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Sunday, February 26, 2023

New Blog Series on Color, Part 9: White

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Whites by Gamblin Artists Colors

(This is the final post in my series on color.  Next, I'll start a series on giving plein air paintings extreme makeovers!)

Not all whites are created equal.  Most of us start painting with something like Titanium White and think that's all there is.  But there's also Zinc White, Flake White and various versions of these.  Gamblin's Titanium-Zinc White remains my go-to choice for a mixing white because it's dense and opaque like Titanium White but has the creaminess of Zinc White.


Like black, white was one of the earliest colors.  In the Lascaux drawings, calcite or chalk was used as a kind of "ground" on the cave walls so the bulls, painted with charcoal and red and yellow earths, would stand out.  Around the 4th century B.C., the ancient Greeks invented a process for creating Flake White (or Lead White). The unpleasant process involved exposing scraps of lead to either vinegar or urine and heating them with dung; today we have a similar process that doesn't use body waste, but the resulting pigment is no less toxic.  Even though it is very hazardous—Raphael died of lead poisoning at 37—Flake White was "the" white for centuries.  Painters liked it because it was fast-drying and created a durable, flexible film.

In 1782, Zinc White was invented as a safe replacement.  But though it doesn't discolor like Flake White when exposed to sulfur compounds—Ultramarine Blue contains sulfur—it does darken over time in linseed oil and creates a brittle film.  On the plus side, it is more transparent than Flake White and colors mixed into it retain more of their intensity.  Finally, in 1921, Titanium Zinc was created.  This brilliant, opaque white makes a more flexible film and doesn't discolor.  It's a cold white, though, and colors mixed into it lose warmth and intensity quickly.  

Gamblin's Titanium-Zinc White takes the best of both whites as I noted earlier.  They also make a Warm White, which is the same mixed white with a little yellow and orange added.  Finally, Gamblin offers a Flake White Replacement, which has the best properties of traditional Flake White:  It's creamy, warm and translucent—but without the toxicity of lead.


No matter what white you use, white can cause your colors to turn chalky and cold.  (My late mentor, Ann Templeton, called white the "color killer.")  I try to use it sparingly, preferring to use lighter pigments rather than add too much white.  Another option is Gamblin's Radiant Colors series, which consists of tints of the major color families that have been tweaked to maintain intensity.

Pure white makes a hard note on your canvas.  If I need to make a highlight, I'll take white and tint it to get the appropriate temperature rather than use pure white.  Tinting the white also slightly lowers the value so the highlight doesn't jump out as much.  If I want this highlight to appear lighter, I'll darken the area around it rather than go with pure white.

Finally, can you get your whites whiter than white?  Yes!  Adding a pinhead's worth of Cadmium Yellow Light to the white warms it up slightly, actually making it seem whiter. 

I'm sorry that this time around I don't have swatches. You can learn more about Gamblin's whites here:

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Encounter: At Bluebird Studios with Albert Handell, Roberta Remy and Michael Chesley Johnson UPDATED

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Click this to view

(This is an updated version of the video I posted a few days ago.  I have added a ton of "visuals" to alleviate the somewhat-overwhelming "talking head" effect.  If you watched the old version, watch this new one--I think you'll like it!)

To help promote Bluebird Studios and our workshops in Santa Fe, Roberta Remy and I recently chatted with Elizabeth Cooper, owner of the studio, and Albert Handell.  Elizabeth opened her workshop center last year, and in the video, she talks about what makes hers unique.  She also invited Albert, Roberta and me to comment on why students would find an "in-person" workshop more beneficial than one given online; on what students can expect in taking one of our workshops; and, on a personal note, what drew us to Santa Fe and New Mexico.  I think you'll find this 24-minute discussion enlightening, and you can view it here, below.  (Can't see the image? Here's a link.)

(click to play)

Although Albert isn't teaching a workshop at Bluebird Studios, we each have had a long friendship with him.  To help us out, he has graciously offered to open his studio to our students for a visit.  (Thank you, Albert, for your generosity!)  I've visited Albert many times—I even helped him with a workshop there—and it is fascinating to be in the midst of all that mastery and genius.

