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

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Pigment families

Just a reminder: copyright (c) 2009 by Pam Coulter Blehert

There are two general pigment families: the traditional inorganics and the modern organics. The Inorganics (mineral) include the traditional names such as the cadmiums, cobalts, ultramarine, prussian blue, earth colors etc. These are better for painting in natural light, and are softer, tending to grey down when mixed with white. The Organics have funny names (like Qunacridone, napthol, etc.), are manufactured, have strong mixing power, and tend to keep their intensity when mixed with white. They are good for use in artificial light and for painting high intensity.

Dyes are colors with a vegetable source. They don’t have good lightfastness. They are called fugitive. (By the way, “lightfastness” used as a designation in art is different from “permanent.” Permanent generally means that it’s going to stain your clothes. You won’t be able to get it out by washing. Sharpie® brand felt pens, for instance, are permanent but not lightfast. Lightfast, on the other hand, means that it maintains its value/color well even when exposed to light.) For instance, alizarin crimson and rose madder are dye-based pigments. (But permanent alizarin crimson is a manufactured color that duplicates the hue of the original but is promoted as lightfast.)

Most of this should not be of great concern to you as a beginning artist unless you are really concerned about longevity. But if you’ve ever browsed through the religious icons of the Middle Ages at an art museum and wondered at the icons with their bright blues and gold application but ghostly, almost absent, flesh tones, now you can hold forth. The colors used for flesh in the middle ages were dye-based and fugitive.

There are also colors (in the “student grade” line of most artists’ colors) that have the word “hue” in the title. “Hues” may look like their counterparts but won't perform like the real thing. And in general, the student grade colors are less expensive because the proportion of actual pigment to filler is less. So they don’t cover as well and are generally less brilliant. (I have to point out, for example, that, comparing the “Basics” brand of acrylics to “Golden Heavy-Bodied Acrylics” will give you a quick demonstration of the difference. I had one student who was quite talented but constantly bemoaned her lack of ability because she was using Basics brand. When the color dried, it faded and often didn’t cover underlying colors.)

I suggest that you go look at your selection of colors in your paint box, group the organics and inorganics, and do a separate chart and experiments with each. (Note: if you only have the basic set, you may want to skip this. I know a number of students who “inherited” a lot of tubes of paints. It’s useful, in that case, to familiarize yourself with them.) You may want to try out some of the modern colors to see how they differ from their traditional counterparts. The following list may serve as a guide:

Traditional: Cadmium orange, Cadmium Yellow Deep, Cad Yellow Medium, Cad Yellow Light, Cad Orange Deep, Cad Red Light, Cad Red Medium, Cad Red Deep, Cobalt Violet, Manganese Violet, Alizarin Crimson, Cerulean Blue, Cobalt Blue, Ultramarine blue, Prussian Green.

Modern: Hansa Yellow Light, Hansa Yellow Medium, Hansa Yellow Deep, Indian Yellow, Napthol Red, Napthol Red Yellow Shade, Mono Orange, Transparent Orange, Perylene Red, Quinacridone Red, Quinacridone Magenta, Perinone Red, Manganese Blue Hue, Phthalo Blue, Phthalo Blue Green Shade, Dioxazine Purple, etc.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Basic Or Local Color of an Object

Local color is the middle color and value that you see when you look at an object. For instance, a bunch of cherries would have the basic local color of deep red. All variations within the light and shadow sides of that form, according to this way of painting, are created by deepening or lightening, warming or cooling, or greying the intensity of that basic red. This is useful to know, but shouldn’t be used to limit what you see when you paint.

You can demonstrate the above definition by doing some sample exercises using common fruit. For instance: draw the outline of an orange. Find the "local Color". Then darken (with it’s complement, blue) the side that is in shadow. Now lighten and warm the side that is toward the light with light orange or yellow. (You can vary the colors used to lighten and darken the form according to whether the light hitting the object is warm or cool.)

Try this exercise on a number of different simple colored objects like fruit or blocks or boxes. Keep it simple. Keep some of the Local Color showing.

