Seeing Clean Color

Armand Cabrera

When most people first attempt to paint in oils, they see gray and brown everywhere and they paint shadows black and lifeless.

To keep your paintings from being dull, forget about grays, browns and blacks.

Get in the habit of thinking of color in terms of primary colors: yellow, red, and blue. All other colors are simply combinations of these primary colors. By staying with primary colors, you have a clear color choice from which to relate. It is a subtle difference, but an important one. Once a color choice is decided upon, you can determine its value, saturation and temperature relative to the colors around it. Mixing clean color comes from understanding which primaries are needed in its creation.

To see clean color, you need to carefully consider your palette. To get a more personal color sense, remove all the secondary and tertiary colors from your palette. Mixing the color you see from a limited palette will force you to think about the color you mix and its relationship to the colors around it. This process helps the artist obtain a better understanding of color. I suggest a palette of warm and cool primaries, plus white.

Titanium White
Cobalt Blue
Ultramarine Blue
Alizarin Crimson Permanent
Cadmium Red Light
Cadmium Yellow Medium
Cadmium Yellow Lemon

If you’re really serious about accurately mixing color, limit yourself to one each of blue, red , yellow, plus white.

Here’s the palette I choose:
Titanium White
Ultramarine Blue
Alizarin Crimson Permanent
Cadmium Yellow Medium

Remember to always use real pigments and not hues. Because of the composition of hues, they are not reliable for accurate mixing.

Color Theory Basics Part I

Armand Cabrera

Color is hinged on value. To have good color, you must have accurate values. To have accurate values, you must get the correct relationships between the colors and values right. Colors and values seen by the human eye are hundreds of times greater than what is available in your pigments. Because of this, you must get the differences correct.

EXAMPLE: For measurement, we will use a value scale of 10 places, where 0 = black and 9 =white.
Let’s say all the things you see in the sunlight are at a range of 6, 7 and 8 on the value scale. All the shadows are at a range of 3, 4 and 5. Therefore, all the colors in the sunlight or shadows must be in their respective value range–including white and black.
So…white in the shadow cannot be lighter than a 5 on the value scale.
Black in the sunlight can’t be darker than a 6.

It’s futile to copy the color you’re seeing unless you compare it to every color around it. To compare something, you must first have something to compare it with, right?
I always start with the thing I ‘m sure of…so if I am sure of the color and value of the sky, I start with that. If I’m sure of the color and value of the grass, then that will be my starting point.
I then evaluate all my other colors and values to my initial choice.

So how do you make the range of different colors you see in nature fit into the limitations imposed by your pigments? This is where you can use the other aspects of color to show the variety of your scene without compromising the value differences.
The other aspects of color are saturation, hue and temperature.

When faced with a slight change in value, see if you can use a hue change or temperature change to capture it. Save your value changes for the great division of light and shadow.

Color Theory Basics Part III


Armand Cabrera

When talking about neutrals in relation to color we must always remember we are still talking about color. There was an old academic saying the grays make the painting. While this is something I believe is true it is something that can get out of hand if the proper placement of an almost neutral color is not carefully considered.

Some artists like Remington used to save his color scrapings because they ended up a nice green gray and were useful in lieu of a tube gray. Tube grays have their place and can help with colors like yellow which can be difficult when you are trying to only lessen its chroma without changing its hue or value.

Having said that I still think it is better to mix your grays. You have one less tube of paint to lug around or buy and will avoid the trap of overusing the tube gray. If you’re like me when you put it on your palette you know you will not want to waste it, this is how inappropriate gray ends up in all your colors.

If you choose to mix your grays you will also get a more personal interpretation and it is possible to find other color solutions that while close to neutral are just low chroma color. It is slower to mix and that should be weighed against ease of use for a tube color.


In my observations nothing in nature is pure gray. All neutrals are affected by some other color around it from direct light or indirect light. This is especially true outdoors. Whatever you choose; tube color or mixing, the subtle beauty of neutrals will enhance your paintings.