My plein air painting workshop runs May 6-9, 2023, and until the end of February, you can get $40 off with discount code MCJ40.  Go here to for more details or to sign up.  Roberta's portrait painting workshop runs May 17-20, 2023.  For details or to sign up, go here.

By the way, I discovered something during the interview—Albert and Roberta have known each other for many, many years.  They were students together at the Art Students League of New York.  "We were both under 20," Albert said.  In talking with Albert and Roberta in a different conversation, I learned about their  long history together.  I suggested that it would be fun to interview the two of them together as they, stay tuned!

Monday, February 20, 2023

In Case You Missed It: Interviews with the Master Plein Air Artists

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Visit the playlist for these great interviews!

In case you missed it, I want to remind you that I have a playlist of interviews with the master artists in my book, Beautiful Landscape Painting Outdoors: Mastering Plein Air.  I truly enjoyed speaking with each of these artists, and I think you'll find they are generous with tips and helpful hints in these interviews. 

The artists I interview:

Lyn Asselta / US /pastel
Lorenzo Chavez / US / oil
Nathan Fowkes / US / watercolor
Calvin Liang / US / oil
Kim Lordier / US / pastel
Mark E. Mehaffey / US / acrylic
Sandra Nunes / Brazil / pastel
Stephen Quiller / US / watercolor

There are a handful of artists that I did not get to interview, but you can see their demos and read all about their techniques in the book.   And if you still don't have a copy, you can get it at either Amazon or Barnes & Noble (as well as at Michael's and Joann's):

Barnes & Noble:

Beautiful Landscape Painting Outdoors: Mastering Plein Air, new book by Michael Chesley Johnson

Sunday, February 19, 2023

New Blog Series on Color, Part 8: Black

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Blacks and Greys by Gamblin Artists Colors

So many of us plein air painters, working in the Impressionist tradition that dominates our craft, have been warned to steer clear of black.  We're told that the landscape is all about color—color in the shadows, color in the darks—and if black should touch our painting it will be tainted forever.

Well, here's a secret:  I know more than a few master artists who have confessed that they have black on their palettes.  When no other dark pigment is dark enough, black is their go-to for dark accents.  They even use it in mixtures to dull down colors.  Sometimes, the resulting slight bit of muddiness is exactly the note needed.


Black is a very old pigment.  When humans first discovered fire, they also discovered charcoal.  Wood, bone and ivory probably gave us our first blacks.  Manganese oxide, found in minerals like magnesite and in various earths, provided an even darker and possibly earlier black.  The first black ink was made by the Chinese, who in the 23rd century B.C. compounded it from soot, walnuts and grease.  The Romans burned grapevines and grape promace—the stems, skins and seeds left over from winemaking—to make Vine Black.  In Renaissance Italy, almond shells and apricot pits were burned to make a similar black.  For most of humanity's existence, black was either dug from the earth or manufactured in a fire pit.

Fast forward to the Industrial Age and the discovery of coal gas and other coal byproducts.  Chemists in 1863, playing around with coal tar, created Aniline Black, the first synthetic, organic (carbon-based) black.  Other blacks followed in the early 20th century, including the non-organic Mars Black, which is made of synthetic iron oxide.  And finally, a blacker-than-black pigment, Vantablack, was invented in 2014.  It absorbs up to 99.5% of visible light.  In my view, it has no practical application for the painter of traditional landscapes but possibly for the Modernist.


I, too, use black.  But I prefer to keep it in the studio rather than to take it to the field.  With all the light bouncing around outdoors, I often have a hard time telling just how dark my darks are getting; if I use black, my accents most likely will be too dark.  Yet once I'm in the studio under controlled lighting, I can see better if a painting needs a value adjustment, and sometimes, I'll use black to get a darker note.

But what kind of black?  Ivory Black dries slowly like all carbon-based blacks, but it is my black of choice.  It's cheap, and I always have a tube of it somewhere.  It's also semi-opaque, which is good for accents.  Gamblin sells a Chromatic Black, made from cool red and cool green pigments, but it's transparent and never seems quite dark enough as an accent.  Chromatic Black is more properly used in dulling other colors—unlike Ivory Black, which has a bluish tint, Chromatic Black is neutral and won't affect the hue as much.  (All that said, I sometimes think Chromatic Black has a slight greenish cast; Gamblin's website, however, says it is neutral.)   You can make your own with Phthalo Green and Permanent Alizarin Crimson.

