The Controversy of Convenience Colours

I am a member of a number of art groups on Facebook, but every now and then I join new groups or leave existing ones. My reasons for leaving are varied; sometimes the group just ‘dies’, and with no one really posting in there I see no reason to stay a member. Other times the moderator or admin are too pedantic about various posting policies which not only stifles discussion, it just makes it an unpleasant place to hang out.

And sometimes, as happened today, I leave because a seemingly large number of the members hold toxic views and will absolutely not listen to any logic or reason that might convince them to reconsider, instead choosing to abuse and harass anyone who has the audacity to make a comment they disagree with. I’m not going to name the group as I don’t think they deserve the extra traffic or air time, but the topic under discussion was ‘convenience’ colours, or specifically this group’s militant attitude against them. It’s not the first time I’ve come across such a hatred towards these colours, but it probably won’t be the last either, so I thought it was worth writing an article about it.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a convenience colour or mixture is a paint made up of two or more pigments. Many paint manufacturers (whether it’s oil paints, acrylics or watercolours) will proudly state how many of the colours in their line are single pigment mixtures, and for the most part, colours made with only one pigment are a good thing. If you know exactly what’s in the tube of paint you’ve bought, it’s easier to tell how it’s going to react or mix with other colours (the more pigments you mix together, the higher the chance you’ll end up with a muddy or at least less vibrant mixture than you were aiming for). You’re also less likely to run into problems with your colour changing over time if one of the pigments is less lightfast than the others and fades (see my watercolour lightfastness tests for examples of some Lukas multi-pigment colours changing because the red pigment used was fugitive).

A lot of artists seem to enjoy heaping scorn on those who use convenience mixtures, calling them lazy or otherwise questioning their skill or the quality of their art, but are these multi-pigment mixes really as bad as they’re made out to be?

Mixing colours takes time. Maybe not much time in the grand scheme of things, but it all adds up, especially if you’re new to painting and aren’t sure how much of each colour you need to mix to get the one you want. This means you not only take longer to mix colours, you also use up more paint (and for beginners who are often already anxious about ‘wasting’ their art supplies, this is not a good thing). Lots of people who are new to painting don’t know where to start when it comes to selecting colours, so they will often buy a set of colours put together by the manufacturer, and these sets often include convenience colours like Sap Green or Payne’s Grey. While I do take exception to the fact these sets often include fugitive colours as it would be better for beginners to learn with lightfast colours instead of learning with fugitive colours and then having to ‘relearn’ colour mixing later on when they decide they want to sell or display their art (dear paint manufacturers: STOP PUTTING ALIZARIN CRIMSON IN YOUR SETS! FFS) and I believe that sets should include as many single pigment colours as possible, some of the convenience colours can be really helpful for a beginner. Most sets I’ve seen that include a green will include either a Phthalo Green or a Sap Green, and nearly all sets seem to include a Phthalo Blue. Phthalo colours are very dominating and it can be difficult to mix colours with them, as you have to use more of the other colour than you think you would need. Pre-mixed colours are often less intense and can be easier to handle for new artists until they get used to mixing.

For some people, multi-pigment mixtures aren’t just a matter of convenience, but necessity. Various disabilities can mean that people have less energy or mobility issues that make mixing colours challenging, exhausting or even painful. I come across a lot of artists on YouTube and various blogs and forums and while their content focuses – for the most part – on their art and the supplies they use, some of the artists occasionally discuss their chronic illnesses or disabilities that impact how often they can make art and even how they have to set up their studio to make things easier for themselves. For most able-bodied people (like myself), painting is just a matter of going into your studio or setting up your watercolours or acrylics or whatever and starting to paint, and being able to do so is something we pretty much take for granted. But for people who have significant limits on their ability to do daily tasks, they need to be as efficient with their energy as possible; if they don’t spend so many spoons on mixing paint, they might be able to get more done in other aspects of their lives that day.

