5 tips on how get the most out of your paintings using earth colors

learn about earth colours

Egg tempera

Earth pigments and how to use them

This weekend I will go outside and see the beautiful fall colors and I’ll be sharing an easy way to create harmony by using earth colors.

Earth colors are or used to be pigments derived from rocks, soil and  clay, but they can be dried and ground to pigments or used as they are. Today most of the earth colours for paint is made of chemical and are synthetic.

The earth pigments have been used since the first color paintings in the stone Age. Great  examples of this are  in the caves:  Chauvet, Lascaux ( France) and Altamira (Spain). The artists relied on basic earth pigments like red ochre (a clay) and charcoal.

Earth colors can be used as they are. They can be used as under paints and also as tints. You can have lovely colors, and they won’t dominate badly. Here are some few tips on how to use the earth colors and why.

Important colors 

  • Burnt Sienna and Raw Sienna.  Terra de Sienna is soil from the area around the city of Sienna in Italy. A cool thing is that Raw Sienna doesn’t really make greens when mixed with a blue. When pigment is heated they often create a deeper and richer color like when Raw Sienna is heated it turns in to the dark Burnt Sienna.
  • Umbra  Also Italian : Burnt Umber and raw Umbra  and Green Umbra. The  cool brown Raw Umber becomes the rich deep brown Burnt Umber when heated. It is handy to have Burnt Umber.  It may look a bit dark and dull, but is great for darkand shadowy areas  on portraits and for toning down colors.
  • Yellow Ochre (but we also have  Red Ochre, Brown Ochre and Blue Ochre (Vivianite)
  •  Venetian Red is a dark rusty iron oxide. Other shades of iron oxides are Indian Red and English Red

 Get The Most Out Of Your Paintings Using Earth Colors

1.  To make a color darker 

Earth colors can be a great help to darken colors . It is always tempting to use black to darken colors but the thing is, black can easily kill a color.  One tip:  try mixing your colours with a dark earth color before you pick up the black tube.

2. Harmony

An easy trick is to  create harmony by mixing a little of one earth color in to all of the other colors you use in that painting,   you can use a little drop and this tone can surprisingly bring the colors together and suddenly they harmonize . Try it – you will love the results.

3. Nature friendly painting

Making your own earth paint?  Well, we can,  but we don’t have to. But, we can dry the soil, grind it and when we add a binder, example one egg,  we have the cheapest, coolest earth color egg tempera paint. If you like to know more, make a comment, and I will make another post about egg-tempera and pigments later. You can also try out different types of sand and soil, put it in to your acrylics or oil and see what happens. Have fun! I found this page: naturalearthpaint.com interesting as there is more about pigments there.



4. Complementary contrast

This  complementary contrast has fascinated me a lot and I have use this technique in my paintings see the pitcher on the top.  The under-painting  created a specific atmosphere in the work, and I am very pleased about the result.  If you don’t know what a complementary color is, sign up for my free color course. 

Another typical complementary contrast  is using yellow ochre as you underpant, it is perfect for painting a sunny blue skies. But burnt Siena is a good contrast to a blue sky as well,  if you  use raw Umber you will get a more moderated look. If you like to try out this yourself here are suggestions to try out.

During the middle ages and from early renaissance painters typically worked  in many layers and when painting flesh they where using green in the first 3 and 4 layers. They then painted some white for highlites before adding pink, this gave the faces a more realistic hue and really brought the painting to life.


 Lippo Memmi

Lippo Memmi

During the centuries a lot of this portrait paintings have faded, where the pink has faded, a lovely warm green earth color appears.


  • Flesh tones: use Green Umbra under the layer of pink.
  • Grass and trees: use Venetian Red under the layer of green.
  • Sunny sky: use Yellow Ochre under the blue paint.

6. Tints

Earth colors are great to make a fancy color from the color wheel “pleasant” and “softer”. Tints are the same as removing the intensity from a pure color, and give it less quality. Sometimes it surprise me how wonderful they are when you mix them, just a little splash of earth color can make a huge unexpected different.  The more earth color you add in the mix less quality the pure color will have.


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