Speaking of Ivory Black, it was sometimes used as a blue by the Swedish painter Anders Zorn.  (Contrary to popular myth, he also sometimes used an actual blue.)  I use it in my earth palette, which includes Yellow Ochre and Burnt Sienna.  This black makes a lovely, dull blue when mixed with white and, when mixed with Yellow Ochre, a nice, greyed green.

And let's not forget greys.  Many of the blacks available make interesting greys in tints.  Some useful "tubed" greys I like are the three Portland Greys (Light, Medium and Deep) from Gamblin, which are good for dulling down the split-primary palette when painting the natural landscape.  Portland Grey Light, by the way, isn't quite light enough, and I often mix a fourth value by adding white to it.

I'm including below an image of swatches I've made of colors from Gamblin.  You can learn more about their line of colors here.  They also have a series of informative articles about the color experience here.

Left column, tint.  Middle, masstone.  Right, mixed with Cadmium Yellow Light.
Top to Bottom:  Ivory Black, Mars Black, Black Spinel, Chromatic Black, Asphaltum (hue), Van Dyke Brown, Payne's Grey

Here are color swatches from Gamblin's website, showing some of the colors as tints, tones and shades.  Also, if the color is transparent, there is a glaze. Tint is made with Titanium Zinc White + the color, tone is  made from Portland Grey Medium + the color, and shade is made from Chromatic Black + color. The glaze swatch is made with Galkyd medium. 

Friday, February 17, 2023

10th Annual Plein Air Convention and Expo in Denver

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If you're like me, you've probably had enough of the snow and cold, and your thoughts are turning toward spring—and to the annual Plein Air Convention & Expo.  PACE 23 will be in Denver and runs from May 21-25.  As with last year, I'll be on the faculty, but rather than giving a formal demonstration, I've been invited back as a "field painter."

What's a field painter?  It's a faculty member who participates in all the paint-outs and serves as an on-site teacher.  Believe me, this is not a demotion!  Besides getting to paint at some truly beautiful locations, I'll have the opportunity to meet you—you are going, aren't you?—as I rove from easel to easel, offering help and tips to painters who need it.  This is something I enjoy doing in my own workshops.  So, if you're out painting and a bearded guy eases up to you and starts offering suggestions, don't be annoyed, as it might just be me.

Rumor has it, we'll be painting at places like Estes Park and possibly in Colorado Springs.  Both have great scenery, and I'll be excited to hear where we'll be going once the locations are finalized.

By the way, you'll have other opportunities to meet me.  Judson's Art Outfitters, maker of the famous Guerrilla Painter line of pochade boxes, has invited me to demonstrate at its booth in the vendor area.  I'll be painting with some of the new boxes, and I'll be happy to talk to you.  I've been using these boxes for over 20 years now, and they are a real workhorse, well-crafted and durable.  I'll also be using these on the paint-outs, so you can see them in action there, too.  What's more, I plan to have copies of my new book, Beautiful Landscape Painting Outdoors: Mastering Plein Air, with me to autograph and sell.  

If you haven't signed up for PACE 23 yet, here's a link:  I hope to see you there!

Thursday, February 16, 2023

AI and the Writer: An AI Offers Thoughts on Writing as an AI

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Here's an illustration I created through the Stable Diffusion AI

(I'll be continuing my series on Color shortly!  But this was so interesting, I wanted to share it.)

Yes, I know—this isn't exactly about plein air painting.  But in my Instagram feed, I have been getting a slew of ads for companies that want me to use their AI-bots to write my blog posts.  Trust me, I would never, ever, hire even another human to write my posts.  (Yes, that is another service I've been approached with.)  Yet curious, I looked at some of the writing samples from the AI.  I was not impressed.

So I asked my friend, ChatGPT, over for another cup of virtual coffee.  What, I asked, are the negatives of using an AI for writing a blog? I figured a little self-criticism might be good for him.  Here's what he said:
Artificial Intelligence has been widely used in many fields, and one of them is writing blogs. While AI-generated content has the potential to increase efficiency and productivity, it also has several drawbacks that cannot be ignored.