I can also provide a personal example of this. My artist grandmother doesn’t really do much painting anymore because the tremor in her hand has progressed to the point where she can only hold a brush for 10 or 20 minutes or so (on a good day) or not at all (on a bad day). However, in her younger years, she was often time poor, so time she saved from having to mix colours by being able to use a tube colour was extra time she could spend actually painting. Once her hand started to deteriorate, convenience colours allowed her to paint for longer before she had to stop for the day because her hand was too tired and shaky. Instead of having to mix a blue and a yellow or a phthalo green and a yellow, and then mix other colours into that mixture, she could just start with a tube green and then adjust it as necessary. While she has effectively given up painting now (preferring to sit with me when I paint and squeeze out colours when I need them), she has said that without convenience mixtures, she would have had to stop painting earlier than she actually did.

Some of my own convenience colours in various mediums.

Obviously if you use convenience colours and intend to sell or display your work, you should conduct your own lightfastness tests to see if they will change, but if you’re just doing sketches in journals or mucking around for fun, it doesn’t really matter. You may also find you have problems with some convenience colours – particularly greens – looking artificial or unnatural if you use them straight out of the tube, but most artists still add small amounts of other colours to convenience mixtures to get the colour they want. On a side note, it’s important to remember that different manufacturer’s versions of a particular convenience colour may vary wildly, so if you can, look at a colour chart online before buying a specific convenience colour in a different brand (for example, in the lightfastness tests I linked to above, there are three examples of Sap Green and all are completely different).

Also, even if you don’t really need to use convenience colours, sometimes they make things so much easier. I use a lot of dark grey, and rather than having to mix it all the time with Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna (both colours I use frequently on their own or in other mixes), I find it so much easier to just use Payne’s Grey. I tend not to use convenience greens as I prefer to use a phthalo green and add yellows, reds or blues to make them look more natural, but I am fond of some convenience colours like Naples Yellow (which is sometimes made of a single pigment but is often made up of two or three colours) or various pale flesh tones. Even though I’ve been painting for a long time, I always find it tedious and difficult to mix a pale flesh tone I’m happy with in a timely manner and with a minimum of paint wastage, so why would I keep fart-arsing around trying to do so when I can just get a pre-mixed skin tone and add pinks, yellows or browns to it to get the exact colour I need?

I think if you can get single pigment mixtures and mix your own colours, you should try to do so where possible (not only for pure colours but also to gain a more thorough understanding of colour theory), and if you don’t wish to use paints with more than one pigment, that’s perfectly reasonable. However people shouldn’t be made to feel guilty or ashamed if they do use convenience mixtures. I mean, it’s right there in the name: ‘convenient’. For a lot of people, convenience is the difference between being able to paint and not having enough time or energy to paint, and I think that anything that helps more people make art should be considered a good thing.

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3 Responses to The Controversy of Convenience Colours

  1. Blaze O'Rama says:

    What a great article. By mentioning the ease of the convenience color to persons with disability you have made a wonderful point about inclusion, and how removing a single stumbling block to a fun activity makes it more available.

    As for Alizarin Crimson? I think that phenomena can be squarely laid at pop singer Donovan’s doorstep. ; D

    Like

  2. julianjaymes says:

    Thank you so much for this article! Well-written and well-thought-out, and you make some really important points. I’ve had similar struggles with online groups, and I find it frustrating because really, art should be for everyone, no gatekeepers…but the number of people who have elected themselves to the post of “Art Group Gatekeeper” is both sad and shocking.

    So I thank you for being an Art Gate-Opener instead, encouraging those of us newer to painting to go ahead and use Payne’s Gray (or any other convenience mix) if we so desire. 🙂

    -Julian

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  3. Victoria says:

    I’ve never heard the term ‘convenience colours’ before here in the UK. But I’ve been trying to mix a particular shade of cool pale bluish green (‘pistachio’ might describe it) with Winsor and Newton watercolours, using Viridian and Winsor Yellow. It’s close but not cool enough. And WN Viridian half pan is very poor quality – gritty and weak, almost impossible to pick up any pigment.

    Like

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