A Color Cast

Article by Darren Rousar.

dan-w-color-castA color cast painting in-progress by Dan Whiteknact.

Proper training in any subject requires that you begin with simple elements and only after they are mastered would you move onto the next. That is why most ateliers begin their students education by drawing casts in charcoal. From there they move onto cast painting en grisaille, and then still life in full color. But some skip over the grisaille cast stage and jump straight to color by having their students paint a color cast.

Before I go on, first let me state that I am not entirely opposed to grisaille cast painting. The process neatly separates learning how oil paint works from learning to see color notes. Nevertheless, there are valid reasons for painting a color cast, either after or instead of one en grisaille.

meg-w-color-castA color cast painting in-progress by Meghan Weeks.

A World of Color

Nature is not perceived in greyscale. You see it in living color. In fact, there is a world of different hues out there waiting to be observed!

Unless you intend to restrict yourself to a monochromatic medium, at some point you must learn to correctly observe accurate color notes and their relationships. Learning to see those relationships on a color cast is an advantage over doing so through still life painting because what you see on the cast is far less affected by its local color than the affect on non-white still life objects.

Those dancing colors are incredibly subtle on a white cast. And that’s a good thing. Hue-shifts on a strong local color, like a red apple, are difficult to perceive for the untrained eye.


Relative to the physical process of painting, neutrals are colored, grayish mixtures composed of various amounts of red, yellow, blue, with possibly some white and/or black to help adjust the value. This does not always literally mean red, yellow, and blue colored paint. Rather, it means using opposites, or near opposites, to neutralize the intended color note.

Explaining neutrals is difficult when not in person and in front of a setup. Furthermore, unless our monitors were similarly calibrated, you would not even see what I’m trying to explain in a visual example.

The best I can do is assure you that neutrals are present in every scene you observe. Painting a cast in color helps you see them and that experience will carry over into your still life, portrait, figure, and landscape painting.

hand-cast-comboOn the left, the charcoal cartoon for the painting shown on the right.
I did these while a student at Atelier LeSueur, way back in the mid-80s.

A Palette

The standard palatte for a grisaille cast painting is white and ivory black. Some ateliers mix the black with a little raw umber or other brown.

Other ateliers take an in-between approach and have their students use a palette of earth tones. Beyond the white and black this can include various umbers and ochres.

For my painting of the hand cast shown above, I used a landscape palette originated by Emil A. Gruppé and modified by one of my teachers, Richard Lack. It was known as an Impressionist Palette at Atelier Lack.

The palette was:

  • Titanium White (I would now use lead white instead)
  • Cadmium Lemon (cool)
  • Cadmium Yellow Medium (warm)
  • Cadmium Orange (neutral, leaning towards warm)
  • Thio Violet (cool)
  • Cadmium Red Deep (warm)
  • Thalo Blue (cool)
  • Ultramarine Blue (warm)

Notice that there is no black.

Thomas Dunlay, a Gammell student who I interviewed awhile back, has his own atelier in the Boston area. Two of his students, Dan and Meg, did the other paintings shown in this article. Their palette was:

  • Flake White
  • Ivory Black
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Indian Red
  • Light Red
  • Cad. Red Light (scarlet)
  • Alizarin Crimson
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Viridian
  • Cerulean Blue
  • Ultramarine Blue

Warm and Cool

You will have noticed the warm and cool designations listed after the colors of the palette I used. Though the concept is criticized in some circles nowadays, it is still widely used at ateliers that teach impressionist seeing.

Warm and cool categorizations of color depend entirely upon relationships. For instance, under identical lighting the red of a fully ripe Macoun apple would appear to be cooler than the red of a Honeycrisp. Comparing color notes in this way is what makes warm and cool an objective observation rather than a subjective guess.

Besides helping you learn to see color notes in relationship, those warm and cool designations will also help you see and paint neutrals.

For a simplistic example, take a look at the color list again. Notice that I have labeled each color as being either warm or cool, relative to its partner. If you mix some Cad. Lemon (a cool yellow) with some Cad. Yellow Medium (a warmer yellow), the resulting color will be more neutral in appearance than either color on its own. Why? Because the Cad. Lemon appears to have some blue in the yellow and the Cad. Yellow Medium appears to have some red in it. Of course, neither color actually has those additions. Instead, it is all about relative appearance.

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Learning how to accurately see, as well as draw, is best done through cast drawing in Sight-Size. Ateliers exist worldwide to help you do that. But what if you cannot attend an atelier? Or, perhaps you're already in an atelier and would like to supplement that training? I can help.