Select five objects of various shapes and sizes with different home values and arrange them in a group. Avoid lining up objects evenly in a row. Overlap things. Stack one object on top of another. Turn a form on its side or even upside down. Begin painting the whole group. Start by painting it as a mass, using a middle grey or brown tone. Focus on the overall compositional shape. Keep the background simple. Then begin to separate the objects by painting in the darks and lights from the middle tone.

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.”

Monday, February 02, 2009

Exercises in "Form"

The following are some exercises that help you develop your ability to make forms.

Exercise: Making your own forms

Waste some paper on this. Draw some forms that you have been taught (such as a house, an apple, a tree, a person.) Now make some forms of your own. (Don’t try to be perfect.) For instance, make a vase, a window, a hand, a dog. Now go look at these and other forms. Now show your drawings to someone and ask what they remind them of.

Hard and Soft Edges:

Forms exist in space and often, the depiction of a form on a flat canvas is the first step towards creating the illusion of space. Here is where you need to start to observe carefully the use of contrast and line to create edges. A hard edge (created with a lot of contrast or a hard dark line) makes an object appear crisp. But a soft edge is particularly helpful in creating the illusion of a round object. Also, hard edges seem to come forward while soft edges recede, increasing the illusion of depth.

Exercise: form (monochrome)

Set up a still life consisting of some very simple thing or things, preferably white or off white, such as a couple of eggs or a cup and saucer. Set up the light so there is a strong directional light. Paint or draw with attention to the roundness, the edges, the places where the form is lost and light flows through. I want you to see that form is defined by edges and you can control the composition by using the edges to allow the eye to move around the painting.

Basic or home value

There’s another aspect of value that is helpful in starting a painting. Some refer to it as “home value” or basic value. It’s easiest to see if you look at an object that is all one basic color or value, like a cup. When you shine a light on it from a direction, parts of the object become darker and lighter. An approach to the object is to first establish the “home value” and then to lighten and darken the object (and, of course, the space around the object) according to the direction of the light source.


This exercise gets you to find the "home value" or basic value of a subject and then lighten and darken it. The exercise should be done with paint, using only shades of grey or brown. You can use burnt umber and white or black and white or a combination of blue and brown and white. Set up three objects, one light, one medium, and one dark, in front of you. Paint the basic value of each object, so that it is all one shape. Then, if possible while the paint is still wet, start developing the darks and lights on each object, working out from the "Home value". Notice that the light object will be all in the light shades of grey. The medium object will be all in the medium tones and the dark object will fall all toward the darker tones of grey.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Chapter 3: form

Here is the rough beginning of the next chapter of my proposed workbook. Any comments, suggestions, questions are appreciated. I will be out of town for a few weeks soon, and probably will not be able to start the chapter on color until my return.

Value is the primary way we perceive form. In fact, some teachers will tell you that the “focal point” of a painting is the spot of greatest contrast. Through form, line and value, we begin to perceive depth on the flat plane. Color with its attributes is another aspect that I will discuss later.

Often, our perception of form in the world around us is not a “cut-and-dried” thing. It is a matter of closure. We perceive something that signals a “form” and we apprehend it (comprehend it) as a car, or a jar or a tree. Closure is the ability of the mind to complete a pattern or picture where only suggestion exists.

But your “trained” perception can lead you astray as a creative artist. When you were a child, you may have been taught by adults “how to draw a house or an apple.” Thereafter, you have established a mental symbol for house or apple to work from. That leads you to assume that, when you are looking at an apple, etc., you should supply the symbol. But I am asking you to look for yourself, look newly. If you understand that concept of closure, you can use it as needed without being restrained by past symbols.

There’s a great example of a mis-represented form in the book The Little Prince by Saint-ExupĂ©ry. The little prince draws a picture. It looks like a hat – one of the kind that men used to wear in the thirties. But actually, it is a picture of a snake who has swallowed an elephant.

“I showed my masterpiece to the grown-ups, and asked them whether the drawing frightened them.

But they answered: "Frighten? Why should any one be frightened by a hat?"

My drawing was not a picture of a hat. It was a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. But since the grown-ups were not able to understand it, I made another drawing: I drew the inside of a boa constrictor, so that the grown-ups could see it clearly. They always need to have things explained.”