One major issue with AI-generated content is that it lacks originality and creativity. AI algorithms are trained on existing data, and as a result, their output is often formulaic and lacks the unique voice and perspective that human writers bring to their work. Additionally, AI-generated content may contain grammatical errors, typos, and awkward phrasing that can negatively impact the credibility of the blog and its author.

Moreover, the use of AI for writing blogs can also result in a loss of personal touch and emotional connection between the writer and reader. Blogs are often written to share experiences, opinions, and ideas with a wide audience, and the use of AI to create content can result in a disconnect between the author and the reader.

Additionally, AI-generated content can also perpetuate biases and misinformation. AI algorithms are trained on existing data and may incorporate these biases into their output, leading to the spread of false information. This could have serious consequences, particularly in the context of sensitive topics such as politics and health.

In conclusion, while AI has the potential to revolutionize the way we create content, it is important to consider the negatives associated with its use, particularly in the context of writing blogs. We should weigh the benefits against the potential drawbacks and use AI with caution, ensuring that human writers are still an integral part of the process.

So, there's hope for me as a blog writer.  

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

AI and the Painter, Part 3: An AI Offers Thoughts on Creating Art as an AI

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Self-portrait of my painter friend AI, DALL-E

(I'll be continuing my series on Color shortly!  But this was so interesting, I wanted to share it.)

The other morning, I started thinking:  If an AI is so smart, can it give an honest critique of itself?  So I invited my buddy,  ChatGPT, over for a virtual cup of coffee. I asked him if he had any thoughts on the negatives of using an AI to generate fine art.  Here's what he said:
Art is a form of expression that has been around for centuries and has been used to reflect the thoughts, emotions, and experiences of artists. The advent of artificial intelligence (AI) has provided new tools for artists to experiment with and has also opened up new avenues for generating fine art. However, there are several negative aspects of using AI to generate fine art that need to be considered.

First, there is the issue of authenticity. Art has always been about the personal touch of the artist, their individual style and the emotional connection they have with their work. By using AI to generate fine art, this personal touch is lost, resulting in a homogenized form of art that lacks originality and character. This not only reduces the value of the art itself, but it also undermines the very essence of what makes art valuable and meaningful.

Second, there is the issue of copyright and ownership. If AI is used to generate fine art, it raises questions about who owns the rights to the work. Is it the artist who created the algorithm, or is it the AI that generated the work? This is an important issue that needs to be addressed as it has implications for the commercial viability of AI generated fine art.

Third, there is the issue of creativity. Art is a form of self-expression that requires creativity and imagination. AI algorithms can generate art, but they lack the human touch, imagination, and creativity that make art so valuable. This means that AI generated art is often formulaic, lacking the emotion and depth that is so essential to great art.

Finally, there is the issue of emotional impact. Art has the power to move people, to make them feel a range of emotions, and to challenge their perspectives. However, AI generated art is often lacking in emotional impact as it is created through algorithms rather than through personal experiences and emotions.

In conclusion, while AI has the potential to revolutionize the world of fine art, there are also several negatives associated with its use. The loss of authenticity, ownership issues, lack of creativity and emotional impact are just some of the challenges that need to be considered. Until these issues are resolved, it is unlikely that AI generated fine art will ever replace the work of human artists.
I think ChatGPT's thoughts should give us artists hope. 

Sunday, February 12, 2023

New Blog Series on Color, Part 7: Green

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Greens from Gamblin Artists Colors

Every plein air painter knows the dangers of Green in the Landscape:  It's ubiquitous, often choking the landscape like a bad case of kudzu.  On the palette, Green is sometimes too garish in our mixtures, and we have a tendency either to render it as a single, monotonous Green or, equally risky, as a confusing profusion of too-subtle variations.  I capitalize "Green" like a pronoun here, because it is a person to be reckoned with.


In ancient times, very few greens were available to the painter—and most had problems.  They were either dull, toxic or unstable.  Terra Verte, an earth pigment mined in Italy, Poland and Bohemia, was dull.  Verdigris, a brilliant green that forms the patina on copper, brass and bronze, wasn't just toxic but also expensive.  (Botticelli, because he was working for the Pope, could afford it.)  Sap Green, made from ripe buckthorn berries, faded quickly.  There were so many problems with the available greens that many Renaissance painters preferred making green by glazing yellow over blue.

