Thursday, 4 November 2010

Why do My Oil Paintings Look Dull?

In an attempt to copy the old masters, the artist may temper vibrant colors in the belief that an oil painting should look sombre. In other cases, the artist may strive for vibrant paintings and instead finds garish colors. How can the artist paint vibrant oil paintings?

Causes of a Dull Oil Painting

Oil Painting with Bright Colors
Rachel Shirley
The traditional view of an oil painting is often one that contains lots of earth colors. The prospective artist may therefore purchase a set of oil paints dominated with lots of browns and neutrals. The following may also cause a dull painting.
  • Darkening colors with black. For example, adding black to green for foliage or black to flesh tint for shaded areas of portraits. Black and any bright color often results in dirty colors.
  • Tempering vivid colors with neutrals in the belief they are always too bright.
  • Painting alla prima can sometimes result in an oil painting that lacks depth of color once the painting is dry.
  • Over-mixing oil pigments, causing the color mixture to lose its life
  • Using too many colors in a mix, such as more than three.
An unsuitable frame may make an oil painting look cheap and amateurish. A thin gold frame or black plastic strip does any painting little justice. A wide rustic wooden frame will compliment a landscape or portrait painting.

Paint like the Old Masters

Many beginners believe that the essence of an oil painting lies with the old masters, which are noted for heavily shaded areas, known as chiaroscuro. Early oil painters were restricted in the colors they could use, as blue pigment (lapis lazuli) was costly to produce, which is why early paintings appear subdued. In other cases, bright pigments dulled with time.

Egg Tempera Techniques

Furthermore, the precursor to oil colors was egg tempera, which is essentially ground pigment mixed with egg yolk. Mixing colors was almost impossible, as each color had to be blended separately before applying onto the panel. This meant many of pigments were necessary for painting.

The Best Oil Colors

Thankfully, times have changed and oil color manufacturing processes means that these restrictions are taken away. The artist may use any color at his disposal and mix the colors on the palette or the painting. In this respect, less oil pigments are necessary. Some artists will strive to emulate the old masters, having lots of earth colors within his palette. However, such a practice may not be suitable for producing vibrant oil paintings.

Colors that Cause a Dull Painting

Many oil painting sets contain unnecessary oil colors, which is why I purchase the tubes separately. Except for adding bulk to paint or mixing neutrals, I have found the following oil colors often lie redundant within my painting kit and many cause dull color mixtures:

Earth colors: Raw sienna, raw umber, yellow ochre (overrated in my view), brown ochre, cadmium brown, sepia, Vandyke brown.

Other unnecessary oil colors: Cadmium orange, flesh tint, sap green, olive green, lamp black, cadmium orange, paynes grey, Naples yellow and flesh tint.

These colors however, may prove invaluable in a watercolour or pastel kit. In oil pigment terms, the only earth colors I include in my color mixes are burnt sienna, a lovely golden brown, and burnt umber, ideal for creating rich warm darks.

How to Create Depth of Color in Oil Painting

Colors often appear dulled when an oil painting is dry. Varnishing it will bring out the saturated appearance of the colors again. But an oil painting that appears flat could benefit from glazing, a technique where a thin layer of oil paint is applied over a paint layer. Glazing adds depth and richness to oil painting, but more than four glazes are probably unnecessary.

Proper understanding of the color theory will prove invaluable for producing vibrant color mixes in paintings. I always include the three primaries within my palette. In printing terms, these are yellow, cyan and magenta. In oil pigments, I have found cadmium yellow (pale), pthalo blue and permanent rose pretty close. Ultramarine, cadmium red, viridian and lemon yellow are also useful.

External Links Relating to Issues of Dull Paintings

Further strategies for creating vivid oil paintings more in depth can be found on the following links.


Lefrontier said...

Also I have noticed that, when working with low cost canvases (unfortunately my case) colors tend to dull.... I suppose due to the huge quantities of paint those canvases absorb.

Rachel said...

This might be due to the low quality gesso primer used on the canvas rather than the canvas itself. Try giving the surface another coat of gesso and see if this does the trick.

Unknown said...

I'm guessing its with absorption of oil, I have noticed this. However you should be able to 'oil out' a thin layer over your dry painting (leave at least twice as long as you normally would to make sure its dry). Many oil out roughly between layers too. OR you can varnish it months later, or both to make sure.
Some colours just dull but its loss of oil content, lamp black is worse but i add alizarin to avoid this without changing colour, or simply keep oiling out you'd be amazed at how a little gloss improves certain colours.

Rachel said...

Thanks for comment! Oiling out has been described in another article on this blog 'why are there dull patches on my painting?' but some great advice here. Oiling out or varnishing will make the painting look fresh again. It's interesting to learn some colours are worse than other for dulling once dry.