Friday, January 30, 2009

Mixing two colors to get gray

At this point, I would like you to explore the use of two colors and white to mix your grey tones. Select burnt Sienna, ultramarine and titanium white. Burnt sienna and ultramarine blue, mixed in proper proportions, make a good dark color—a black. Mixed with varying amounts of white, this mixture makes all the intermediate grays. I’d like you to use this mixture for the remaining exercises in value and, subsequently, form, because it gets you used to mixing color and away from the use of black paint.

Please understand, that I have nothing against black. It is useful, when the object you are painting is in fact black. But too often, the beginning student uses black to darken color. In this workbook, I want you to discover other ways to darken color while not dulling it.

In this exercise, you begin mixing color to produce grey. You should have white, ultramarine blue, and burnt sienna on your palette. If you mix the blue and the sienna in the right proportions, you get a good black. Combining with white will produce all your intermediate gray tones. Set up a simple still life with good directional lighting. Concentrate on translating it as a drawing using only 3 values, a dark, a medium and a light tone. Mix the three tones on the palette, using the palette knife in order to restrict yourself.

To get a good distribution of values throughout the painting from very light to very dark values, it is useful to start with a medium-toned ground. If working with oils, I recommend mixing a medium grey and covering the canvas evenly and letting it fry a sufficient amount of time. (Hint: if you want to do this, raw umber mixed with flake white or underpainting white gives you the fastest drying time and a nice warm gray. I know, I know, I didn’t include these colors on the supply list. Get over it.) An alternative is to use gray gesso or black gesso mixed with white gesso. Most canvases are prepared these days using white gesso. Try to get a gray that is midway between black and white.

The reason it is useful to work on a toned ground is that, if you start to apply values to a white canvas, the white of the canvas acts as part of the tonal composition and you are liable to find yourself working too dark or too light overall.

Alternate exercise:
If you want to practice working on a medium toned ground, You can start with a medium grey paper and use black and white chalks.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Value is relative

NOTE: In this post, I continue the discussion on value with some exercises included. I am having to post the putative "book" backwards, since the blog scrolls down. You may want to go back to prior posts and review from the beginning.

I have said that value is relative. This is a point that you should give some importance to. Since your ability to perceive or depict differences of value may be limited, you may have to exaggerate the differences in tone in two adjoining forms or spaces.

Set up a simple still life with strong directional lighting. Concentrate on translating it as a drawing using only 3 flat values, a dark, a medium and a light tone. For this exercise, you may want to mix the three values on the palette, using the palette knife. I don't usually encourage use of the palette knife, and I’ll explain why in the Chapter on color. However, for this exercise, it comes in handy to have three distinct values. You can also do this exercise using a soft lead pencil, ink washes or other media that will give three distinct values. Or, you can use torn paper again, using white, black and medium grey.

Many successful landscape painters train themselves to visualize the landscape in four broad tones: dark, light and 2 middle grays.

As an exercise, limiting yourself to just 4 tones, do an interpretation of a landscape (or still life if it’s winter). For quick sketching, you may want to look into purchasing a set of grey markers. These can be found at any good art supply store on on-line art supply store. They even come in “warm” and “cool” grays.

Once, when I was a student, I was given the skull of a very small animal and told to spend the semester doing a rendition of the tones I saw on a piece of paper that covered one wall of the studio. I was allowed to use warm and cool grays and given some discretion as to how flat I made the forms. A copy of it follows and I have reproduced it in both its warm and cool grays and reduced to just gray scale.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Value, Continued

It is often asserted that value is the most important design element in a painting. To “demonstrate” this for yourself, notice that, if you take a black and white print of a “good” painting and a black and white print of a “so-so” or bad painting, you will see, usually, that the “good” painting has sharp differentiation of light and dark areas. This high contrast creates impact. You can even test this out with your own work. Take a photo of something you’ve worked on and get it reproduced in black and white. Does it have contrast? What could you do to improve it?

