"ART is a word which summarizes THE QUALITY OF COMMUNICATION. "
L. Ron Hubbard

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Other Color Attributes

In the following posts, I will briefly cover color transparency,local color, and color pigment differences.

Color Transparency and Opacity

Transparency of a color (how much you can see the paint color under it through it) and opacity affect the way you use the color. If you misuse a transparent color, trying to make it opaque, you will be very frustrated with the results. Watercolors are usually transparent. (Some have particles that make them a bit opaque, and addition of white to water colors makes them opaque. In fact, “gouache” (goo-AHSH) is the name for opaque watercolors.) Most acrylics are semi-transparent (except for white). Many oils are transparent. Paints that are not very transparent can be made more transparent by mixing them with a “medium” and thus making them more transparent.

Examples: Alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, lemon yellow, cobalt blue, burnt sienna, and viridian are highly transparent. Cadmium yellow is semi-transparent but doesn’t work well as a transparent color. Cadmium red, Cerulean blue, and light red are opaque. Flake white is more transparent than titanium white.

Gamblin Paint Supply discusses different transparent and opaque palettes on this website, http://www.gamblincolors.com/oil.painting.techniques/palettes.html

You can test the transparency of the colors on your palette by drawing a dark or black line with a permanent ink on your drawing surface, then laying each color over the line. Some will cover it. Some will not. Also mix the colors to see what shades the various combinations make.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Yet More on Color Temperature

Warm and cool grays
Just as hues have cool and warm aspects, so grays can have cool and warm aspects. The following would be a useful exercise.

Do a monochromatic painting (black and white only) using warm and cool grays. There are many ways you can get these grays. You can mix a brown and blue pigment (such as burnt sienna and ultramarine blue). The proportion of brown to blue will determine whether it's a warm or cool grey. You can buy warm and cool grey markers at art supply stores. You can buy warm and cool grey pastels too. You can cut out warm and cool grays from magazines. Try a composition using warm and cool grays.

Seeing the light and color in shadows.

Beginners tend to use black to darken shadows. Black dulls and deadens color. That’s why I advocate leaving it off the palette. (This is not a hard and fast rule. There are times when a good sharp black is necessary.) But shadows are full of reflected light tones and can actually be richer in color than sunlit areas.

EXERCISE: Set up a still life or go find a landscape. Look for the reflected light in the shadows. Pay particular attention to the light in the shadows. This exercise should be done with an actual still life or landscape, not a photo. Photos are an interpretation of reality using the camera. They go through a printing process that “normalizes” and limits the color. (For instance, have you ever taken photos on holiday, amazed at the color and variety of the landscape around you, only to be disappointed later, thinking, “What did I see in that?”)

Composition with cool and warm colors
Try interpreting a still life, first using predominantly warm colors and then using predominantly cool colors.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

More on Color Temperature

Seeing the complementaries in the shadows.

This is a slightly different look at the warm-cool aspect of color. Many years ago, I read in one of the artist magazines, a statement that: “if the light is warm, the shadows are cool, and if the light is cool, the shadows are warm.” I puzzled over this for some time. Now, let me give you a head start on this concept. If you look at a landscape on a bright sunny day, the greenery hit directly by the sun’s rays is a warm green, while that in shade is a cool (dark) bluish green. If you look at the same landscape on a cloudy day, the grass hit directly by the cool light will be a somewhat subdued green, while the shadowed areas would be a warmer green, (perhaps with the addition of orange tints.

This is also applicable to portraiture. I was interested to find, on a visit to the National Portrait Gallery, that some portraits were painted with highlighted areas in warm orange tones and shadowed area in cool grayed tones while other were painted with the lighted side of the face in cool flesh tones and the shadows in warm brownish tones, and that each worked equally well!

For example, the portrait (below) of John Quincy Adams has cool highlights and warm shadows, while the portrait of James Cagney has warm highlights and cool shadows.

Set up a simple still life with some fairly definite primary and secondary colors (fruit and vegetables are good for this, like bananas, tomatoes peppers, etc. Set up good directional lighting so that you see some strong shadows. Now, look for the complementary colors in the shadowed areas. (Hint: if you still see just grey, try mixing the complementary color in with the primary color to produce the shadow.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Color Temperature

Temperature is the concept of relative "warmth" or "coolness" of colors. In general, colors in the red-yellow range are considered warm and colors in the green-violet range are considered cool.

However, this definition of “temperature” doesn’t take into account the different temperatures within a color range. There can be warm and cool yellows, warm and cool reds and warm and cool blues. There can even be warm and cool purples, oranges, and greens. It’s a relative concept. Even grays can be warm or cool, depending on their blueness or brownness. The determination of whether a color appears warm or cool is relative. Any color can be made to appear warm or cool by its context with other colors.

