Shake Up Your Palette with CMYK!

CMYK Landscape oil painting demonstration

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Stuck in a rut with your color-mixing?  Here are tips and techniques for how to shake things up with a CMYK limited palette. Follow along with this landscape oil painting demonstration using just three hues, plus black and white. This demonstration is featured in the November/December 2022 issue of Artists Magazine.

Materials & Reference

SURFACE: 12×16 primed panel

BRUSHES: No. 12 filbert, Nos. 1 and 4 brights, No. 1 round and a mop

PIGMENTS: cobalt teal, quinacridone magenta, Hansa yellow, titanium white, ivory black

OTHER: Gamsol or other solvent

My drawing is based on a photo by Teslariu Mihai that I found on Unsplash, an online resource for copyright-free photographs.

Oil Painting Demo

Oil painting demonstration step 1
Step 1

Step 1: Monochromatic Color

Using a No. 12 filbert or brush of similar width, establish a quick monochromatic wash of paint thinned with solvent. I used black mixed with a small amount of magenta and yellow to add warmth. The main goal at this stage is to establish a rough drawing, describing the scene in two values: a light tone for the sky and river, and darker tone for the ground.

TIP: I repeated cobalt teal on my palette to assist with color mixing, using one to mix with magenta and the other to mix with yellow. This helps to reduce contamination when mixing secondary colors.

Oil painting demonstration step 2
Step 2

Step 2: Block-In Color

I mix basic secondary colors to establish a rough block-in of paint thinned with solvent or medium. I use a larger brush here to avoid getting too detailed. The goal is to establish basic color relationships between areas in the landscape.

I mix teal and magenta to create the blue used for the darker parts of the water reflection. That same blue, mixed with white, is used for the sky. A combination of magenta and yellow are used on the land masses on the right side and along the horizon. Here, I adjust the mixture, adding more yellow to the foreground areas and more magenta to the distant trees. I add a small amount of the blue mixture along the horizon to soften the transition with the sky.

A combination of teal and yellow create the green used to paint the grass in the lower left.

TIP: When mixing, start with the weaker color, gradually adding small amounts of the stronger color until you achieve the right mixture. In this palette, the magenta is strongest, followed by the cobalt, with yellow being the weakest.

Oil painting demonstration step 3
Step 3

Step 3: Correct The Drawing

I focus on correcting any errors in the drawing at this stage. The largest changes happen in the foreground as  I correct the angles and curves of the river using the same colors mixed in the previous step. In the sky area, I create bands of blue to start refining the gradient. Along the horizon, I use a mixture of white, magenta and a small amount of teal. The band above the horizon shifts slightly as I add more teal to the mixture. Moving upward, I gradually add teal and magenta to create a deeper blue.

I then work the green areas further, using a combination of teal and yellow with small amounts of magenta and black to warm and darken the color.

TIP: Focus on the basic relationships between color in this stage. As you build the light and appearance of depth in the painting, gradually suggest some of the smaller shapes.

Oil painting demonstration step 4
Step 4

Step 4: Refine

Next, I switch to a smaller brush and refine the landscape. I start by mixing a shadow color of cobalt, magenta and black. I paint the forested areas next using a magenta/yellow mixture for the foreground trees. The distant trees use a mixture of yellow, magenta and teal, reducing the amount of yellow as the landscape recedes.

The green areas are painted next using a mixture of yellow and teal. I adjust the mixture with yellow, teal and small amounts of magenta to create the variations seen in the reference. The darker shadow areas in the grass are created by adding a mixture that adds blue, magenta and black.

The reflection of the sky in the river features a gradient of lighter values nearer the horizon and darker values in the foreground. The distant, light areas use a teal, magenta and white mixture. Advancing towards the foreground, the color shifts from pure teal before gradually adding magenta and black where the river advances.

TIP: Use a mop or fan brush to blend areas of the sky and water, reducing the texture and creating contrast against any textured marks in the land and trees.

Oil painting demonstration final
Final Painting

Step 5: Final Details

Evaluate the painting from a distance to identify areas that need further refinement. In this case, I chose to develop the distant parts of the river near the center of the painting. I used small brushes to refine the dark areas first, using  a combination of teal, magenta and black. I then brightened some of the light areas in the tree using a clean brush to lay on a range of orange hues ranging from nearly pure yellow, to an even mixture of yellow and magenta, and nearly pure magenta.

Finally, the grassy areas were completed using variations of the base green mixture, adding magenta to add warmth and black to darken.

TIP: Try to avoid adding white to your brighter areas. Adding white will lower the saturation of your colors, so be sparing with it if you need to lighten values.

Self-Evaluation Tips

The following tips will help you to identify what’s working well in your composition, as well as areas that could use more work.

  • Step back from your work and evaluate the depth and atmosphere in the landscape. If it feels flat, don’t be afraid to scrape your painting down and start again from Step 3.
  • Reflect on the color-mixing process. When mixing two primary colors together, was the result rich and highly saturated? If they became muddy, consider the quality of the paints being used. Higher-quality paints will have a larger pigment load, helping to retain saturation when mixed. Lower-quality paints can have less pure pigment, diminishing the saturation when mixed.
  • Was it hard to control your colors? Consider cleaning your palette periodically. If you mix color with a brush, make sure it’s relatively clean. I wipe my brushes on a rag or paper towel with a small amount of solvent or straight linseed oil. When mixing with a palette knife, keep a paper towel handy to wipe the knife clean between rounds of color mixing.

Scott Maier is an artist, video producer and content creator for artistsnetwork.com, where he has hosted 150 episodes of the of the show Drawing Together. He’s also the author of the instructional art book, See, Think, Draw.

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