There are colourists and there are colourists. There are those among us whose colours are clunky and crude — and there are those whose colours are deadly, tasty, and “right on.” There are even some, like Paul Gauguin, who believe colour ought to be arbitrary — that is, it’s a good idea if the sky is green and the grass is red.
While we’re at it, there are those who think tone values are more important than hue–which is similar to saying colour is arbitrary. But even newly baptized novices know that if you manage to get the right colour your painting can look “true.” God may work in light, but we mortals work in pigment. Getting the colour of the light through haze in front of a distant range of hills is, for many, the Holy Grail. It’s not in the magic of some new pigment, it’s a matter of looking, seeing, mixing, testing and adjusting.
Looking is opening your mind to your impressions.
Seeing is replacing what you know with what you see.
Mixing is the knowledgeable confluence of pigments.
Testing is comparing your preparations with the truth.
Adjusting is the will to fix your flagrant wrongs.
Guidelines for mixing: I know it’s basic, but where you mix your colours (your palette) won’t show how a chosen hue will react with others on the work itself. You must apply and consider. Also, many successful mixtures contain a mother colour, plus white and black. Don’t be afraid of black. Having said that, garishness, when it occurs, is best neutralized with its opposite on the colour wheel. Get a colour wheel. And when you come to mixing, testing and adjusting, it’s nice to know that practically everybody must silently and diligently struggle to get it right. There’s no easy way. In the words of Chromophobia author David Batchelor, “Colour reveals the limits of language and evades our best attempts to impose a rational order on it. To work with colour is to become aware of the insufficiency of language and theory — which is both disturbing and pleasurable.”
For those who paint outdoors, colour work can seem devilishly programmed to perplex and confuse. On the other hand, film photography, with its errant chemicals, can also get things wrong. Digital reference material, because of its eternal tweakyness, has been sent by the Great Goddess to help us look more virtuous than we are.
Esoterica: After those three Frenchmen, try the sunny-side/shadow-side exercise. Make up little blocks of varying colours, set them on coloured grounds, place in bright sunlight, and try to grab and render those relationships in paint. For those in the northern hemisphere where it’s now wintertime–you can try it over there under a colour-corrected bulb. An hour over there will not be wasted. Generally speaking the sunny side will be warmer and higher up the colour wheel, the shadow side will be cooler and lower down. As it says in the small print–“some exceptions apply.” The cast shadow will be something else again.
This is a favourite Robert Genn Twice-Weekly Letter previously published as “True Colours” on December 1, 2006.
Colour needs to vibrate
by David Knoecklein, Phoenixville, PA, USA
My opinion of the color model in painting is ‘thank God.’ Color’s intention is to vibrate. When I get into it my intention is to vibrate the surface. The dynamic is the substance of chromatic integrity in relationship, i.e., one color when seen together with another color creates specific chemical reactions on the surface of the eye.
The Angel Came Down is 8 x 7 feet, oil on canvas. The Light on the Curtain is 14 x 11 inches, oil pastel on paper. The Angel Came Down is dedicated to all veterans. Its subtitle is “And the Angel played ‘the Fleurs of the Forest.'” I painted it in response to the current fact that each 65 minutes an American Vet commits suicide. The Angel Came Down is on display at the Artisans Gallery and Cafe in Phoenixville, PA.
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by Julie Liebling, Watford, UK
I cannot remember exactly how long I have been getting your letters as reading them has become part of my weekly ritual as an artist. I wanted to let you know that they have helped sustain me through challenging times on my Fine Art Degree. Whether I was planning an essay, feeling blocked as a painter, working in my other work as a social worker or living all the lovely highs and lows of family life, I would sigh with contentment and feel reassured as I read your letters. The topics always seem timely and somehow I feel as if I have a letter from a like-minded artist who always managed to sound supportive, interested and knowledgeable about existing in this world as an artist. I wish to thank you for sharing your thoughts – it is a wonderful art in itself (and I can’t quite find the courage to do it!) Your letters are and always will be enormously helpful! I was delighted to hear that there are enough for 27 years!!!! What a gift!
I have recently graduated from a UK University and I am now an emerging artist. Thank you for being a positive mentor and role model — even if you didn’t know it!
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Oh joyous colour!
by Kimberly Blackstock, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I sit and ponder at the work I have done today… for me, colour is everything – there is nothing recognizable but colour in my work today (I paint both representational and abstract); then I swivel over to my computer and open your e-mail as I catch up on the twitter, e-mail, Facebook, Instagram etc marketing side of what an artist needs to do these days to stay afloat; and come across the most important and joyous topic I love about painting… colour!
Oh joyous colour, we as artists are like kids in a candy shop, we can just mix and create all the colours we love, and they fill that hunger for expression of emotion.
