My wife baked an apple pie last week from scratch—and I stole the last slice from the fridge (she thinks I ate it) and I put it up on the still life stand. As I was painting, I noticed this nice purple-yellow complementarity emerging between the pie and the background, so I pushed it a bit. I think it gives the painting a nice calm feeling, sort of like the feeling after you eat apple pie. Anyway, I hope you like it. If you want to add it to your collection of Jerry Lebo paintings—or start one—you can click here to bid for it on Ebay.
Also, as I promised last week, I have also added a link trading system on the bottom right of my blog—and put a few other blogs who are linked into Sixty Minute Artist. So, if you want to trade links, send me an email with your link and I will post it—assuming you are linked back to my blog and have an art-related blog. I really wanted this to be an automated process—but after taking a look at all the various widgets out there—none of them really seemed to fit the bill. Thus, it looks like I will have to do it manually for a while.
I have been meaning to do a posting on color and painting—and was reading a post titled “Color Theory” over at Skating on the Edge of Infinity—which links through to another blog called All the Strange Hours (ATSHs). David over at ATSHs—has written an over twenty page treatise titled “Color and Color Mixing”. This is one of the best pieces of writing on color I have read in a long time. I highly recommend you go over and read it. There are a lot of small tidbits worth writing on the wall of your studio. Such as, “value is the most important component of color”, “mix the value first”, and about how to nudge color—or as Scott Christensen says, “bend”. These are principles I have been talking about in my own blog, and I thus I highly recommend you go and read this piece. Print it out and post it in the studio. Thanks ATSHs.
In this post, I want to take the ideas ATSHs has put forth and add some practical advice. Over the years, I have probably read most of the books on color theory, color mixing, and color for artists out on the market—and I find them frustrating to read. Why? They spend a lot of time telling you about complements, how to mix a color, or how to “make color sing”, and then leave you staring at a blank canvas wondering what color to mix first. Painting is not about reacting to a book, it is about reacting to the thing you are trying to paint. Okay, sure, you need to know what complements are, and how to mix purple, for example—but what you really need to know in particular situation is how to respond to the thing in front of you so that you are able to use the colors on your palette effectively. What I am trying to say, is that all these books on color harmony and color theory aren’t worth much for one simple reason; they don’t give you a practical strategy for using color. Painting is not about color theory, but about taking a set of colors sitting on your palette, a blank canvas, and using these to communicate to the viewer.
Before I start into my ramblings on “color strategy”, let me start by mentioning a related issue—palette. Most artists eventually settle not only on a set of colors to put on their palette, but a set of color mixes they use to communicate. My friend Mitchell told me what one his teachers at Parsons School of Design used to say about Corot, “those were his colors”. What they meant is that, while all those browns and grays Corot used may appear to us to be rather bland, they were in fact the mature palette which he developed to communicate in his landscape paintings—and in that sense became “his colors”. He did not jump all over the place—one day adding a bright orange, green the next. He found a set that worked for him. They became so personal, that if you paint a painting using those colors, someone will inevitably think you are imitating Corot—or will say it feels like a Corot. In other words, the sensation communicated through that set of color harmonies, and various values and compositions, have become associated with Corot. I think the same can be said for Cezanne, Monet, Gauguin, etc. Even modern painters, such a Thiebaud, Indiana, or De Kooning, have developed “their own colors”.
I wanted to tell you this story so that you understand that eventually you will find (and need to find) a set of colors and color mixes that allow you to communicate in the way that is unique to you—and there is not much anybody can do to help you find these colors. It is simply a very personal process that will evolve over your lifetime. I can say, however, that the best way to find these colors is to paint—and paint often. Look at other paintings you like and try to see if you can reproduce the sensation of those paintings. Play around. I did a post a while back on how to “steal color harmonies” which is one way to try out different color ideas. In any case, “your colors” will come to you over time, and after painting many, many paintings. I have been painting for twenty years, and my colors are still moving around a bit—although my palette does not change very much.
Okay, back to the idea of a color strategy. To me, painting is a very practical problem. You have some colors on the palette, you have a blank canvas, and you want to make something interesting that will communicate to the viewer. The problem is that the possible combinations are limitless, and there is no structure to guide you. Also, if you handle paint badly, it will turn into a mess. That is where the practical problem of painting begins to seem impossible. One approach is to look at how other people have solved this problem—which I think is a good idea. You should definately go to museums, look at paintings, copy paintings (rent a DVD)—and thus learn from other artists who have solved this problem. But, that will only take you so far. You will eventually need to find your own solution, not copy theirs. And that is what all those books on color theory and harmony fail to tell you--where and how to start finding your own approach!