On the other hand, an artist can “break” this rule and effectively use “high key” or “low key” painting to create a mood. Key refers to the overall value of a painting. A high key painting is mostly pale, such as paintings of misty coastlines. Monet frequently painted in mostly pale colors. On the other hand, Ryder often painted night paintings which were mostly somber. This is called a low key painting. A painting can be low-key and high contrast or high-key and high contrast. For example, Ryder’s night paintings of the sea containing a moon were low key but high contrast.

The most limited tonal exercise (and fun to do), is to take black construction paper and tear it up into pieces of different sizes and shapes. Position these on a piece of white paper until you have something that is pleasing to you. (Don’t worry about this, please.) You can glue the pieces down with white glue or an acid-free glue stick (available from Office Depot.)

Look around for a landscape or still life and do a painting or drawing that is high-key and low contrast. Observe what you are doing to achieve this and write it down.

Monday, January 26, 2009


The word value is interesting. It’s origin is Latin, and its basic meaning is strength or worth. In art, value is the relationship of one part of a composition to another in terms of lightness or darkness. Color has value. We’ll deal first with just the value of light and dark as shades of grey.

Value is often also referred to in art as tone. However, the word tone has more varied meanings and can be confusing.

It’s important to note that, while value ranges from brightest white to darkest black in a continuous scale in nature, the artist has maybe 9 or 10 easily distinguishable shades between white and black. Because of that, the artist actually has to “lie” in painting to establish relationships in value. Value, in other words, is relative. (Here, by the way, is where color comes in handy. It can be effective to use color to distinguish an edge where the value of tangential fields is the same.)

To discover this for yourself, do a value scale, using any media—pencil, charcoal, ink, paint—in a series of 9 distinct steps from black to white. Start by delineating 5 steps: white, light grey, medium grey, dark grey and black. Now try to delineate at least 9 steps.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Types of line drawing exercise

The following are some ideas for exercises that I would want students to do as part of the chapter on Line in the book Art Basics (working title.)

Maybe you have some more ideas.

Outline drawing:
Using any drawing implement, do a simple outline drawings of an object, a cup, a profile, an animal. Notice how the line defines the edge of the object. Use of line as simple outline has limitations. Some outlines aren’t descriptive. You need to “go into” or explore the form. For instance, while you can easily get the idea of a horse running by his outline, the outline of a head of hair doesn’t describe the face.

Contour drawing:
Do a "contour drawing" of an object or face. (This can also be a "blind contour drawing") You are familiar with contour maps. Treat the object you decide to draw as if it were geographical, and your drawing instrument a moving point (perhaps an ant) on the surface of that object. The effect can be quite interesting.

A blind contour drawing is done by putting the drawing implement on the page and then, looking at the model or object and not the page, moving the line around as if it were touching the surface of the model.

Reverse outline:
Any type of drawing media will work for this exercise. Try setting up a still life with clearly defined objects or locate a space in your house where there is a grouping of objects. Now, instead of drawing the objects, draw the space around the objects. Make it interesting. (Note: it, too, may contain objects and you can draw those, or it may be empty, in which case, just draw the outline. But leave the OBJECTS blank. The purpose of this exercise is to increase your awareness of the negative space in a composition.)

Calligraphic line drawing
Line is often a sort of “shorthand” for identifying an object. In this sense, it replaces value (which we discuss in the next chapter. Since it describes an edge of form, it may need to be flexible. In other words, a line drawn with a technical pen (which has an invariable width) doesn’t convey the softness and hardness of edge. The Japanese and Chinese have used calligraphic drawing to good effect. When you paint, you can incorporate the use of line as a calligraphic element. Drawing with a nib pen or brush and ink also gives you a flexible line. If you can get the idea that a bold broad line gives a strong edge and a slim or light line indicates a “weak” edge, you can use line to good effect. For example, a strong line under an object sitting on a surface increases the sense of weight. A weak line or thin line between two objects allowsthe eye to move from one to the other (much as similar values allow the eye to “escape” from one to the other object. I’ll discuss the questions of “edges” further in the chapter on value.

Use a brush with ink or paint to “draw” an object or objects, making the line vary in width and strength.

