Note, 3/2017: Here’s a link to Amazon for Cal-Tint UTC’s in all the colors listed below. I’ve used Cal-Tint for years and they work great.
Searching on line for faux wood paint colors, I see millions of results from multiple industries.
From home improvement to interior decorating to faux finishing to auto painting, theater set design, arts and crafts, blinds and shades, concrete decoration, furniture restoration and woodworking…
There’s so much interest in the topic of which colors to use to paint faux wood, it’s staggering.
When people think of painting something to look like wood, the first thought is “what colors should I use?” Perfectly logical.
Unfortunately, like so much great art, just looking at it won’t answer the question “what colors were used?”.
Great Art is Magic
Maxfield Parrish is famous for imbuing his paintings with a kind of magical glow. As you peer into the leaves of a Parrish tree, you’re drawn into a gorgeous, glowing green; a natural brightness that makes you feel like you’re standing in the Tuscan country side gazing up into a sunlit tree, backed by a radiant springtime sky.
If you’re like most artists, you’ll find yourself asking “Which color of green did he use to get that incredible glow?”
The confusing, even staggering truth is, Parrish used no green to paint his leaves. At least, not in the form of green paint from tubes.
As I assume that you’re not here for a formal art education, I won’t go down a rabbit hole of color theory.
But let’s at least talk about how he created that green without using green paint…
It’s valuable to note that the vast majority of great, realistic art is not created with pure color. Instead, the realist painter (and great faux wood is realist art) uses layers of translucent colors. He “mixes” colors in layers; the final result being realistic, true-to-life painting.
For example, Parrish might start his leaves with a thin layer of blue that allows his white gesso (primer for art canvas) to show through, then he’ll add a layer of translucent yellow. Since the layers are translucent, we see them as mixed and the result is a very natural green.
He might follow this with thin layers of translucent reds, perhaps more yellows, some more blue… In the end, you see a “green” that’s made up of many colors, all shining through each other.
The result is very natural effect, warmer and more human than any tube color could ever achieve on its own.
Brown is almost never brown. Colors that occur naturally in real wood are tricky. For example, I don’t use any brown paint to create realistic faux wood grain. Why? It wouldn’t be realistic. This is why gel stain and faux wood paint kits never produce attractive results: The colors of canned stains are opaque, pre-mixed browns. No translucency. No glow.
The Secret Color of Great Faux Wood
Focusing on the lightest aspects of the real oak example below, what’s the most dominant color? Depending on your computer screen and its settings, you probably see reddish browns, deep reds, some oranges… But it’s not red, brown or orange that dominate this oak, it’s yellow.
Colors Used to Create Realistic Painted Wood Grain
Base coats are applied in ranges of yellow to beige/soft white or orange, depending on the faux wood being created.
As you gaze into that oak, or any real wood, focus on the lightest tones and then imagine them even lighter and brighter.
To get that inner glow, those warm, complex reds and and deep oranges that real wood offers, the base coat needs to shine through layers of transparent glaze.
When experimenting with a new faux wood, doing matching work or small projects. I often mix my own base coat colors.
Once I’ve arrived at the right base color, since there is an vast range of colors available at paint shops, I can usually find it in a chip deck and have it mixed by a paint shop (either latex or auto paint) for larger jobs.
If I can’t quite match it from a chip deck, I’ll have the paint shop match my sample. It’s worth your time to find a shop that has an employee who’s talented at color matching.
Faux Wood Paint Colors
The colors in real wood are the result of mineral deposits in the wood, mostly. Fortunately for us, there are many common colorants (Universal Tint Colorants or UTC’s) available that are derived from minerals and other natural substances.
I have a full range of colorants in my studio including blues, greens, yellows, reds and white.
The colors I use for graining are minimal. With a handful of natural colorants, I can mix a wide range of tones necessary for faux wood, enough to reproduce any wood type.
Yellow Ocher or Raw Sienna
Natural yellows derived from minerals that are often used to brighten darker glazes. It can be used to create beige or a natural yellow base coat when added to white paint. Available in ranges from very light yellow to darker sienna, I keep one darker and one lighter on hand.
Also known as Venetian Red. A deep red that’s still natural in tone, used to pull glaze colors in a definite red direction.
A more subtle and warm red tone that leans toward pink or yellow. One of the reds used.
While it seems like the most “brown” of the pure colorants, it’s actually a very deep green (add some to yellow ocher and you’ll see what I mean). Used to darken glazes and pull them in a more blue direction. Also a great tool for antiquing or adding depth to final work.
Raw Umber that’s toasted until red. I use this alternatively to Burnt Sienna or Red Ocher/Venetian Red to pull glaze mixes in the red direction.
Technically, there is no pure black and paint manufacturers create it by combining various elements. UTC black is typically bone black (animal charcoal), but sometimes it’s a very deep blue/green. The important thing to keep in mind when tinting with black is that you’re graying your glaze, not necessarily darkening it. Experiment with the darker UTC’s as an alternative/as well as black when you need to darken.
Woods such as Walnut, some Oaks and others often have blue/purple tones. Ultramarine is a very deep, natural tone (perhaps closest to “primary” blue) so it’s the blue of choice when a blue/purple tone is needed.
A Faux Wood Grain Paint Course for you!
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