View Full Version : How to tone down saturation?

07-12-2003, 05:59 PM
I'm not sure I have my terminology correct here. From what I've read so far about color, there's 'hue' (i.e. the basic color, blue, red etc), there's tone (the lightness or darkness) and then there's brilliance, or saturation.
Very often when I try to paint something, it seems there's too much color. I know it sounds crazy, but suppose you want to paint a tree that's quite far off, you can't use any browns or greens because from a distance you wouldn't see any real color, just a kind of dark somethingorother.
Can anyone give advice on decolorizing? Why do I have htis problem? Do I need to train my eye to perceive color better, do I need to overlay colors, to 'deaden' them so to speak, do I need to use grey on top of the too bright color? What? I know for distances purples and blues are helpful, but I have the problem even in still lives or portraits. The color that's there, is a color I can't name, so don't know what to reach for in the box of goodies. If I need to exercise my color skills, does anyone know good exercises or books (there I go again) that discuss this topic?
Thanks. TOo bad I can't take part in the project tonight, good luck everyone and have fun!

Kathryn Wilson
07-12-2003, 07:45 PM
I know for my own use I am finding grey does tone things down a bit and it mixes well on the paper with other colors. I find rather than using a plain grey, I will use a grey with tint, e.g. mauve grey, grey green, grey blue. Hope that helps some.

07-12-2003, 08:14 PM
Hi Madder, I think basically you do need to train your eye... I'm no teacher, so don't have a way of putting things across, all I can tell you is what I've personally learnt.... there is what is called spatial perspective.. (BTW I typed all this out and then lost it.:)) so typing again...colours will fade into the distance because of the atmosphere... when you are out and about note the colours of those distant hills, they are blue and purple, yet on an overcast stormy day they appear to be darker and almost closer because of the effect of the light... grass is green...yes, but there are lots of other reflected colours there, from the sky, the sun... you have to train your eye to look and be aware.....years ago when I painted in oils, I made my own personal colour reference book.... I took a small pad of oil paper, divided this into lines of little squares.... then starting with the first row, I filled the first square with a primary colour.. say Yellow..... then using just this one colour I then proceeded to fill in all the other squares with a mix of another colour, naming what I had done under the square.... this took me weeks to complete as you can imagine, but what knowledge I gained from it, eventually I had my very own colour reference guide, with colours I never knew existed. LOL.... Eventually I found I didn't have to refer to it, to find that certain colour... I knew what to do... This my help or not I don't know, but it doesn't do any harm to play around with your colours to se what you can achieve.


07-12-2003, 08:28 PM

might help...there's a forum here on color theory too...I use gray also...like Mo said, the tinted ones are nice. Your eye will train itself, the more you work with color. Start studying things...look at skin tones...some will be more reddish or yellowish, some have greenish blue shadows, keep looking for all the colors in things..and then try to match them...I've done the color charts too...it's fun when you realize you just created one of the shades in your box...you think..huh...don't have to buy that shade now! and it's amazing that if you change one of the colors, like phthalo to cobalt and mix it with red...how different the shades of purple are....

07-13-2003, 02:16 AM
Madder, it sounds to me as though what you're missing is a thorough understanding of complementary colours.

When you try to gray a colour with a gray mixed from black and white it will usually deaden the original colour, or even darken it, when all you want is to reduce the brilliance a tone or two. You've already discovered that a tinted gray will work better than a neutral one. That's because those colourful grays were probably mixed from complementaries in the first place.

Just as black is the opposite of white, every colour has its opposite, which is found opposite it on the colour wheel, and is called its complement. When trying to adjust colours, it really helps to think in terms of opposites.

For instance, if you have a warm red, and you want to reduce its brilliance because it's too garish, add a little cool green. It won't make it darker, it will lower the intensity. If you have a sharp, cool yellow, you can tame it with warm violet.

You can control the amount of complement that you add to a colour. A little just takes the edge off. A lot will make the colour very faded and grayish (mud, when it's carried too far) and will produce good stone, cloud, and mist colours.

