How to Paint With Different Mass Tone and Undertone

by Clara English
Use color swatches to help determine undertones.

Use color swatches to help determine undertones. Images

Sometimes when mixing colors for a painting, two hues produce a completely unexpected result when combined. Understanding the difference between mass tone and undertone helps reduce these frustrating occurrences. Mass tone, or the color you see when you squeeze the paint straight from the tube, is sometimes misleading. Often a color will have hidden undertones, evident only when mixed or diluted. Recognizing these undertones will reduce the challenge of painting with these complex colors.

Items you will need

  • Oil or acrylic paints in primary colors, whites, blacks and neutral shades
  • Paper palette
  • Palette knife
  • Pantone or Coloraid swatches
Step 1

Examine your paints and identify the primary colors -- red, blue and yellow -- among your collection. Primary colors are the foundation of any painter's arsenal, but are especially prone to improper mixing because of hidden undertones. Cadmium red and pthalo blue have undertones of yellow, cadmium yellow medium and ultramarine blue have undertones of red and alizerin crimson and cadmium yellow lemon have blue undertones. You should ideally have two different tubes of paint for each primary color, each with an undertone of a different primary.

Step 2

Identify the undertones of other primaries by dabbing a small amount of each paint on a paper palette and using palette knife to drag a tiny amount over the surface of the palette. Many pigments are highly concentrated, and this allows you to more accurately assess the undertones of the color. Use Pantone or Coloraid swatches to compare your hue to true primaries.

Step 3

Mix primary colors together with like mass tone and undertone to make the secondary colors purple, green and orange. For example, to make the truest shade of purple, mix a red that has a blue undertone with a blue that has a red undertone. Keep in mind that when all the primary colors are mixed, the result is brown. Mixing alizerin crimson with pthalo blue or cadmium red with ultramarine introduces a yellow undertone and will produce a dull, muddy purple.

Step 4

Compare neutral colors, whites and blacks with color swatches to determine whether they have predominantly blue, red or yellow undertones. Identify the most predominant colors in your painting, and use only colors with harmonious undertones for a unified composition. For example, if you are painting a body of water, utilize whites, neutrals and blacks with blue undertones. Use small amounts of colors with contrasting undertones for an unexpected pop of color.

Step 5

Take care not to mix colors on your canvas. Complete your painting in layers, sectioning portions of like colors and completing them at the same time. Let your paint dry before continuing on to another section containing contrasting colors. This prevents accidental blending that reduces the impact of each color.

Tips & Warnings

  • Many pigments are toxic. Wear gloves while painting.


About the Author

Clara English began writing professionally in 2010. She writes for various websites, focusing on topics in fine-art techniques, fashion and gardening. She studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art and is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in art history at the University of Rochester.

Photo Credits

  • Images