Some have attributed psychological effects to color. It has been theorized that warm colors are more active and cool colors are more relaxing. I remember once painting a room that I worked in a fairly intense blue, thinking it would be pleasant. In fact, it proved to be much too aggressive and grating for my liking. For artists, most pigments and papers have a cool or warm cast, as the human eye can detect even a minute amount of saturation. Gray mixed with yellow, orange or red is a "warm gray". Green, blue, or purple, create "cool grays".

An important factor about color temperature is the apparent “depth” of the color on a picture plane. For instance, in a landscape, warm colors will tend to signal closeness and cool colors distance. You can’t apply this idea rotely however. There are many factors that signal depth on the picture plane, as will be discussed on the chapter on Depth. A student once asked me, for instance, “if red advances and green recedes, why does it work to put a small red house in the midst of a green landscape?” Other factors than color are at work here: color intensity and saturation, level of different elements on the picture place, our “expectation” about the picture. So color temperature is just one actor in the play.

It’s instructive to do a color wheel with emphasis on the warm and cool colors. Place the tube colors you own on the color wheel and notice the warm and cool aspects. For instance, the yellow-orange-red side of the wheel is obviously warm, and the purple-blue-green side is cool. But how do colors interact with each other? Can you notice which are the warm and cool yellows? warm and cool reds, warm and cool blues?

Do a “monochromatic” painting, using analogous colors, such as red- to blue-purple, cool to warm reds, blue- to warm greens. Choose a particular bracket of color, such as blue or yellow, and within that bracket, move the paint mixture from warm to cool. Picasso’s “Blue Period” is an example.

Do a still life but limit the color scheme used in the painting to either a cool or warm feeling. In other words, use the complete palette of color but mix colors that are only cool or only warm. Even the neutrals should be cool or warm (i.e., blue-grey –cool– or brown-grey –warm.)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Color Saturation

(Note: this is a continuation of the book I'm writing with the working title, Art Basics Workbook. It's for students at workshops who feel that they are being held back by a lack of understanding of the basics. This is copyrighted material.)

I asserted earlier in this book that burnt sienna was simply a de-saturated orange. You can prove this for yourself. Put some burnt sienna on a piece of canvas. Next to it, mix orange with a very little bit of ultramarine blue. You should be able to come up with a very acceptable mixture that resembles the burnt sienna. Understanding color saturation is important. if you work with just the fully saturated hues, straight from the tube, without any neutrals (de-saturated colors), your canvas will become a sort of battleground. This is ok if it’s the point you want to make (your message.) But judicious use of neutral colors with a few highly saturated colors (as accents) helps the viewer get “into” the painting.

As an example, when I was younger, I did a self-portrait without painting the background while I worked. I put the background in when I was satisfied with the portrait, and I used bright colors. The portrait, which has been looking pretty good to me up to that point, suddenly looked dull and sunken. What happened? The colors in the face were less saturated than those in the background and thus the background jumped forward. (This has to do with “depth” cues, which will be discussed further in the chapter on depth.)

If you notice, traditional portraits (by Rembrandt, for example) usually darken the background around the face. Far from making the portrait somber, the tones of the face suddenly leap out at you and look vibrant and alive!

On an exercise page or two, do many forms shaped like a lemon in bold yellow. Then, do many forms shaped like a lemon but in a dulled-down yellow (use purple to dull.) Allow it to dry. With a clean brush, try different background colors around each of the lemons. Notice the effect on the lemon. (Note: the value of the background color will also play a part in how vibrant the yellow looks so you must take that into account.) Write in your journal what you observe.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Color Value

Color has value and it is useful to be very conscious of this.

Each color has a native value at its full intensity. You can lighten and darken the value by adding white and black. However, you run into a problem with this. White and black dull a color. There are two ways to lighten a color: using white or using an analogous color. Yellow, which is lighter than orange or red, will lighten them. Yellow will also lighten green. If you can’t use yellow (a high-key color), you can use a procedure called glazing to correct a color that has been lightened (and dulled) by the addition of white.

Glazing will be discussed later. It fell out of use in the impressionist era but I believe it is very useful. There are “off-the-shelf” glazing mediums that you can buy, such as Liquin (from Winsor Newton), a fast-drying medium, for oils or matte medium for acrylics. Generally, with oils, your only restriction is that you must allow enough drying time before glazing.

You can use some darker colors that are analogous to darken the native hue of a color. For instance, Alizarin Crimson will darken Cadmium Red without losing the redness of it.


To familiarize yourself with the basic value of the colors on your palette and improve your understanding of how to lighten and darken them, I recommend the following exercise.

