Ever wanted to know how to paint with any colour imaginable using only red, blue and yellow? Join contemporary artist Gian Manik to learn how to create an oil painting from a source image by mixing the three primary colours, plus black and white. You will also hear why Manik approaches painting as a discipline, thinks of his practice as a form of self-portraiture, and chooses to work in a dedicated art studio.
The resources on this page provide a step-by-step guide to creating your own oil painting using only the primary colours, plus black and white.
Appropriate age groups/school levels:
The Art Kitchen workshops have been developed to appeal to students and teachers from a range of levels. Please use discretion when deciding on the appropriateness of each workshop for your students.
The word colour, in an everyday sense, refers to the appearance of something as the result of the way it reflects light. However, colour as artists define it, comprises two separate groups – hues and shades. Red, yellow and blue are hues, while black and white are shades. This distinction is made because shades can augment (lighten or darken) hues, but can never stand-alone as hues themselves.
Robert Boyle, a 17th century Irish chemist, is credited as being the first person to use the term primary colours, in 1664.
About the Artist:
Gian Manik is a contemporary artist based in Naarm/Melbourne who has been making art since 2006. Manik conceptualises, creates and installs his artworks in ways that challenge the conventions that traditionally define painting as an art form. For these reasons his practice can be understood as expanded painting. Manik’s art expands our ideas of what painting can be. Even though his works vary widely in subject matter, scale, intention and technique, he sees them as individual elements within an open-ended exploration into self portraiture. Each work reflects an aspect of Manik’s identity, personality or intellect.
Gian Manik’s work combines traditional references, techniques and influences with a contemporary mindset and approach. He has a critical interest in painting’s classic genres, such as still life, landscape, portraiture and history painting, which he investigates by producing his own versions, as a way of testing the potentials of each. Although Manik’s paintings comprise countless colours and tones, he only ever begins with red, blue, yellow, black and white, which he carefully mixes to achieve the desired effect. Manik usually paints from photographs that he finds online. Sourcing images from the internet is a contemporary strategy that allows Manik access to subjects from vastly different historical periods and geographic locations in a way that was impossible for painters of the past.
“Painting is something that I take quite seriously, and work like a muscle. I consider it my job, and it comes naturally to me.“– Gian Manik, ACCA, 2022
Examples of the Artist’s Artworks on Display:
Gian Manik Folding a turban between two rooms 2019, oil, aerosol, and paint pen on canvas
Photograph: Guy Grabowski
Gian Manik Jonnine planking in the green room 2020, oil on canvas board
Photograph: Courtesy the artist
What you will need:
- Canvas, canvas board or cardboard no larger than A4 size
- Red, yellow, blue, white and black oil paints
- A painting palette or other smooth surface on which to mix paints (choose a material that is non-porous, such as acrylic sheet, glass, or plastic – the lid from an old take-away container will work well)
- Solvent, such as turpentine in a jar with a lid (to contain fumes)
- Brushes – a selection of large, medium and fine
- Palette knife
- Printed photographic source image (you can do an image search online but magazines, newspapers and old books are also good places to look)
- Rags for clean up and wiping brushes
Set up your work space with all your materials and equipment. Position your source image close by to your canvas to allow for quick visual reference.
Note: When working with oil paints always choose a space that is well ventilated.
Squeeze small amounts of each colour and shade onto your palette, leaving space in the centre to mix new colours.
Using a fine brush dipped in solvent, thin-out a small amount of blue paint on your palette. Wipe any excess off with a rag.
Note: Always avoid allowing oil paint to make contact with your skin.
Using a fine brush roughly sketch your image using the thinned-out blue paint. This layer uses line only, and is to help show where different areas of colour will go. Aim to sketch the entire area of your canvas.
Squint at your source image to visually break it down into no more than four colours. Using your palette knife, mix each colour by starting with white and adding very small amounts of red, yellow or blue. Hold your palette knife next to the area of your source image that you are colour-matching. When you are happy with the mix, move on to your next colour until you have mixed all four. If you make a mistake mixing a colour, just wipe the paint away and start again (this is why it is good to work with small amounts of paint). Remember, colour mixing takes time and practice.
Note: Begin mixing the lightest colour first and working toward the darkest. This helps to keep your brush from becoming ‘muddied’.
Using a large brush block-in the areas that use your lightest mixed colour. Wipe your brush and wash it in solvent, then block-in the next lightest coloured area. Continue until you have covered your canvas using all four of your mixed paints. This step should be quick and loose, there is no need for any detail at this stage. At this stage your painting will feature sharp contrasts where one colour meets another. In the next stage you will begin to blend those edges.
Using your palette knife mix a ‘bridging’ colour between two areas of different colour. Using a medium size brush begin to apply paint to create a connecting transition between areas. Squint occasionally to check your work against your source image. Try to use single, confident movements with your brush rather than ‘sketchy’ tentative strokes.
At this next stage begin to add definition by focusing on key features of your image – these will be the focal points in your source image. You may want to mix new colours at this stage – lighter colours will be highlights and darker colours will be lowlights. These contrasts will help to create a visual hierarchy within your composition to guide the viewer’s eye.
Switch to your finest brush. You will use this to create fine detail and refine areas of your painting. For example, you can sharpen edges at this stage.
It is up to you when you decide your painting is resolved enough to be finished. Try standing back from your work, this can help you to see the areas that are successful and which other areas need more attention.
Extension: Create another painting using a contrasting source image. If, for example, your first source image was a landscape, try a portrait or action scene. Also try using an image that will need different colours to be mixed. For example, if your first painting required you to mix mainly warm colours, find a source image that will require mainly cool colours.
1. Why did you choose your source image, what about the subject and formal features attracted you?
2. How did your choice of source image require you to mix colour? And how does this palette bring meaning to your painting? Consider the emotional associations that different colours have.
3. How did you find the experience of mixing all your colours from only three primary colours? What were some of the successes and practical challenges of mixing your own colours from scratch?
4. If you consider your painting like Gian Manik does, as a type of experimental self-portrait, what does your artwork say about you as an artist? Does it represent any aspects of your personality, identity or interests? What might it tell the viewer about you?