Many years ago, when I was still in college, I had a piece of art in a show that was displayed in a prominent museum. At the opening reception for the show, I was talking with the museum director. He was a kind and generous man with a vast amount of knowledge. He happened to be somewhat of an expert on Russian art. While I was talking to him, he gave me a lot of encouragement regarding my art. I am grateful, though, that he took to time to help me realize that my colors weren’t clean. He explained that the Russian artists would wipe their brush between every brushstroke.
I know, you cannot generalize and say that all Russian artists did that with each stroke. But the point he got across to me in a very clear way was that I needed to keep my colors clean. Part of the way to do that is to use a clean brush. I’d like to expand on that theme and share a few other ways to keep your colors clean.
But first, what is clean color? Clean color does not necessarily mean pure color straight from the tube. Ironically, clean color can be gray, neutral, muted, subdued, etc. Or it can be bright and pure. The color’s chroma does not determine whether it is clean or not. The Russians have beautifully sophisticated grays. Yet they are clean. How or why?
In his book Alla Prima, Richard Schmid defines muddy colors as a mixture of color that is simply the wrong temperature. So, if that is true – and I agree with Richard - then it follows that clean color is simply a mixture in which the temperature is correct. The key to the Russian artists’ sophisticated grays is proper temperature.
Clean Color = Correct Temperature
With this article, I won’t go into how to see the proper temperature and value. Nor will I get into color theory and how to mix the colors you want. I won’t get into how color affects mood or anything of that nature. I’ll save those for possible future articles.
However, I do want to give you some simple, practical housekeeping tips to make it easier to keep your colors clean. These tips are geared around keeping your paint from becoming contaminated. With uncontaminated colors, you can control each and every mixture. Regardless of whether you paint vivid or subdued hues, you want to start with uncontaminated paint.
Clean Brushes – Wipe them often with a rag. Rinse them in your thinner periodically as you paint. Use fresh brushes in areas when you need both clean color and pure color.
Organized Palette – Arrange your piles of color around the perimeter of your palette. Don’t squeeze colors from the tube right into the middle of the palette. Reserve this for your mixing area. This is one of the most common mistakes I see from my students.
Clean Your Palette Often – From time to time while you paint, scrape or wipe the palette clean. Give yourself a clean space to mix your paint.
Don’t dip into the middle of your piles of tube colors - This will contaminate them. Take paint from the edge of the pile.
When replenishing your colors on your palette, clean the area that is designated for that color before squeezing the paint from the tube - Don’t squeeze clean paint onto a contaminated pile and don’t just find an open spot in the middle of the palette (See "organized palette").
Mix with a palette knife - I don’t always do this. I use my brush often. But when I need to mix light colors that also have a higher chroma (more pure, bright pigment), I always use a knife.
Again, these are just housekeeping tips. They make it easier to mix the proper color with the proper temperature, value, and chroma. As important and helpful as these are, they don’t replace the need for you to study color theory; learn to see; and learn to mix properly. Some artists have very messy palettes and brushes, but somehow get clean color. But they are masters with color. For the rest of us, especially for you beginners, make it easier on yourself and keep your palette and brushes clean.