How to Mix Colors with Holbein OIl Pastels

Lemon on a Pink Plate

Light, bright and whimsical, I painted Lemon on a Pink Plate looking for the combinations that would least mute down the colors.
Light, bright and whimsical, I painted Lemon on a Pink Plate looking for the combinations that would least mute down the colors.

#22 of 30 Hubs in 30 Days

#22 of 30 in 30 days! After this I'll only need eight more by the end of August 24th. I started on July 25th.
#22 of 30 in 30 days! After this I'll only need eight more by the end of August 24th. I started on July 25th.

Holbein Oil Pastels and Color Theory

Holbein oil pastels are unwrapped square sticks of soft, creamy artist grade oil pastels. Like artist grade soft pastels, they are organized by pigment in groups of five tints per box in the big wood box sets. I bought a 100 color wood box set, so I have 20 different pigments and five values in each. The darkest is the pure pigment, with increasing amounts of white added to make the lighter versions.

This color arrangement makes the Holbein oil pastels a joy to use. You can decide the values of an area and have your choice of pigments to mix to get exact colors. An artist familiar with how the pigments behave has almost unlimited possibilities -- that special lavender or light green is now available up the scale in all those tints. So let's have a look at basic color theory.

In painting and in dry mediums, you can mix primary colors -- red, blue, yellow -- to get the secondary colors: orange, violet and green. The way this works in real life with pigments isn't always the way it looks on a nicely printed color chart unless you're using those cheap fading dyes that some children's supplies come in. Even then sometimes your violets come out gray, your greens may turn brown and oranges can become less intense than their components.

So here's a basic color wheel done with Holbein sticks in those six spectrum colors:

Basic color wheel in Holbein Oil Pastels

You might remember this from kindergarten or grade school. But there's more to it than just knowing six basic colors.
You might remember this from kindergarten or grade school. But there's more to it than just knowing six basic colors.

Split Primary System

You've probably seen this diagram before, a few hundred times throughout your school years. I actually first got it in kindergarten but my school might have been academically advanced. I know kids get it in grade school in any schools. Red and Yellow Make Orange. Yellow and Blue Make Green. They sure do when the pigments are properly chosen for it. 

Most colors in various sets of anything to paint or draw with combine different pigments. Something that appears a bright orange may have some blue in it. Something that seems like a gorgeous blue could have some yellow in it. Mix that with red and you will get something browner or grayer than a true violet.

On my basic color wheel I used one stick each for five of the colors. Purple was too close to red, almost a magenta. Red Violet, ironically, looked a lot like a blue violet. So I layered them together with the lighter color both under it and over it to get a purple that would stand as a spectrum purple. Then I had to tweak the scan in Gimp because it came out nearly black on screen and tilted way over toward red anyway.

I had to tilt the orange toward its true color since the scanner saw it as orangy red. I had to tilt the red toward purplish to get that to come out red instead of orangy red. When something first goes through using real art supplies that may have mixed pigments -- or pigments of an intermediate hue even if they're single pigment colors -- and then deal with the short gamut range of a scanner (that means, it averages colors it can't detect to their nearest neighbors -- scanners can't see the range of colors a human eye can), you may have some trouble mixing color and getting your colors to come out exactly as you intend them. Especially if you want to post them online.

One of the best ways to get around the Pigment Problem is to use a Split Primary System. That's where you have two reds, two yellows and two blues. You choose the ones nearest the colors you want to mix. That makes it much more likely you will get nice bright secondary colors. 

Here's a Split Primary Wheel done in Holbein Oil Pastels.

Split Primary Demonstration

Split Primary System -- two each of primaries that lean toward the secondaries next to them. Mix the ones closest to each other and the mixture comes out truer.
Split Primary System -- two each of primaries that lean toward the secondaries next to them. Mix the ones closest to each other and the mixture comes out truer.

Pigments, Mixing and Testing

My point about pigments is demonstrated by the Split Primary Diagram that I just did. At first I thought Scarlet would be a good Warm (orangy) red and Permanent Red a good Cold (purplish) red. Unfortunately when I mixed Permanent Red with Cobalt, the result became brownish. Permanent Red has some orange cast to it too. It might have a mix of pigments or it might just have that oranginess as an undertone.

So I tried again with Purple since that's really a magenta -- and came out with a truer purple than I got mixing it with the Red-Purple on the first color wheel.

When you're mixing colors in Holbeins (or anything) you may want to start with the darker of the colors and use very little of it so that you don't wind up having to add a ton of the lighter color. So I scumbled loose light strokes of the darker colors in each mixing pair and then went over them hard with the lighter colors. Generally on value, yellow is going to be the lightest color and violet or blue the darkest.

This is something to keep in mind when you're looking for a dark version of yellow. You can get that by mixing violet into it, but it'll get muted and head toward brown. Or you can get it by mixing a brown pigment into it. I tend to treat Yellow Ochre as a darker yellow and then go from there into various browns if I need a full value range of yellows.

