Claude Muncaster, 1903 - 1974, President of the Royal Society of Marine Artists from 1958 to 1974, gives a personal view of colour in oil painting and how he himself uses it.

Watch this Walks With History video clip about Claude Muncaster

'Colour plays an important part in our lives,' says Claude. 'Harmonious interior ‘decor’ tending towards pastel shades makes for greater harmony in the home than harsh and discordant colours. Living with arrogant contrasts can develop nervous tensions and even breakdowns.

'Good colour has therapeutic qualities. Angry colours have the reverse effect, I understand that it has been established that every shade of colour has its corresponding note or chord of music, and a translation of discordant colourings will result in a discordant piece of music, which can seldom, if ever, bring peace of mind.

'Bright colour is not necessarily good colour. But in this respect Nature seldom errs, for however bright her landscape colourings, she imbues them with an ‘atmosphere’ which gives the brightest hues a ‘quality’. Nature can put colourings in close juxtaposition without offence. The same colours in a lady’s frock would be a disaster. Nature’s ‘atmosphere’ lends reserve to her palette, and even the gaudiest green with its myriad shadows, or greys interpolated when the winds blow back the leaves, present a colouring which is never harsh or hostile.

'In watercolour painting, the white paper gives the light. In oil, white paint is used to give the light. Generally speaking, shadows and ‘darks’ are better with only a touch of white. But in a light passage, white is predominant.

'To define exactly the ingredients and the amount of any ingredient required to arrive at any particular shade is almost impossible. In colour-mixing the brush may be dipped into as many as six colours before applying the brush to the palette to discover what shade one has got. Colour-mixing is almost intuitive and it is extremely difficult to say afterwards which colours were in fact used, and only a very general intimation can be given.

'I prefer to use a palette with a high gloss white surface. I contend that this affords a better chance to judge correct tonal values (irrespective of colour shades), since white corresponds relatively to the light of the sky, and all tones must be considered in proper relationship to this'.


Arranging of colours on your palette

In order, these are the colours I have on my own palette, from bottom left hand corner round top edge to right hand corner:

  • Flake white No. 2
  • Yellow ochre
  • Golden ochre
  • Raw Sienna
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Burnt Umber
  • Ivory Black
  • Light Red
  • Indian Red
  • Scarlet Vermilion
  • Cadmium Red
  • Cerulean Blue
  • Cobalt Blue
  • French Ultramarine
  • Phthalo Green
  • Cadmium Yellow

I consider these to be the essential colours. There are many others to be experimented with, but care should be taken to ascertain which colours are permanent.

Painting-in stage

After drawing in the subject with chalk or pencil (and occasionally in sepia indelible ink) and ‘fixing’ with a ‘fixatif spray’, the subject should be painted in with no white being used.

The effect will be rather like a watercolour.

Allow this thin under-painting to dry for about two days, if painting in the studio.

Use ‘Rectified Turps’ only for thinning paint when delicate lines are required across a dry surface, e.g. rigging of ships. Otherwise, use Copal Medium for making the paint more fluid and tractable.

Any colour must be first tried out on the palette before applying it to canvas or panel.

Colour mixing must be by personal experiment but the following colours are suggested on a very broad basis for the following subjects and ‘passages’.

Muncaster’s colour mixing suggestions:

Colour mixes for skies:

For the blue of the sky, a mixture of all four blues, the strongest blue being at the top.

White should be added to the blues.

The colours should be painted into the wet undercoat and applied with a hog’s hair brush.

The colours should finally be merged with a flat sable brush, using a very light touch working from left to right and back again.

1. Blue skies - Undercoat of white, yellow ochre, light red, cadmium red (more red nearer the horizon) and cadmium yellow on the side nearest the source of light.

2. White clouds - Add a hint of yellow or golden ochre to give warmth.

3. White cloud shadows - Cobalt and French blue, Indian red, cadmium red, very little white.

4. Grey clouds - Cobalt blue, French blue, Indian red, ivory black, touch of white.

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N.B. Skies govern the effect of any landscape or marine subject.


Colour mixes for trees and fields in summer:

1. Chestnuts and oaks - White, cobalt, phthalo blue, raw sienna, phthalo green.

For the lighter areas - White in greater quantity, phthalo blue, phthalo green, cadmium yellow, raw sienna.

2. Ash trees and light green trees - White, cobalt blue, phthalo blue, raw sienna, phthalo green, cadmium yellow.

3. Yews, hollies, cypressus, etc. - Very little white, phthalo blue, burnt umber, French blue, phthalo green, burnt sienna, raw sienna.

4. Dry hayfield - White, yellow ochre, burnt umber, light red.

5. Cornfield - White, golden ochre, cadmium yellow, light red.

6. Potato field and darker green fields -  White (v. little), phthalo blue, raw sienna, cadmium yellow, phthalo green.

7. Average green field - White, phthalo green, raw sienna, burnt sienna, phthalo blue, cadmium yellow, yellow ochre.

Colour mixes for red roofs:

1.White and four reds according to shade of red, ivory black, burnt umber, burnt sienna.

Colour mixes for blue mountains:

1. White, cobalt blue, French phthalo blue, blue, Indian red, cadmium red.

Colour mixes for distant hills:

1. More white, cobalt blue, French blue, phthalo blue, Indian red, yellow ochre.

Colour mixes for the sea:

1. Grey Sea -  White, cobalt and French blue, ivory black, Indian red.

2. Mediterranean Sea - White, cerulean, phthalo blue (for shadows add little cadmium red).

3. Atlantic: Blue-grey-green - White, cobalt blue, phthalo blue, phthalo green, ivory black, Indian red.

4. Breaking surf and greeny blue areas - White, phthalo green, cadmium yellow.


Colour mixes for winter landscape: Ploughed fields, trees, white grasses, heather:

1. Generally for all: A little white, ochres, reds, siennas, black, cobalt and French blue.


Top tip

Only experimentation will give a clue to which colours must predominate in any mixture in order to arrive at a particular shade. In the suggestions above, the first two or three colours mentioned should predominate.

This article was originally published in the Autumn 1969 issue of Leisure Painter. Enjoy endless inspiration with access to past and present issues of both The Artist and Leisure Painter magazines, plus exclusive video demos, tutorials and more, with our Studio Membership! Discover how you can join today.



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