Just about any palette, even a limited palette, will include at least one version of each of the three primaries — a red, a blue, and a yellow. Theoretically, by mixing these primaries together, in various proportions, you can create a wide variety of neutral colors (grays) which can also be used to neutralize other mixtures. But that’s a lot of extra mixing. Many painters like to include at least one neutral color on their palette — a single “go-to” pigment that can quickly be added to other mixtures to make them more neutral.
What is a neutral color? A true neutral would have no color or temperature bias at all. You would have a hard time identifying whether it leaned toward the warm side or the cool side. It would also be difficult to tell what its intrinsic hue was. However, just about any neutral pigment, even black, has a color bias to some degree. The color bias is important because it will influence your mixtures in specific ways. For example, if I am painting a cool blue-gray landscape like End of Summer (above), I will pick a neutral pigment that is cooler (like Gamblin’s Portland Gray Deep), as opposed to a neutral that is warmer, such as burnt umber. In other words, the choice of a neutral pigment is not arbitrary; I choose it based on the color and temperature direction of my painting.
Another reason I like having neutral pigments on my palette is because, by making it easier to mix neutral colors, I am more likely to do so. With so many primary colors on my palette (ultramarine blue, cadmiums, alizarin, etc.), it’s easy to forget just how important neutral colors are in creating shadows and colors that look natural and convincing.
Let’s take a closer look at the individual characteristics of these “go-to” neutrals.
Burnt Umber – This earth color has been my neutral of choice for many years. Straight from the tube burnt umber is dark and chocolate-colored. As you lighten it with white, however, you will see that is has a subtle orange-red tint. Whenever I introduce this pigment to students, I always remind them that it’s not meant to serve as a generic “brown” color for things like tree trunks or soil. Rather, it is used to modify other mixtures and make them less intense.
Burnt umber partners very well with ultramarine blue. When it is added with equal parts of ultramarine (right), it yields a deep, dark mixture which is as dark as black. This “rich black” can be pushed toward the cool side with a little extra blue or pushed toward the warm side with a little more burnt umber. Thus, with just burnt umber as your single neutral pigment you can create both cool or warm neutrals.
Black – For some painters, black is their de facto neutral. It can also be used as a universal darkening agent — which I believe is a bad habit. When used sparingly it does effectively neutralize a mixture, but when used in larger amounts, it has a tendency to overly darken and deaden color mixtures, bringing a lifeless gray to everything it touches. Why risk this when there are so many interesting neutrals with a subtle color bias?
Payne’s Gray (right) – As compared to black, Payne’s Gray is cooler and bluer. Straight from the tube, it looks just like black. As white is added, it’s bluish tint becomes obvious. This might be the pigment of choice if you want a black-like pigment with a stronger color bias than regular black.
Gamblin’s Portland Grays – Gamblin Artist’s Colors offers a wide range of neutral pigments called Portland Grays. (Gamblin is based in Portland, Oregon.)
Portland Gray in light, medium, or deep (right) – These grays are formulated to be unbiased neutrals; that is, without any color or temperature shift in either direction. To my eye, however, they appear slightly cool. The swatch at right is Portland Gray Deep. Portland Grays are comprised of mars black and iron oxide (umber) pigments.
Most of the neutrals mentioned so far are quite dark. What if you want to generate a neutral mixture, but don’t necessarily want to darken that mixture at the same time? That’s where the light value neutrals come in.
Portland Warm Gray and Portland Cool Gray (above) – These two middle-value pigments make a good pair if you are looking to have both a warm and a cool neutral on your palette. Portland Warm Gray has a red bias. Straight from the tube it appears to have a slight violet cast. Portland Cool Gray has a blue bias.
Gamblin’s Portland Gray Light and Medium – See “Gamblin’s Portland Grays” above.)
Gamblin’s Warm White and Cool White (above) – Gamblin has just introduced a Warm White and a Cool White. The Warm White has a titanium/zinc white base, with very small amounts of hansa yellow and orange for a clean (intense) light white. The Cool White is also made with a titatnium/zinc white base, with the tiniest amount of phthalo blue for a noticeable blue tint. These can be quite handy when mixing warm or cool colors of a very light value. If I am trying to mix, say, a very light orange hue, it might be more efficient to start with Warm White instead of titanium white.
Titanium Buff – There is a common misperception that Titanium White is made by “bleaching” the more muted Titanium Buff. In fact, Titanium Buff is made from titanium dioxide, which is a very bright white and the same white that is on most painters’ palettes. What makes Titanium Buff appear muted is that it is compounded with iron oxide. Like Titanium White, Titanium Buff is opaque and has strong covering power.
As luscious as these neutral pigments are, don’t go overboard with them. Your cool and warm primary and secondary colors will always be the mainstay of your palette. Your neutral pigments, perhaps one or two at most, augment the palette by helping you mix neutrals that fit the color scheme of your painting.