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Down the Rabbit Hole: Part II - Questions and Answers

color watercolor Jun 24, 2020

Carol's limited palette for mandalas shown below, #4 (left) and mandala #5 (right), is Nickel Quinacridone Yellow, Manganese Blue hue and Alizarin Crimson. 

Mandalas #4 and #5 by Carol S. Ink and Watrcolor.

Projects for Color Wheel Mandala Part II on Skillshare.

Here is Carol's question that prompted the initial journey down the rabbit hole.


  • In my latest (4th) mandala that I just posted, I was using Nickel Quin Yellow, Manganese Blue hue, and Alizarin Crimson. As I was finishing up I wanted to make a black or gray so I could use that for part of the design. No matter what colors - like all the primary ones - I could not get a black or gray. I kept getting brown. I must be under the mistaken impression that one can mix blacks from opposite colors and or mixing three colors together. I gave up after 5 or 6 tries and a bunch of paint! Can you enlighten me on this?

This was my response:

... I will use your same pigments to create an illustration of my answer and post it later in a discussion. I'll let you know when it's posted. The simple answer is Yes ... and No.

NOTE: Black is the darkest dark on the grayscale.  Because I use the Zone System Grayscale (presented by Black & White photographers Ansel Adams and Fred Archer), Black, for me is #1 (It's actually #0, white is #10, but that makes the scale an eleven step scale which is far to confusing when relating it to the grayscale painters generally refer to.) I mention this because many artists think of the grayscale in the reverse, White being #1 and black being #10.  In this discussion it's painfully important to clarify the foundation upon which I build my answers.

I could have given her the following, simple answer to her question.

To darken the value of a pigment you add one or more pigments of darker value.  The mixture of the two or more pigments will never be darker than the darkest pigment.  the reverse is also true ... To lighten the value of a pigment you add one or more pigments of lighter value.  The grayscale value of your Nickel Quinacridone Yellow is probably around #8 when fully saturated.  the grayscale value of your Alizarin Crimson is probably around #3.  The grayscale of your Manganese Blue Hue is probably around #5.  The closest you will ever come to a black using all three pigments is grayscale #3.  The darkest value you will achieve with the limited palette you've chosen is #5 which will be achieved by mixing only the Alizarin and the Manganese giving you a violet rather than a brown, gray or black.  To achieve a brown or gray with those pigments, you need to add a touch of your yellow.  Once you begin adding any amount of yellow, you are lightening the grayscale value, heading away from black.

The above answer does NOT take into account the following variables will impact the results in greater or lesser ways:

1. The paper being used

2. The manufacturers choice of ingredients to create the pigment.  Pigments with the same name often have different components.

3. The amount of binder used by the manufacturer.

4. When the pigment was created (manufacturers alter their recipes).

5. The amount of water the artist uses causing greater or lesser dilution of the pigments and therefore lightening the value.

IF all of the above are taken into account, the simple answer still holds true.  If the online class were a live workshop, I would have grabbed a piece of paper, used Carol's pigments and done a quick demonstration to illustrate the above answer as well as the variables.  That isn't possible with online classes.  If Carol uses a student grade watercolor paper that has too much sizing in it, she won't get a black no matter what she's mixing, nor would her alizarin look like a #3 or her manganese look like a #5.  And ... What exactly is her Nickel Quinacridone Yellow?  Who made it?  when was it made?

What pigment, if any, can be substituted if I don't have a tube of the exact same pigment she's using? This question is the one that caused the deep dive into the rabbit hole.  I knew that somewhere in my boxes of miscellaneous paint tubes I have one that says Nickel on it.  I found it.  That led to the dilemma I'll talk about in the last post of this series: Down the Rabbit Hole.

left: Basic color wheel created using a limited palette of nickel titanium Yellow (Winsor & Newton), Permanent Alizarin Crimson ( DaVinci) and Manganese Blue (American Journey) Only two of the primaries are mixed at any given interval.

center: The same as the color wheel on the left searching for more information allowing only two of the primary colors to mix at any time.

right: variations possible when allowing all three pigments to mix.

After going down the rabbit hole to find a suitable pigment to substitute for Carol's Nickel Quinacridone Yellow, I opted to use Daniel Smith's Nickel Azo Yellow PY150

Compare the color wheels made with the two yellows. 