So let me give you some fundamentals—a practical approach to getting started and, hopefully, finishing a successful painting—as well as to start developing your own color strategy. What I am about to recommend is mainly aimed at the beginning and intermediate painter--my apologies for those who find it too simplistic. I also want to state upfront that this is not the only way to paint; there are obviously millions of ways to go about it. What I am going to present is based on what I have seen a large number of successful artists doing—in essence, a composite approach to using color:
1. Pick a “drawing” color. Most artist start with a drawing of some sort. Not a detailed drawing, but a loose sketch laying out the major shapes and composition. I recommend you do this with a warm color, since subsequent over-painting is either going to pick up this color--and thus warm whatever color you are applying--or let it show through. If the color is too cool, it will tend to deaden the painting. Of course, you can try a variety of colors and find what works best for you--I recommend a warm mid-tone. In any case, this color, what I call the “drawing color” will slowly become a stable part of your process—and will become the way you start all your paintings—so don’t change it every time once you have something that works for you. Personally, I nearly always start my paintings with a roughly equal mixture of Sap Green and Cadmium Red. I have seen other Artists use straight Cadmium Red—which is not only warm, but around the middle of the value scale. Do not over-draw at this point, just breakdown whatever you are painting into the major shapes. I have heard artist talk about trying to find the five major masses in the painting—and within these the three major value changes. I think this is a good guide. If you have more than 15-20 shapes in your drawing—then you have gone too far with this step. In terms of color strategy, experiment with different drawing colors and I think you will eventually find one that works for you. Finding your “drawing color” is the first step to having a workable color strategy.
2. Mixed the colors of your major masses and shapes. You should start by covering the entire canvas with the key values and colors that you intend to use for the painting—essentially filling in the fifteen shapes you have sketched out above. There are many ways to go about selecting these colors. Most artist look at what they are painting (landscape, figure, etc.) and use what they see out in nature. Even this is not a perfect process, since the values and color range you can achieve with paint is not the same as what is out in the real world. So, you will need to make many approximations. Also, color and tones change depending on what is next to it—so one color will affect another. Whatever approach you use, however, in my experience you will be adjusting these throughout the painting process—so don’t try to get these perfect on the first go around. Also, do not paint any details at this point. If you are painting a tree for example, there will be a shadow color, a highlight color, and a transitional color between the two. Thus, for a tree, you might mix three colors/values. When you are applying these colors, your strategy should be foremost to get the values and shape correct—the color is the easiest to adjust later. Don’t spend too much time on any one object, once the values and color are “roughly” correct—go to the next part of the painting. Do this until you have the entire canvas covered—again shoot for not more than 15-20 shapes.
3. Stand Back: Correct color, value, composition, and drawing. Now that the canvas is covered, you will have a good sense of the overall color harmony and success of the drawing and composition. If the painting does not look good to you at this stage, you need to make the corrections right away—within the major shapes. If you do not make adjustment at this level, the painting will not work whatever you do at later stages. For example, if you as the artist feel there is a lack of harmony in the colors of the painting—or they look muddy or too saturated—you need to start making corrections at this stage. So, go back and take the time to make adjustments within the major elements and shapes until you are satisfied the overall sense of light, color, composition, and drawing in the painting. Here are some things not to do at this stage: (i) Do not start painting details like leaves in the trees; (ii), do not start blending edges together within shapes—keep your major shapes distinct; (iii) do not start painting flowers or grass into the foreground. None of these things is going to fix the problems—if you cannot get the painting to work at the level of largest shapes—it will not work later. Keep working until you are 90% satisfied with the painting.
4. Add transitional colors and tones—until satisfied. Now comes the fun part. If you are 90% satisfied with the major elements of the painting from a compositional, value, color, and drawing perspective, then you are ready to start adding the things that will make it feel like a finished painting. In this regard, my major recommendations are that you stay within the value and color ranges you have already established for the painting. That is, say you want to add some details to the foreground, you can’t just mix any color or value—and plop it down. It is not going to work. This is where “bending” “nudging” of color come into play. For instance, slightly warming a color will bring it forward in the painting—and cooling it will move it back. Let’s say you have a tree, again, that you want to add some extra variation into the shadow—start by taking the shadow color you already have down on the canvas and mixing a color that is slightly warmer or cooler—but has roughly the same value. I think you will find that you can make a lot of interesting variations and transitions using this appoach without ruining the overall integrity of the painting. Look for reflected light for example, which ofter occurs in shadows as a color change--rather than value change. This is also the stage where you need to pay some attention to the focal point—again by adjusting the tones and colors within your major shapes—adding details, color variations, or value changes that bring out this area—be careful not to upset the overall harmony of the painting.
Besides slight value or color changes, another trick is to change the chroma of the color—but not the value. Below are two excerpts I have stolen from paintings that demonstrate this effect—both from very successful painters. If you desaturate these samples, you will see that the value changes are very slight, but the variety of colors and chromatic changes are high. For example, the red in the first sample is the nearly the same value of the flesh color underneath--and the green foreground color in the second sample is the same as the reddish-brown behind. This is a good way of bringing interest and adding "space" to a painting without upsetting the tonal relationships.
So there you go. Some thoughts on how you might go about improving your paintings, but also how you might improve your strategy to manage color—within a painting process. Hope it is useful, I am sure there are a lot of other ways to go about it. But, these are my thoughts—for what they are worth.
All the best, sixtyminuteartist.