Thursday, December 13, 2007

"Relative" Value and Color

"Red Licorice Laces", Oil on Panel 6x6 inches
Jerry Lebo, 2007


Okay, I know what you’re saying "red licorice laces", why would someone do a painting of such a thing? Well, the answer is for two reasons. First, it was a commission from a collector--and you know how I feel about turning down commissions. If not, you can read my post on this issue. Second, I really like painting unusual things--I also did a post on that sometime back. I find that painting something unusual can free up your painting process. Painting unusual things also seems to make people paint more loosely--I guess because they can take it a bit less seriously. Finally, it is good every once in a while to paint something different, since it is easy to get into a rut with your paintings--pretty soon all those trees start looking the same. Painting something unusual also forces you you to do (and possibly) learn something new. Try it,

The “Red Licorice Laces” painting is a good example of what I want to talk about today, which is "relative" value and color. That is, when you go to mix a certain value or color, you have to understand that the color or value will change depending on what you put next to it. This is a point I cannot emphasize enough, so let me say it again in another way. The value or color you are mixing on your palette is not the color you will see on your painting--as it will change depending on what is already in your painting. Here is a diagram that demonstrates this well.



In this diagram there are two different colors/values that are very close to one another placed across three different backgrounds. The top set of values from left to right are all the same value and color, as are the bottom set. It think everyone will be able to see that the same value/color appears darkest when on the lightest background and darkest when on the lightest background. The color also changes slightly. In the middle box, you can also clearly see the slight variation in the small change in value from the top and bottom set. This is because the background value is between the two values, which has the affect of accentuating their difference.

So what does this have to do with the "Red Licorice Laces". Well, the above principle of relativity not only applies to hue (color) and value, but to the intensity of a color. When I set out to paint "Red Licorice Laces", it was clear to me that the laces were relatively dark in value--even where the light was hitting them. Thus, the challenge was going to be how to get a sense of light into the laces without putting white into the red paint--which would have just dulled it down and made a horrid pinkish color. The answer, which I had learned over years of painting, was to raise the chorma of the color, not the value.

How did I do that? First, as I started the painting, my main focus was getting the values correct. I first focused on the relationship between the background, foreground, and larger shapes in the mass of licorice. Overall, I could see that the highest value in the licorice was around the value of the background--but it was much more intense. So I kept the background rather neutral and around the mid-value range--and painted the rest of the licorice in various tones in the lower range of red. When I was ready to "pop" the light into the licorice, I went for a straight cadmium red--which has the highest chroma (intensity) of any red. The nice thing about cadmium red is that I know that it is right in the middle of the value scale (here, the same as the background)--and since I had painted the rest of the licorice in either lower values and/or chroma, it reads as light to the eye. In fact, here is a picture of the painting in black and white. You can see that it is the intensity of red (chroma) that reads as light--not the value.



I wanted to show you this effect so that you would understand not only is every color or value relative to what you already have put down on the canvas--but there are times when you can use the fact that the eye sees chroma as light to your advantage. For example, if you look up at the sun it appears to be a very high value. A setting sun, glows a bright orange that is intense. Most beginning painters want to put white into orange to make this effect--but this approach will never work--since white just reduces the chroma value of orange. If you take out your white paint and hold it up in comparison to a setting sun, it will appear to be darker--so not only are you reducing the chroma of the orange by adding white--but you are moving it towards a value that is lower that what you are after. Artists have for centuries painted setting suns--so how do they do it? The answer is that they exploit the natural tendencies of the eye--which is to see everything relative to what is next to it--and mistake chorma for light. For example, you may already know that putting a very slight bit of cadmium yellow into white paint makes white "luminese" (appear to go up in value). So white is in fact not the highest potential value on your palette in relative terms--it is white with a bit of yellow. Try it. Put some white on your canvas next to white with a touch of yellow--and the latter will appear brighter. Now, add a neutral gray around the yellowed white--say of a mid range value of gray--and it will really start to glow. Get the picture?

So what does this "theory of relativity" mean for your art. How can you apply this in your art right away? I have three suggestions to think about next time you are painting:

1. Think of more than one option --when mixing a value or color, the tendency is to focus on only the color/value at hand. That is, you imagine the color you need and try to mix the the color/value directly. But, this is not the only option. For example, if you want to increase the value of a certain area of your painting, you can also lower the value of what is around it. If your value is already high (say, near white or slightly under), then the option of raising the value will not work in any case. So, try increasing the chroma--not only the value. Raising the chroma works particularly work well in shadows to give a sense of reflected light. For example, put a color with the same value as the shadow--but a bit of color/chroma in it--and it will read as reflected light.

2. Know your Materials. Most tube paints are at their highest chroma straight from the tube, and will diminish in chorma if any color is added--even white. So learn the value and chroma values of the paints you are using. Here is a link to a chart that gives you both the value and chroma relationship of most tube paints.

3. Keep a Reserve. Never mix a color that is close to your darkest dark or lightest light early in the painting process. If you do, you will have nowhere to move up or down later--and you will find yourself painting all you other values in relative terms. If you are painting in a 9 interval value scale, for example, paint between values 2-8 for most of the painting--and at the end come back and add accents of your darkest dark or lightest values. You will see, it is the highest values and darkest darks that give a painting its sense of light (of course, also reflected lights, to a lesser extent). You will see that a few strategically placed darks and lights will really give your paintings a sense of light.

Well, that is it for today. I just wanted to give you some ideas as you head into the weekend painting period. Get out some of your art books and see if you can find a case where another artist has used chroma to portray light (hint: Sargent and Sickert were masters of this approach). Then try to do it in your paintings.

All the best, sixtyminuteartist.

37 comments:

Frank Gardner said...

You did a real nice job of explaining this Jerry.
It is a nice licorice painting too.

Marsha Stopa said...

Jerry,
This post, and the last two posts, are the most helpful pieces of advice I've found on how to see and translate into paint. They've answered all kinds of questions I didn't know how to ask. I agree with the person who said you need to put this material into a hard copy book -- I'm printing them to read and reread! Thank you for the generous time and thought you give these. Back to the studio!
Best, Marsha

Marsha Stopa said...

BTW, love the red licorice laces!

Nancy Bea said...

An excellent painting!

Takeyce said...

Hi Jerry,
Your blog is such a treasure! It's one of the most helpful and inspiring I've found. Beautiful paintings, and tutorials.

Takeyce said...

PS - you've been tagged on my blog. No pressure to play along. I just had to share your work and words.

Suzi-k said...

once again this post is a treasure, so practical and valuable. I can't wait to go and try it. Often this kind of stuff happens by instinct, you have a gift for translating that instinctive process into reasoned, logical steps.

snuggles said...

Jerry,
Just curious, how do you see your advice here any different than the countless books on explaining value, form, color etc? And do you feel this type of instruction makes a person a better painter?

JMahorney said...

Jerry, I can't tell you how excited I get every time I see a post. The only thing that would make me happier is if I could actually sit in your painting class. Where'a a teleporter when you need one? (thanks a lot science!)

Steven said...

#3 really made me think a bit... thanks for that.

I for one think this "type" of instruction makes me a better painter. But who am I?

Keep up the great work.

Joyce Washor said...

Jerry,
Of all the books I've read that include color theory (and one that I wrote myself) yours is by far the best explained and best illustrated. You should consider writing a book!
Great blog;love your work.
Thanks for taking the time to blog!
Joyce

David Bogart said...

awsome explanation of questions that always puzzled me. thank you very much.

Judy said...

Thank you, thank you. I just found this and all these commenters have already said it all, but I just wanted to add my thanks. Judy

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