Do a value scale (from white to black) across the top of your page or canvas. Take each of the colors on your palette and, on separate rows under the black and white value scale, place the fully saturated color (generally the color as it comes out of the tube) at the correct point on the value scale. (For instance, even a full hue of yellow would fall towards the white end of the scale, while blue will fit towards the black end of the scale.) Then, for each color, work back and forth on the value scale, towards white by adding white or an analogous color, and towards black by adding the complement of the color you are exploring. As a final check, take a black and white photo or take the completed exercise to a copying machine and make a copy in black and white.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hue: Part II

It’s useful, in understanding how to mix color, to start off with a limited palette and gradually increase the number of colors. Better that than buying every color “off the shelf,” a very expensive proposition.

The primary color wheel is composed of red, yellow and blue. The question is, which red, yellow and blue. Whether you are just starting out as a painter or whether you’ve been painting for years, I recommend you start out by making a color wheel using only three colors. The paint supply company Daniel Smith has a set of colors they feel represent the “primary hues,” consisting of Cadmium Yellow Light Hue, Pyrrol Scarlet , Permanent Blue and Titanium White. I have not checked this out yet. They also have Primary Cyan, Primary Magenta and Primary Yellow in their Golden Heavy-bodied acrylics. You might try these, or simply restrict yourself to a red, yellow and blue from your basic kit for this exercise. (I would recommend cadmium yellow, cadmium red and ultramarine blue.)

Draw a double circle and divide it into 6 segments like a pie. I suggest that you use only Cadmium (or Hansa) Yellow Medium, Cadmium Red, and Ultramarine Blue. Make a triangle between three of the portions. Fill one slice with yellow, one with red, and one with blue. These are the “primary colors.” Save this exercise. We’ll add to it after I explain a couple more concepts.

There’s no absolute agreement on which three colors are the “real” primary colors, just that they are red, yellow and blue. It was believed that from these three colors, you could product any other color.

To test that, mix your red with yellow to produce an orange and put that color between the red and yellow. Then do the same with red and blue and with blue and yellow. Theoretically, this produces the secondary colors: orange, green and purple. But you will notice that the colors produced are not of the brightest (most saturated) hue. I’m going to assert that that is because the color temperature of the three colors used is not correct. (I’ll cover that more in the section on temperature.)

Here's an example of a "limited-color" color wheel. I did this one with yellow, alizarin crimson and ultramarine blue.

Complements: Each pair of primary plus secondary color is referred to as “complementary.” So red and green are complementary, blue and orange are complementary, and yellow and purple are complementary. Complementary colors, when mixed in paint, result in black. You’ll find that red and green make an excellent black (particularly alizarin crimson and thalo green). Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna (which is actually a dulled down orange) make a very satisfactory black. I’ve never yet gotten a satisfactory black from the yellow-purple combination but probably I’ve just not found the exact complements.

Analogous colors: While complementary colors are across from each other on the color wheel, analogous colors are next to each other. For instance, yellow and red can be viewed as analogous to orange.

Color harmony: This has a lot to do with color harmonies. If you want a very bold (and sometimes unpleasant) contrast, use complementary colors -- particularly if you can get them to the same value. (See discussion of value to follow.) If you want a very harmonious (and possibly a bit dull) picture, work only with a range of analogous colors.

(There could be an exercise here.)

In learning color, it’s useful to start with a limited palette. Working only with the original limited palette, you can produce a wide range of colors. So bear with me while we work some more on the color wheel exercise.

Define a circular area at the center of the color wheel that you made. Mix red, yellow and blue until you get a color close in tone to pure black. Add that black to the center of the color wheel. Notice that across from each primary color is a secondary color. If you mix any of the complementary pairs in the proper proportions, you should get black. However, if you mix in incorrect proportions, you will get the neutral colors (browns and grays.)

(needs example).

You’ve defined, in the exercise above, the Primary (red, yellow, blue) and secondary (orange, purple, green) colors around the theoretical color wheel. This is not a perfect system, but it’s useful to know for color mixing. You could define tertiary colors by painting those colors that fall between each color you have put on the chart. I would, at this point, simply buy a color wheel but it’s a good exercise if you are just familiarizing yourself with the color-mixing process and need practice.

Now, if you recognize that a 3-color-plus-white limited palette will not give you all the secondary colors, what will? Well, you could simply buy 6 colors: Yellow, orange, red, magenta, blue, and green. That would do it. A possible 9 color palette would include Cadmium Red, Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Yellow, Viridian, Ultramarine Blue, Phthalo Blue, Dioxazine Purple and a large Titanium White. Or you could buy a warm and cool version of each primary color. We’ll do a warm-cool color wheel in the temperature section.