Malachite was the only bright, stable and lightfast green until the creation of mineral pigments like Emerald Green (1808), which was toxic, and its far-safer cousin, Viridian (1838).   In the 20th century, rich, organic (carbon-based) colors such as Phthalo Green (1938) were invented.  Today, many of the earlier, unsatisfactory greens have been recreated in non-toxic and stable versions as "hues" or mixtures of other pigments.  Gamblin's Sap Green, for example, is a mixture of diarylide yellow (PY83 or HR70) and copper phthalocyanine (PY 83, PB 15:1).   (Want to know more about the odd numbers?  Go here.) 


To help avoid the monotonous appearance of greens that can result from using tubed green, many landscape artists recommend mixing our own from blue and yellow.  This way, especially if marbleized rather than thoroughly mixed, the mixtures will have more interest and variety.  For example, you can make beautiful warm greens with Prussian Blue and Yellow Ochre or cool greens with Hansa Yellow Light and Cobalt Blue.  Violets and yellows make nice greens, too, and so does substituting Ivory Black for blue.  It's worthwhile making some color charts to familiarize yourself with the universe of greens.

Tubed greens do have their place, most often as convenience colors when time is short or if you need a particular green that is impossible to mix.  Sap Green—these days a "hue" rather than the genuine article—I use as a convenience color for painting seaweed or juniper trees.  Sure, I could mix it, but here it is, in my paint box.  (By the way, I usually modify this and most of my other greens with a little red.)  On other hand, Permanent Green Light is impossible to mix, and it is perfect, right out of the tube, for representing the first tiny leaves of spring.

I'm including below an image of swatches I've made of colors from Gamblin.  You can learn more about their line of colors here.  They also have a series of informative articles about the color experience here.

Masstone, Undertone and Tint
Top (L-R): Cobalt Green, Viridian, Phthalo Green, Phthalo Emerald, Emerald Green
Bottom (L-r): Chromium Oxide Green, Permanent Green Light, Cadmium Green, Sap Green, Terre Verte

Here are color swatches from Gamblin's website, showing some of the colors as tints, tones and shades.  Also, if the color is transparent, there is a glaze. Tint is made with Titanium Zinc White + the color, tone is  made from Portland Grey Medium + the color, and shade is made from Chromatic Black + color. The glaze swatch is made with Galkyd medium. 

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Santa Fe Plein Air Painting Workshop

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There's still time to get onboard for my May plein air painting workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico!  I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge of both plein air painting and the Santa Fe area with you.  Until the end of February, you can get $40 off the workshop with the code MCJ40.

This will be a FULL four days, unlike my other workshops, which are half-days. We'll paint some of Santa Fe's spectacular scenery -- think historic adobe houses, mountain and creek views, and more! Plus, don't forget that Santa Fe is home to many world-class galleries, museums and restaurants! I hope you'll join me...If not now, when? 

Sunday, February 5, 2023

New Blog Series on Color, Part 6: Blue

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Blues from Gamblin Artists Colors

Blue is a color that has more effect on the landscape than one might think.  Question:  How many light sources are there in the landscape on a sunny day?  The man-on-the-street would say just one, the sun.  But plein air painters know there is a second light source, the sky.  The light provided by the noontime sun (on average) tips the scale at 111,000 lux—lux being a measure of illumination—but the sky alone measures a whopping 20,000 lux.  This is nearly 20% of the sun's illumination.  (A full moon, which can seem quite bright, shines at only 0.25 lux.)  

And what does the light from this second source do?  A clear sky at noon has a light temperature of around 7000°K, which is a blue light.  The sun, on the other hand, has one of around 5000°K, which sits a little more toward yellow on the spectrum.  (An incandescent light bulb glows at a very yellowy 3600°K.)  So, on a clear day, the sky throws a considerable amount of blue light onto everything, not just the shadows but even the open, unobstructed landscape.  Most often, though, you won't see this as a definite blue cast but will sense it more as a general cooling-down of colors.