I created an additional color wheel using the Nickel Azo Yellow to show more darks created by the Alizarin and Manganese.

 Top left: color wheel showing mixes of the primaries as well as a bit of neutralizing by mixing all three as I moved into the oranges

Top right: the darkest darks possible for me using only the alizarin and manganese.

Bottom left: the darkest darks and nice lights of the neutrals created mixing all three pigments. In order to stay in the grays I used mostly blue and only a minuscule bit of yellow.

Bottom right: The mix goes quickly into browns when adding more yellow and/or more alizarin.


Carol also asked:

As I was finishing up I wanted to make a black or gray so I could use that for part of the design. No matter what colors - like all the primary ones - I could not get a black or gray. I kept getting brown. I must be under the mistaken impression that one can mix blacks from opposite colors and or mixing three colors together. I gave up after 5 or 6 tries and a bunch of paint! Can you enlighten me on this? Is it not true for certain primary colors?

A more complicated answer:

Black is the absence of light.  When all light waves are cancelled out, there's blackness.  We see no color at night without the illumination of the sun, a candle, a lightbulb, a flashlight.  Color is our brain's interpretation of the lightwaves that are reflected from objects and strike our eyes.  If there are no light waves reflecting off objects to hit our eyes, there are no lightwaves for the brain to interpret as a color.  Each wavelength is interpreted as a different color.  The pigments in our paints are tiny particles that reflect light waves.

When two pigments are mixed, they don't mush together to make entirely new particles that reflect a new color.  They remain the exact same particles reflecting the exact same wavelengths. What is different is how the reflected wavelengths affect one another.  I was taught that complementary colors absorb each other.  The word absorb always confused me.  Light waves canceling out one another makes more sense to me.  think about this in any way that will make sense to you.  

To describe what happens in the least scientific manner I know, perhaps a way that you can visualize what is happening (scientists will cringe at this bizarre translation of what's happening) I will say that a very short wave will make a long wave shorter and a long wave will make a short wave longer ... they flatten each other out and are no longer light waves that the eye interprets as color of any kind.  These cannot be unflattened. they are basically gone, vanished, absorbed, cancelled. If the lightwaves aren't totally flattened out, because they are closer to being of the same length, the eye will pick up a bit of something and the brain will interpret it as a variation  a secondary hue, a tertiary hue, an even more neutralized hue that is either tending toward brown (if the resulting, slightly flattened light wave leans toward yellow or red, or gray (if the resulting, slightly flattened light wave leans toward blue). Regardless of the degree of flattening, there is less intensity of lightwaves hitting the eyes and therefore the grayscale value of whatever color it is will be less than the pure pigments of the colors being mixed.

NOTE: the word "length" can be confusing. Lightwaves are short or long in height rather than length but we don't refer to them as waveheights. 

Remember... the pigment particles are still all there in the paint, just as they were when they were sitting in their own tubes.  If you thought you could improve the color mix by adding more of this and more of that and a little bit more of the other, you're likely to wash it all down the sink or scrape it all off of your palette.

Try thinking like a light wave ... 

When two color spectrum lightwaves, of similar wave length strike each other, they diminish each other a wee bit, but only enough to create a new wavelength that our brain reads as a secondary hue, a yellow/green, green, green/blue, blue/violet, violet, red/violet, red/orange, orange or yellow/orange.

When you mix two pigment on opposite sides of the color wheel (complementary colors) you are always mixing a bit of all three primary colors and you will get a neutral.  That neutral might be more of a gray or more of a brown depending on which compliments you are mixing.  Mixing yellow and violet will not give you the same result as mixing red and green.  They both give you a neutral, and often an undesirable neutral, one that gets washed down the sink or scraped off the palette.

Richer, beautiful neutrals are created by mixing near complements, for example, mixing yellow with a red/violet or a blue/violet rather than a violet.  Try it.  You'll see the difference.  Neutrals are powerful.  They make the more saturated colors sing, but only if they have a bit of a sweet, soft melody of their own. If they are silent (dreary) they don't add any harmony to a painting.

That's more than enough of a science lesson for today.  I'll move on to answer Vesta's  questions tomorrow.



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