There’s another exercise that will improve your familiarity with the mixing of complements. On a page, put a smear or square of yellow, red, and blue on the left side. Then put a smear or square of purple, green and orange (each opposite its complement) on the right side. Draw the complements towards each other in the middle, keeping a clean brush. When you reach the center, you should have a medium gray. As you move back towards the left and right sides, try to capture the gradients of brown neutrals (on the one hand) and gray neutrals (on the other.) This exercise requires that you keep your brush very clean or work with multiple brushes.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Hue (Part One)

Traditionally, painters use a color wheel whose primary colors are red, yellow and blue. The history of the color wheel is interesting. In the mid-eighteenth century, Isaac Newton’s experiments with prisms resulted in the theory that red, yellow and blue were the primary colors. Color theory no longer supports the concept that all other colors can be mixed from these primaries.

At the time of the impressionists, some innovative theory on color was being developed. Chevreul was establishing a color wheel and Rood had just published a work on the theory of color in 1881. The Impressionists (and Neo-Impressionists) adopted these theories and arranged their palettes according to the chromatic tables furnished by the physicists. Following the theory that light, broken up in a prism, gives off seven colors, they adopted these seven colors on their palettes. They excluded black. Duranty, a prominent writer of the time, felt that this handicapped them. Unlike the "true" Impressionists, Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, and Edouard Manet did not exclude black. (By the way, another innovation that changed the way painters painted at that time was the rise of a new guild, the colormen [vendors of color], who manufactured ready-mixed paint available in tubes. That made it possible to paint “au plein aire” [outdoors] and introduced a number of new colors.)

To understand color as an artist, it is useful to understand the concept of “gamut.” A gamut is defined as the full range or compass of something; a range from one extreme to the other. If you look around you, the “gamut” of colors in your environment is all the colors that your eye can easily distinguish. When you take a photograph, because of the print process, the gamut of colors produced in the photo is somewhat reduced. You may have noticed that the gamut of colors captured in a cell phone camera is very much less than those you see. The gamut of colors produced by traditional 4-color printing (used to produce magazines, posters, and the “lithograph prints” that some artists charge a bundle for) is limited by the fact that the printer uses only yellow, magenta, cyan and black in the press. High-end fashion magazines or companies with a particular logo that MUST be a specific color will tell the printer to use a “Pantone” color in addition to the 4-color printing. (“Pantone” colors are precise mixtures of color that produce an exact color when printed.) Modern flat bed inkjet printers are somewhat better at reproducing a wider gamut because they have 6 or 7 inks. Some painters have worked with silkscreen printers because the prints they produce are not limited in the amount of costs, but this is a very costly reproduction process.

I'll continue this discussion in the next post.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The beginning of the Chapter on Color

I am making some headway on the chapter on color. This will be a longer chapter than the previous ones, broken down by the attributes of color. As always, I would love your comments, additions, agreements, disagreements, questions, anything that would help. Since this is being posted without examples, some of it may be difficult to grasp. Let me know.

Chapter 4: Color

General theory

The chapter on color is going to be longer than the previous chapters. Color has several attributes used to describe it: hue, value, saturation, and temperature. I will cover each one as a subchapter. Other attributes that will be mentioned are opacity vs. transparency, mineral vs. vegetable composition of paints, and staining vs. non-staining attributes.

Hue is the property which distinguishes red from green. If you ask, “what hue is the sea?” the answer might be: “Aquamarine” or “ultramarine” or just “green” depending on where you are (and the weather). Hue is determined by the wavelength of the color. The colors of the rainbow are considered hues. Browns and grays are not hues.

Value (lightness-darkness) applies to color as well as the gray scale. Yellow has a naturally light value and blue has a naturally strong (dark) value.

Saturation refers to how much pure pigment of the desired hue is present versus medium (medium being that vehicle used to bind the color, such as oil) or other hue. You can desaturate a pure color by adding white, gray, black, a transparent filler or medium (such as water – for watercolors) or the complement of the color. This is often referred to as color intensity or chroma, although chroma has a slightly different meaning to a purist. (Visual artists don’t usually seem to pursue this distinction.)

Temperature refers to whether the color is perceived as warm or cool and is a relative term. Red may seem warm in relation to blue, but may seem cool if placed next to orange.

These attributes work together with line and form to create pictorial depth and composition.

There are some additional terms, such as “shade” (amount of black added), “tint” (amount of white added), and “intensity” (the brightness or dullness of a hue). But I think the main concepts it’s important for a painter to get are the first five.

In doing exercises with color, it’s easier, to my thinking, to work with oils, because they dry slower and allow mixing easier. If you are working with acrylics, you may want to get an acrylic retarder medium to mix with your acrylics to slow the drying time. If you go to any art store or art supply site, just search for “acrylic retarder.”