Blue has long been an essential hue.  Before the invention of synthetic pigments, it was the only color that could provide a cool contrast to warm earth colors.  The ancients had Egyptian Blue, a glass made from copper and sand.  Replacing this in the 16th century was Smalt, a finely-ground glass made with cobalt.  In Renaissance times, a method to refine a very pure blue from the precious mineral lapis lazuli was discovered.  Lapis, or Ultramarine Blue, was so highly prized that it cost more than gold—understandably, since it was hauled over the dangerous Silk Routes from a remote part of Khorasan (now Afghanistan) and passed through many hands before arriving in Europe.

The creation of modern blues was haphazard at first.  Prussian Blue was discovered serendipitously in 1724; Cobalt Blue, also by accident, in 1807.  Then, in the 1820s, the French government, wanting to find a cheaper alternative to the not-to-be-matched beauty of Lapis, offered a 6,000-franc prize to anyone who could make it for less than 300 francs per kilo. Finally, in 1826, a process was invented to make French Ultramarine, giving impoverished painters who weren't under the employ of a nobleman or the Church a cheap and plentiful supply of blue.  Since then, a variety of organic (carbon-based) pigments have been created, including Phthalo Blue in 1928.


Although Ultramarine Blue is the most common blue used by painters, each painter seems to have a favorite "other" blue:  Cobalt Blue, Cerulean Blue, Sevres Blue, Indanthrone Blue—the list goes on.   Cobalt seems to be #2 on most palettes, right after Ultramarine, filling out the split-primary palette.  Ultramarine is a warm blue with a slightly purple cast; Cobalt, which has no purple, a cooler blue.

But to my somewhat deuteranomalic eyes, Cobalt Blue isn't visually different enough from Ultramarine, especially when in a tint.  So instead, I prefer a more greenish blue, Cerulean Blue Hue.  (I prefer this over the genuine pigment, which is more expensive and weakens too much when mixed with white.)  This gives me a wider temperature difference between the two.

I use Ultramarine Blue for a sky approaching the zenith, as the blue there seems darker and redder.  Lower down toward the horizon, where the blue is lighter and greener, I use Cerulean Blue Hue.  (I sometimes add a cool yellow to this to make the color even greener.)  This color also makes lovely greys when mixed with tints of red or orange.

What about Manganese Blue, once used for swimming pools and achingly reminiscent of Caribbean waters?  Mining the mineral for this color was an environmentally toxic process and has stopped.  According to Robert Gamblin of Gamblin Artists Colors, the last industrial batch of this pigment was made in 1989, and he worked hard to create a "hue" that closely matched the original.  (Robert once gave me a rare tube of genuine Manganese Blue to play with and, honestly, I prefer the "hue" he makes.  Genuine Manganese weakens too easily.) 

And, finally, what about Phthalo Blue?  This intense pigment is great in pastels, providing a beautiful range of intense darks and tints.  But it's a lot like nitroglycerin (or maybe Brylcreem), where "a little dab'll do ya."  Powerful stuff, it's best avoided in oil and acrylic paints.  I used to have both it and Phthalo Green on my palette, and to this day I regret the messes it made.  Prussian Blue is a better choice than Phthalo Green.  Intense and staining, yes, but not like Phthalo Blue.  Plus, Prussian Blue, Yellow Ochre and Burnt Sienna make a wonderful three-color palette for landscape painting.

I'm including below an image of swatches I've made of colors from Gamblin.  You can learn more about their line of colors here.  They also have a series of informative articles about the color experience here.

Masstone, Drawdowns, Undertone, Tints and Shades

Top: Masstone/Drawdown/Undertone
Bottom:  Shade/Tints
L-R: Prussian Blue, Phthalo Blue, Indanthrone Blue, Cobalt Blue, Ultramarine Blue

Top: Masstone/Drawdown/Undertone
Bottom:  Shade/Tints
L-R: Cobalt Teal, Cerulean Blue Hue, Cerulean Blue, Manganese Blue Hue, King's Blue (Williamsburg), Sevres Blue (Williamsburg)

Here are color swatches from Gamblin's website, showing some of the colors as tints, tones and shades.  Also, if the color is transparent, there is a glaze. Tint is made with Titanium Zinc White + the color, tone is  made from Portland Grey Medium + the color, and shade is made from Chromatic Black + color. The glaze swatch is made with Galkyd medium.