Color Mixing

Armand Cabrera

In teaching the workshop this weekend more than a few of my students were frustrated by having to mix colors instead of just squeezing them from the tube.They all asked me for a way to approach color mixing and so I thought I would write it for the blog.

The best way to understand color is to experiment with mixing two colors in unequal proportions to see the results. After you exhaust the possibilities with two colors try three colors and their combinations. By experimenting this way you will see how powerful just a few colors are.

At the very simplest level color mixing is combining two colors to make a third color. Examples would be blue and yellow make green, red and blue make violet and yellow and red make orange. Once you mix secondary colors you can now mix the tertiary colors by adding even more of a primary color. An example would be after making violet you can now shift that violet to blue violet by adding more blue or red violet by adding more red.
My palette consists of primary colors, red, yellow and blues plus white. When I mix, I try to think of the value of the color first. Is it dark tone, medium tone or light tone? Next I look for its hue starting with the primary hues of red, yellow, and blue followed by the secondary hues of green, orange, or violet and then consider tertiary hues, blue violet, blue green, yellow orange, yellow green, red orange, red violet?
If I want to mix a mid-tone green I know ultramarine blue and cad yellow can make a mid-tone green because one color is dark and one is light. By mixing equal portions I get a green with an approximate middle value. The reason I say approximate is because you must also take into account the tinting strength of the colors.
That gives me two aspects of color, the third is saturation. Saturation depends on value, so if I know the value of the color is low but it appears more saturated than the colors around it then I need to use the colors closest in value to the color I am trying to mix. If a color is less saturated I use its compliment to modify it, again taking into account its value.

Polychromatic shift

Armand Cabrera
Polychromatic shift is a term I have coined to help explain what happens to the local color of an object when the surface of that object transitions from light to shadow.  It’s not a new concept and the idea of prismatic effects in color has been understood for quite some time. There has been a tendency to ignore this avenue of study now though, with so many people working from photo and video reference, digital painting, and not painting from life for indoor or outdoor images.

Polychromatic shift is the idea that local hue of an object is augmented by its environment.  The local hue of an object is its base color like a yellow table cloth or red scarf. Once you introduce an object into any environment its hue, value and chroma are affected by all of the light sources acting on it. Most people only pay attention to the primary light source but anything in the scene that has light falling on it becomes a source of light itself.  In an outdoor scene an object would be affected by the primary light source (normally the sun) the secondary light source (the sky) and any object that has either of those two light sources shining on it near the original object.  The effect of these sources on our object is determined by the strength of the light coming from them.


The primary light source usually determines the pattern of light and shadow for an object because of its relative strength but all of the other sources of light in the scene affect the quality of the objects light and shadow. This is why the color of shadows are never just a darker version of the local color of an object in light. The local hue shifts to include the color from neighboring sources of light. How much this affects something is determined by the strength of the different sources and the makeup of the receiving object (how much it absorbs or reflects light).


There is no natural scenario where an object would only have a single light source affecting it to create a monochromatic transition from light to dark unaffected by surrounding objects. Anytime you place an object in a scene and light it, its color is affected by everything else in the scene and must be painted that way.

Since sunlight is warmer than sky light any objects local hue must shift warmer and lighter towards the sunlight and cooler and darker towards the sky light and even darker still to complete absence of light. As the object darkens into and loses the influence of the stronger light sources, the weaker reflected lights become visible shifting the hue.


Most artists are told to think in value first color second and while I agree with that idea for the most part, when we turn to color it is important to pay attention to all of its aspects; hue, value, and chroma and their relative appearance to all of the surrounding features in the scene.

This means that an artist should forget about the local color of the object they are painting and learn to see it and its plane changes as the colors they are, relative to the whole picture. This is the foundation for clean color.  In my experience weak color comes from the artist’s refusal to let go of the objects local color. They force the local color to remain when in fact it has shifted to another hue.  The better choice is to paint those transitions as a clean color. Once they do that any object can be any hue given the right circumstances.

 by James Gurney
by Richard Schmid