In teaching the beginning student, I often make the student avoid the use of line at first. This is not because line is an undesirable element in painting, but because the student has gotten so used to using line to describe the form that he doesn’t fully appreciate the importance of value. And that is the subject of the next chapter.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Using line as a visual element

The simplest element for defining space on the flat surface is line. Line, the simple line, is how we sketch. It is the basis of calligraphy. Egyptian hieroglyphics and early drawings on Greek pottery used line as their primary tool. Line is very much linked to communication of language. Line is an element that is vital to the artist, and it is too often ignored. We want to get on to the richness of color. But line can be an important descriptive element in a composition. You should get used to sketching. Carry a sketchbook with you. The book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron advised writers to “journal” at least 6 pages each day. I would advise visual artists to sketch at least 15 minute a day.

In this workbook, (the one that I am writing, I hope) I am not going to speak of how you should hold the brush or pen, how to stretch paper, how to sit or stand, or methods of translating the dimensions of what you see onto the paper. There are books that do that and that do a good job of it. What I’d like to teach you is to LOOK. There is a value to looking at what is in front of you and putting marks on a surface. There is also a value to achieving accuracy, but it can be over-rated. I’ve noticed that many of today’s watercolorists use overhead projectors to cast an exact image of a still life or landscape onto a surface and then carefully “stay within the lines.” To me (and this is personal philosophy) there is a value in the distortions that a painter may add to a painting. If you want a representation of what the camera shows you, use a camera.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The “Basics” of Art

If I had to break art down into its “basics,” its abstract elements, I would say they consist of line, value (lightness and darkness), form, color, depth, and composition. I plan to address each of these in the workbook I am working on. And then I will include some words on “beyond the basics.”

As students have again and again expressed to me that they felt that they lacked “the basics,” the intent of my workbook will be to help them get oriented. Georgia O’Keefe said "It is surprising to me to see how many people separate the objective from the abstract. Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or a tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree. It is line and colors put together so that they say something."

There are many worthwhile how-to books available on the market. I plan to include a bibliography of some I am familiar with.

But this will be primarily a book intended to break down the basics so that you can practice them with suggested exercises that I hope you will use to improve your skill.

If you have not previously painted, you will need some supplies. I will include suggested supply lists for acrylic painters and oil painters in the appendix. I will also reference some websites of art supply companies.

Monday, January 19, 2009


I mentioned communication in my post on Control and Creativity. I think that’s a factor in doing art. You want to communicate something to someone. We went through a period when the teachers and critics advocated “art for art’s sake.” But art is a communication. It either communicates well or badly. I will say that there are two aspects to painting: 1) the process and 2) the product. The process is important to you. There is a joy to just the process of putting paint to paper and seeing the result. There’s also, sometimes, a fear: “am I going to ruin this?” or “What ever possessed me to think that I was an artist?” The product is the “finished” work. But, in actuality, even the product is not a “finished” work. Each time a viewer looks at it, he or she contributes his experience to that painting. You might say that it is an ongoing communication between you and the audience. The viewer contributes to the art.

Your purpose in painting may be affected by your idea of what art IS. Deciding that art IS only this or that limits your ability to paint. Students get ideas that they can’t create because of some difficulty with the basics (“I can’t draw,” or “I don’t understand how to mix color” or “I don’t understand composition,” “or simply “I don’t know what to paint.”

As an exercise, you might want to go to the library (or bookstore) and look at books on the history of art. Notice many different examples of art. Or, go to an Art Museum and, emptying your mind of preconceived ideas, look at some kinds of art that you normally wouldn’t consider art.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Saying what you have to say

On my last post, David King (fellow Blogger) commented "You're done when you've communicated it, but that's the bit you do not know!"

I think his comment is very valid. I will think on how to communicate that to potential readers of my book without getting too complex. I’m trying, mainly, to provide a book that will get people “doing” their art, not worrying too much—at first—about the product. So it focuses on the process, which is more directed at the “do-er.”

Monday, January 12, 2009

Control and Creativity

The following is part of the intro to my upcoming art basics book. (Copyright by me).