A lot depends on the pigments you start with. For instance, if you start with a very dark blue like Prussian, and add a darkish orange, you'll get a good black, but if you use a lighter blue and a lighter orange, you'll get a gray which is vibrant and colourful rather than flat like a black-and-white gray.

There are no set rules for mixing these colours. You need to study a good colour theory book, and do lots of experiments like the one Mo recommended. Taking the time to do that can save a lot of grief in your later work.

I remember how my jaw dropped the first time someone showed me this. I think it's made more difference to me than anything else I ever learned. Still learning, of course, and I hope my guess was right and I'm not boring you by telling you something you already know.


07-13-2003, 07:05 AM
Originally posted by Madder
Can anyone give advice on decolorizing? Why do I have htis problem? Do I need to train my eye to perceive color better, do I need to overlay colors, to 'deaden' them so to speak, do I need to use grey on top of the too bright color? Madder

You say you want advice about "decolorizing".
the simple fact of the matter is that you just need to get your TONE VALUES right.

If the tonal values are right in a picture, it will work, I absolutely promise that. Distant things will look distant IF THE TONE IS RIGHT. Layering a grey pastel over a colour might well "decolorize" the bright colour, but this is not the way to go about things as a general rule.......you will end up with greyed-down pictures! An understanding of colour mixing - how the use of a complementary will neutralise and "grey down" a primary colour - is very helpful, and you should know all about this and try it with paints...but when we work with pastels, we don't do a lot of mixing on a palette, so it isn't quite to easy to use the theory. You need a good range of pastels, with plenty of tones, and if by chance you do not have the right tone of the colour you want to use, THEN the theory comes in very useful, as you will be able to overlay colours with confidence, knowing just what you will be achieve.

Your description of a tree in the distance sums up your problem. You "know", intellectually, that the tree is green and brown. However, your eye tells you that you cannot see greens and browns - you see a kind of greyish, bluish, perhaps darkish colour. Same applies to distant hills. It isn't enough to decide that there is a rule which says they are purplish. How dark is this purple? If you use the wrong tone of purple, the effect of distance may not work, and you will be even more confused. This applies to any and every subject you tackle. IF YOU GET THE TONE VALUE RIGHT the hill, and the tree, (or the pot in a still life)will recede. And if you get the tone value right, the colour will not be an issue - the pastel stick you use, or the patch of colour you create, will NOT be "deadened", but will be the right tone, and will "sit" in the right place for you.

One way to begin to see this accurately is to take a sheet of white paper, and cut a small hole in the centre. Really quite small - a "tiny window" no bigger than, say, a centimetre by a centimetre. then, hold it up so that you can see the "colour" of the distant tree. Look hard and absorb the colour. (you could even try to find a pastel stick which gives you a mark almost the same as what you see through your tiny "window", if you wish.) Now, shift the piece of paper to something very close to you - a bush or tree nearby for instance. Look at the colour through the little patch. It will be strong, fully saturated, by comparison with the distant tree.

Do have a read of the various posts in this thread below. It covered the subject perfectly. If you try the exercises I set in a couple of posts, you will find your understanding of how to translate the colour you see into its correct tone, will improve in leaps and bounds, and you will not have to worry about "decolorizing!.


07-13-2003, 06:54 PM
Thank you all for your helpful comments! I'm going to use all of this advice work at this color thing and figure it out. Your comments explain why it is perfectly fine sometimes to see people painted all in green or purple or whatever provided the tone is right, and the complementary thing is fascinating, will try it out tomorrow in day light.

One other thing feel I should say as a new member: I am still so glad (as a typical reserved European I am afraid I may sound gushing or silly, but what the heck) to have found this web community!!!! Not only is there a lot of really good advice to be gotten and encouragement and whatever, there's just also such a nice atmosphere of kindness and decent humanity etc, even though we're all strangers... It's a breath of fresh air in a troubled world. THANK YOU ALL. Let's keep it flowing!