When you not only split the primaries but also the secondaries into warm and cool versions, you have a perfect mixing palette for color theory and for creating a full range of neutrals and muted colors by mixing what you have. Choose one yellowish orange (warm) and one redder orange (cool), one reddish purple (warm) and one bluer purple (cool), one purplish blue and one greenish blue.

Which of the blues gets called Cold or Warm varies per art book I've read. Some artists say the purplish blue is the cold blue since it's closer to violet, those divide the spectrum with Yellow as the warmest color and Violet as the coldest. Others divide it on Blue-Orange, so the blue-green that comes closer to green and hence to yellow is the warmer blue. Whichever scheme you use, try to stick to it. Most of all, make sure you have both a purplish and a greenish blue. 

A point in favor for green-blue as the cold blue is that polar ice tends to be that color. A point in favor of its being warm, and why I usually think of it as warm, is that tropical reefs tend to lean toward that brilliant turquoise. So it really is something still under debate among various experts. The most important thing is that whichever term you use, have both types of blue handy and know what you're calling it.

Mix everything with its closest neighbors in order to change the color while keeping the intensity. In order to dull the colors, mix in a little of their complements -- the color exactly across the color wheel. For a bluish green, that would be an orangy red.

That is also how I memorized the color names Viridian and Vermilion. Viridian is a blue-cast green. Vermilion is a red-cast orange. They start with the same initial and have many syllables. Remembering which of them was the green was tricky, but I finally got it when I learned both. 

Here's a page of mixing charts I did with my Holbein oil pastels when I first bought the set. I tried many different combinations and discovered that putting the yellow on the bottom didn't give results as strong as I would've gotten putting it on top.

Holbein Mixing Chart

Mixing chart for many combinations in Holbein Oil Pastels done when I first bought the set. I could do pages of these to fully understand its pigments. Play with all the combinations you can make among the colors you have.
Mixing chart for many combinations in Holbein Oil Pastels done when I first bought the set. I could do pages of these to fully understand its pigments. Play with all the combinations you can make among the colors you have.

Why Lemon on a Pink Plate?

After I finished all these charts and scanned my old chart, I demonstrated what kind of vividness you get when you mix colors only with their nearest neighbors on a split primary and secondary color wheel. Using the combinations closest to each other in my Holbeins box, I did a lemon in both yellows and orange -- orange because it's picking up the color of the pink plate. 

I used a Permanent Red tint for the plate's basic color and Purple for the shadow of the lemon, darkening and bluing the plate. Then went into that a little with some Permanent Red, which browned and muted it, pushing the shadow back. In the background I used May Green lightly, then shaded it toward blue away from the side with the light (the left side is lit more) and did the same thing with the blue tablecloth using Sky Blue, Cobalt Blue and Red Violet (the blue-violet). I added a little of the darkest Red Violet at the edge of the shadow where it met the lemon because that was the darkest color.

The result is a candy-colored painting much sweeter than any lemon could possibly taste. I was in a mood to do a High Intensity painting -- with very saturated colors, true to their pure hues -- and High Key, most of them fairly light colors. So that first painting demonstrates what you can do if you have very bright colors in your palette and want to use them as very bright colors instead of muting them down.

I could also mix these Holbeins till all those bright colors looked like rich deep earth tones, without using the three earth tone browns in my set -- yellow ochre, Venetian Red and Burnt Umber. Indigo is a lower intensity blue that gets very deep and dark, that's in the bottom tray with the greens. But any colors I actually have, I could keep stronger by using the sticks. With any dry medium, the more colors you have, the easier it is to mix exactly what you want in a specific area.

Some artists like to use neutral colors and then accent them with the strong brights as the last layer. Others mix strong brights to create neutrals and keep them strong only in the focal point. I used warm colors to pull forward and the brightest lightest color for the focal point -- the yellow of the lemon really is the brightest thing in that rainbow, so it works. It might not have worked as well if I'd done an avocado.

I hope this article will give you a chance to see how Holbein Oil Pastels mix. They are available at Dick Blick in sets of 15, 25, 40 in cardboard boxes and a 50 color wood box set arranged with 10 colors in five values each, as well as the wonderful 225 color full range set that I hope to get someday. It's a bit above my means at the moment but worth saving up for. I know I'll enjoy having even more pigments to combine in all those great tints! You can try them in the small set to see if you like the texture and then get more if you enjoy them. 

100 Holbein Set

100 Holbein oil pastels, top tray showing almost all the colors used in the demo (except greens).
100 Holbein oil pastels, top tray showing almost all the colors used in the demo (except greens).

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Comments 3 comments

pat  7 years ago

Thanks for explanations - very helpful. I would really like to view the "lemon on pink plate" if possible. It doesn't show up on my screen and was just wondering if it were an oversight.


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robertsloan2 7 years ago from San Francisco, CA Author

It must be something with your software or your access, try refreshing the page to see it if you're seeing the other images clearly. Sometimes I get that too, a particular image gets stuck. It's not happening at this end because all of them are clear to me (and my access is pretty wobbly so that's a big deal).


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carol7777 4 years ago from Arizona

I have a set of oil pastels but have had trouble with them. I went back to regular pastels. This hub has gotten me enthused again about getting them out. Thanks for sharing this great hub. Voted UP.

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