There is no limitation on creating. The artist belies the physical scientist's manifesto on the conservation of matter and energy with its implicit idea that nothing is ever really created or destroyed. On the contrary, take three artists and direct them to paint the same still life and you will get three different still lifes. Put pen, paint or crayon to paper and you have created something. So all is potential. From that as a starting point, you can work on professionalism and the quality of communication.

To understand creativity, you need to understand control. Control is the ability to start, change or stop something. While it may seem that creativity is most linked to starting, in fact, all three points of control involve creation. If you start a work of art, you must continue to create and finish it in order to have a product. For many artists, Stop is the most difficult factor. They don’t know when to stop, and will go on painting and painting, hoping that the teacher will tell them when they’re done. I have a practical solution to this problem. You’re done when you’ve said what you wanted to say. That’s your product.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Talent and Competence

The following is part of the introduction to the book I'm writing. (copyright etc.)

For some reason, many people have a sort of mystical belief that, in the field of visual arts, either they have talent or they might as well pack it up. Yet these same people will admit that they wouldn’t expect to sit down at a piano or pick up a guitar and immediately know how to play it. The musician, the singer, the professional in any field, knows that it requires development of one’s skills to gain competence.

Competence is, to my mind, more important than innate talent. You have the ability to develop your skill. And you develop that skill by looking for yourself, learning what you need to know (the basics of art) and practicing routinely. (You can learn more about this in Chapter 17 of The Way to Happiness. Write me and I will send you a copy. )

The word skill is interesting, because its original use denoted not a physical accomplishment but the mental capacity to make distinctions. It was borrowed from the old Norse word, skil, meaning distinction, discernment, knowledge. And indeed, when you have an understanding of the tools, materials and components of visual art, you can use or break the “rules” to create the effects you want.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Part of the introduction to my upcoming book

The Parable of the Talents

Talent is today defined as natural ability or aptitude. People throw the word around: “He has talent,” “I have no talent.” The origin of the word is important. In Biblical times, a talent was a weight or monetary unit—money, in other words. And what is money? Money is a medium of exchange.

Talent apparently came to mean ability or aptitude because of the Parable of the Talents, a story attributed to Jesus in the Bible (Matthew 25:14-30.) It’s a fascinating story. A man left three servants with differing amounts of money (talents) when he went on a trip. One buried it, but two invested it and had more talents. He rewarded the two who doubled their talents and threw the third into the street.

So be warned: if talent is a word standing for natural ability, it is still up to you to develop that ability you have.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Update to start the new year

I just wanted to give you an update on what I am up to. I felt, with the economic downturn, that I needed to develop some low-cost products that could be offered to friends, former buyers and students. I discovered a wonderful "Print-on-demand" website, lulu.com.

One item is a 12-month calendar for 2009 with one of my pictures (beautifully produced) matching each month ($20). It's a flip-down calendar so that each month displays the calender on a separate 8.5 x 11 page below a full page photo of a painting.

The other product is a 40-page coloring book (32 illustrations in black and white, $15) of a poem by Dean called "The Doll's Journey." The poem, in blank verse, tells of a little girl who lost her doll. Only a man she meets tells her the doll is not actually lost but just on a trip. The man proceeds to write her letters. There is a wonderful surprise ending. The idea for the poem came from a footnote in a biography of that great writer of children's stories, Franz Kafka. What the mysterious young man in this poem does, Kafka is said to have done in 1923 in Berlin toward the end of his being Kafka.

We are now working on a perfect bound volume of Dean's poetry letter called "Deanotations," issues 1-20. It will be approximately 125 8.5 by 11 pages. Should be finished and published later this month. This poetry letter was produced from 1984 to 2004 and consisted of a total of 110 issues containing Dean's poetry and my illustrations.

In the longer term, I am working on a book of Art Basics and Exercises intended for my students and others who either have been mystified by some aspect of the art process ("I just don't understand color") or just want a sort of workbook that they can use to improve their skills. This book will be in Black and White (unfortunately) because it would be prohibitively expensive to produce in color. My solution is to produce a computer-readable version on CD that a buyer can ask for and have sent for just the cost of a small production fee and mailing cost. Or—alternatively—I could post the color version on the web for download. What do you think?

Oh, and if you like occasional updates from this site, please join by selecting "followers" on the sidebar.