I “paint” this drip piece of happiness at a time when I need an escape route to the positive. My brother is somewhere in the Philippines and we cannot locate him, so colour today in particular is my love!
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iPad App for Josef Albers
by Richard Nelson, Maui, HI, USA
My students and I have followed your letters for many years, envious of your vast knowledge of our visual/tactile world. Not many can claim a life of such generous giving and we all thank and applaud you. A recent letter of yours provided a topic for class discussion. It was a painting of yours presented for one of your class critiques. I had my students pick out a work from an assortment of numerous landscapes by numerous artists. Without knowing your work, they almost unanimously chose your piece as the one which truly understood color relationships.
Should time permit, I would welcome your brief visit to my website “Dick Nelson Color” for another take on the issue of this current letter. There is also a new iPad App which is the entire Josef Albers Interaction of Color course, complete with animated lessons and commentary.
In retrospect, it is clear that Albers was a visionary. This does not mean that he had all the answers, as time has proven. He should, however serve as a critical contributor to our understanding of color and the relativity of its behavior. And then there are those who put the “U” in color, but otherwise sound, and pretty much act like us. Apart from that, I have always felt that your use of color surpasses any other artist I know or have worked with.
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More praise for Josef Albers
by David J Hamilton, WA, USA
I have recently stumbled into the study of color (or colour, a much richer word for the inclusion of “U”) via a drawing class with Julia Hensley who suggested Josef Albers Classic Interaction of Color.
This is now available as an interactive app for the iPad for the relatively modest price of $9.99. His introduction resonated immediately with my readings in Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing by Margaret Livingstone and now your remarks today. If other readers of your post are interested, I would recommend playing with these color wheel exercises in the Albers app. I recommend the Livingston book for those who would really like to understand how we see and why we all see colors differently.
(RG note) Thanks, David, and also the spelling-challenged Richard Nelson of Maui. Richard’s website
is an excellent source of colour info and an excellent intro to Albers’s thinking. For painters who want to get on with it, I also recommend Stephen Quiller’s remarkable 8-hour progressive colour demo video.
Colour in mind and memory work
by Jack Monk, Surrey, BC, Canada
Your colour info is a topic which gives me some insight into one of my many painting hang-ups. Your letter points out the need for being able to SEE, and notes the shortcomings of photography in reproduction of colors in our efforts to achieve that “right-on” status. What about the painter who paints from the mind and memory, with no live image to use as a reference, and no photo or computer screen to follow? Using only the imagination, is trial and error the only way?
(RG note) Thanks, Jack. There are many approaches to colour in imaginary work. One I’ve flirted with is trying to make things as realistic as possible without actually looking and seeing. This job requires the same ‘commit and correct’ methodology with colour that’s necessary with plein air work, only you don’t have anything to go on. So it’s a challenge with often surprising results. Another way is to let colours go where they will and let the committed or trial colours determine your next colour move. This can lead to yellow skies and red grass, but that’s all part of the fun. In my case I try for colour harmony, over-emphasis of grays, and mild colour surprise. But people should do what they want. We are, after all, “creators.”
by Angelika Jaeger, North Okanagan, BC, Canada
I remember meeting you at ‘Salt Spring Revisited’ many years ago… I was a total beginner, taken under the wings of some dear artist friends to be introduced to the ‘Big’ in the Canadian art world… I hid in the furthest places at ‘Serendipity,’ just to not be seen and noticed (great attitude for a workshop, right?). You searched me out!
I followed you around ‘harassing’ brave souls painting in public, chatted you up at the opening, where you sat in the only comfy chair in the room, shared a glass of wine with you and your and my friends and enjoyed being totally ‘in the now’ at that time… many times did I share this story of meeting you and all the other great people in the Federation of Canadian Artists. I am grateful that you are one of the ‘Stepping Stones’ on my journey…
I know you have left your footprint on artists’ hearts and we all wish for you to find your way ahead with light and love… thank you for being part of my life.
(RG note) Thanks, Angelika. And thanks to the many of you who have sent personal anecdotes and reflections of brief encounters and joyous interactions. The input has been heartwarming and often illuminating. I must admit to frequently looking around for the most comfortable place to sit. I’ll have to do something about that.
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Enjoy the past comments below for About true colours…
Antique white roses
oil painting, 16 x 12 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Tim Moore of Melbourne, FL, USA, who wrote, “I loved your Lake O’Hara video. Was this oil or acrylic? What did you wipe the canvas with about halfway through?”
(RG note) Thanks, Tim. It was an acrylic, as are all of the paintings demoed on our video page. I wiped the painting — half way through but already dry — with a glaze of Phthalo blue which has the effect of giving a mother colour to all colours already there. After a glazing in warm, cool or neutral, or all three in parti-colours, it’s pretty well always a joy to go back into and finish.”