Do you find yourself in a rut with your colour schemes, always falling back on a familiar palette? Or are you frustrated with your range of printing inks because you can’t afford more colours?

This blog post will give you confidence to develop more subtle and satisfying colour schemes starting from just a couple of pots of printmaking inks.

Thanks to Jane Duke

I am grateful to Jane Duke, a fellow member of York Printmakers for providing the inspiration for this post.

Jane makes multi layered reduction lino prints, and while showing us one of her prints she casually threw in a comment about mixing a tonal colour palette using transparent ink. This made me curious so I found out more ….

Here is the print she made, using the two-colour tonal palette method. The first image shows the initial layer of ink and the plate. The second one shows the finished print with all layers overprinted, along with the last stage of the lino cut plate.

See more of Janes work here

first colour layer of reduction lino print by Jane Duke
finished print from reduction lino plate by Jane Duke

We were all surprised when she told us which colours she used for this print….

Process Yellow and Payne’s grey, along with a good dose of transparent ink from Hawthorn inks.

Who would have thought it?

square of process yellow ink
square of Paynes grey ink

Vary the starting colours

I decided to experiment with this colour mixing idea on my ‘chalk horses’ mono print. I wanted a warmer more grassy green than the one Jane mixed so I took Payne’s Grey, and instead of process yellow I used cadmium yellow which is more orangey. This combination produced a lovely range of greens, which is due to Payne’s Grey being quite a bluey grey.

detail of chalk horses print

This works with different printmaking techniques

You can apply this ink mixing method for any multi coloured print no matter what printmaking technique you are using. So whether you are doing reduction lino, collagraph, mono print, block printing or screen print the approach will help you develop a unique and interesting colour palette each time.

stripes of colour showing tonal colour palette

The basic idea

The aim is to create a palette of about 4 colours where the tone shifts from light to dark and the hue also changes progressively from one colour to another.

This example shows a very light turquoise grading into a dark French blue. The proportion of French Blue increases, and the transparent ink decreases in the colour mixes from left to right in the picture.

Have a go at creating your own tonal colour palette

Choose two colours, one dark and one light. You can try any two colours you like, and once you get going you will discover lots of possible pairings.

You will also need a tub of transparent ink – an essential ingredient, and possibly some linseed jelly or oil to loosen the ink if it is stiff.

Clear yourself space on a glass slab and collect some palette knives and you are ready to start.

turquoise, French blue and transparent ink mixed in different combinations on the slab

Example with cobalt blue and raw umber
that green is always a surprise!

  1. First put a good blob of transparent ink (aka ‘extender’) on the slab
  2. then a TINY dab of the lighter colour, (cobalt blue here)
  3. mix together well

Always add colour to transparent – it is surprising how little colour you need and it is easy to over-do it.

This is the first and lightest colour in your palette.

transparent ink with a tiny blob of turquoise ready to mix

4. Next another blob of transparent and a bit more of the light colour than before, along with a tiny dab of the darker ink; mix together

The tone is getting darker and the colour is evolving….

transparent ink with blue and brown ready to mix

5. Then less transparent ink, more of the light colour + a blob of the dark.

a big blob of cobalt printmaking ink with a tiny bit of raw umber on the slab ready to mix

6. Lastly more of the darker colour and less of the lighter one. You are just aiming to adjust the dark colour a little bit and link it into the ‘family’ of colours.

a big blob of raw umber printmaking ink with a tiny bit of cobalt on the slab ready to mix

Test and adjust the tone + colour mix

Use a palette knife to scrape a sample of each colour you have mixed onto some white paper. Adjust the mixes as you think needed. Aim for a good range of tones and an even progression of colour changes.

Nb. it is hard to make it lighter with transparent ink, you will probably end up using loads – much easier to add less colour in the beginning and add more as needed.

test swatches of cobalt blue mixed with raw umber printmaking ink

Play around with the palette

Once you are happy with your palette try rolling a patch of each colour out on the slab. Give your self time to  play around with rolling the ink directly onto paper to get to know how the palette works together.

Making simple direct prints with rollers is a great way to get your creative ideas going at the start of a printmaking session.

tonal colour palette inks rolled onto paper

Example with turquoise and French blue

I think both of these colours can be very overpowering, and it is hard to find other colours to use with them, however this two-colour tonal palette technique gave me some control over these strong characters!

turquoise colour swatch
French blue clear swatch
colour swatch showing light turquoise printmaking ink blending into French Blue
rolled stripes of mixed tonal colour

Transparent ink vs opaque ink

The inks used in this activity are all transparent based; for a similar but different colour exercise which uses white to create opaque colours have a look at the blog post about printing with tonal colour.

Colour swatches – I copied these from hawthorns website, they are all stay open transparent based inks, however the colours on screen look a bit different from the actual colours, but it is just to give you an idea.

A life of harmony

By only using 2 colours as well as transparent, you will find your palette is quite harmonious. This is a way of creating subtle colours that go together well, and the tonal range will help to create depth and distance in your prints.

detail of Jane dukes reduction lino point using a tonal colour palette

Expand your coIour horizons

I hope this exercise gives you a way in to feel confident about mixing your own individual palette of colours, and helps you look again at those familiar colours sitting on your shelf. You may be surprised how a bit of match-making between odd colours along with some light from transparent ink can really expand your colour horizons.

Please leave a comment below to let us know which colour combinations you discover….

thumb prints showing two tonal colour palettes