chosen instrument. If you’ve ever played an instrument, you know what I mean. In the exact same way, doing color “scales” can help you learn the properties of your chosen “instruments” – your tubes of paints. How they respond to other colors on your palette, how not only their value but their temperature changes with the addition of white. Doing these trains your eye to detect subtle changes in value, and also to control that value. And at the end, you’re left with these fantastic charts you can use over and over again to inform your painting process.
Below are some color scales I adapted for the Zorn Palette, which I often use for portraits or figures. It’s pretty exciting to see the variety of colors that can be mixed with three primaries: cad red light (traditionally vermillion), yellow ochre, ivory black (the “blue” in this lineup), and titanium white. The first scale below shows how you can achieve the “secondary” colors (outlined in white) – orange, green, and purple can be mixed from the earthy primaries (outlined in gray).
The top row of each of these is straight tube color, no titanium white. I used a small, diamond shaped palette knife (similar to 24T on this page). You can use a brush if you wish, but it’s an awful lot of cleaning up in between each square! No thanks. Use the knife, and wipe it clean. Easy. You can tape off to make it cleaner – use 1/4″ painter’s tape. Get about 5 rolls.The next three scales really show the magic of this palette. By mixing each secondary with its complementary we can see just how wide of a range of fleshy neutrals we can achieve with this palette. Green with cad red light, orange with ivory black (again, the “blue” in this palette), and purple with yellow ochre.
Each square in the bottom, lightest row should be equal in value. When you’re done with your columns you can test this by squinting down at the scale. You shouldn’t be able to detect any shift in value when you look at the bottom squares, but when you open your eyes you should be able to tell there is a hint of color. But don’t try to compare the squares of any of the other rows against each other. They will all be different, because the values of the tube colors are all different.Each column should be done in turn. First square should be the top one – pure tube color. The second square I did was the bottom one. The idea is to keep it as high key as possible while retaining a hint of discrete color. To test this, squint your eyes. The bottom, lightest square should be barely discernible from the white of the canvas. But when you open them you should be able to detect color. The third square I did was the middle one, a “halfway color” between the tube color and the lightest color. The fourth square was the midpoint between the lightest and middle color, and the last was the midpoint between the tube color and middle color. By doing them in this order you can more accurately judge an even progression from dark to light in each column.