Some painters nail the exact colour they need on the first go. I’m not one of them. In my experience, 90% share my problem. Colours change as the colours change around them — and you can’t know the colour of a passage until you’re picking up what you’re putting down. The situation is compounded by the presence of (or desirability for) reflected lights, silhouettes, local colours, broken colours, cast shadows, equal intensity lay-bys, etc. Finding the right colour can be like looking for the Higgs boson.
Understanding how colour works is largely a self-taught skill. Two years ago a young New Zealand painter, Richard Robinson, produced a remarkable video on the subject. There’s a twice-weekly letter about it here.
Further, every serious painter should study the research of Josef Albers, Albert Munsell, and other colour wizards. Here are a few practical ploys to consider:
Consider limiting your palette. One of my all-time best tips is to start out with large dollops of six or seven pigments only. How’s about black, white, cad red, crimson, yellow and blue. By forcing the mixing of opposites on the colour wheel, limited palettes facilitate delicious, sophisticated colours.
Consider “pushing colour.” This is where you overstate early on with brighter or “any old” colour in the full knowledge that you can adjust later. Curiously, a gut decision in overstating often gives a delightful energy that doesn’t need later modification.
Consider grisaille. This is where black, white and gray-scale become a chassis for colour to be localized later. Apart from achieving a certain kind of style, grisaille proves once again that relative tone values are more important than local colour.
Consider “infinite play.” Taking care not to overwork, keep adjusting colour hue, intensity and tone value. The hues within sunlight and shadow, for example, are not always obvious at first. Keep playing until you begin to see visual truth.
Consider glazing. Tone down or re-tone passages with a transparent, generally darker tone spread over a dry under-painting. Warm can be made cool and cool can be made warm, either overall or in selected passages. One of the most underrated and underused ploys, glazing fixes and pulls together lame colour compositions for fun and profit.
PS: “Any ground subtracts its own hue from the colors which it carries and therefore influences.” (Josef Albers)
Esoterica: Lately I’ve been playing with Alpenglow. Known as Alpengluhen in German, it’s an optical phenomenon where airborne snow, water or ice particles give dramatic effects in high mountain atmospheres. More broadly, it’s a condition seen toward evening where snowfields and glaciers serve as giant reflectors to the surrounding mountains. Remarkable colours can be seen on the normally shaded side of mountains or on the opposite horizon just after sunset or just before sunrise. I’m finding the effects can be brought to life with gradations — the glow itself is comprised of a wide range of colours from deep blue through pulsating grays, subtle crimsons to hot oranges and yellows. Like trying to nail the Northern lights, synthesizing Alpenglow is a matter of on-the-spot observation as well as patient and persistent mixing.
The Verdaccio palette
by Tom Andrich, Winnipeg, MB, Canada
Recently, in July, I took a workshop from Frank Covino using a controlled palette. It’s a pain in the butt setting the palette up, but once done the painting goes so much easier and faster. Frank uses a Verdaccio palette. The Renaissance masters used the Verdaccio palette. It is all based on 11 values including black and white rather than the 9 value scale that so many artists use, including Richard Robinson. Thought you might be interested. I have changed my whole approach to painting since I took Frank’s workshop and I’ve been painting for over 50 years and teaching painting and drawing for over 20 years.
The value of tone values
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
I have always felt color is an individual thing and we all see it differently. As artists we also interpret a particular color differently. Getting the “right” color isn’t as important for me as getting the value of that color. Also, the shade or hue of a particular color again isn’t as important as the “correct color and value” as it works in the picture being created. To be a bit more clear — the scheme of colors for the overall effect of the work are more important than slaving to achieve the actual color one may or may not see. The end result is less about accuracy and more about harmony of color used to paint a desired result.
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We all struggle with colour
by Lisa Christiansen, Tauranga, New Zealand
I have often struggled to come to grips with having to consider value, hue and colour intensity with every 2nd brush stroke, so decided to take colour out of my work until I felt I had mastered value alone. I would then glaze transparent colours over the grisaille underpainting so I knew the values were right and I could then tackle colour and all its complexities separately. I found this technique (although horrendously time consuming) helped my understanding of colour/value immenselyalthough I must admit I usually wished I had left the grisaille alone as I loved the black and white painting so much more than the end result. After watching Richard Robinson’s colour DVD I also gave limited palette a go for the first time using only 2 browns, white, ultramarine and alizarin – quite a freeing exercise. And a big thank you Robert! I have learnt so much from your letters over the past few years.
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Old Master Palette
by Pamela Bleakney, Fort Meade, MD, USA
Thank you for today’s letter. For the past 5 years or so I’ve been using the “Old Master’s Palette”for my “Frida Series” of watercolor paintings. The palette is made up of Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna and Payne’s Gray. I use Winsor and Newton “Payne’s Gray” because it contains a lot of blue. People are always surprised by the variety of colors that can be obtained from these three colors.
Not satisfied with worn out theories
by Nader Khaghani, Gilroy, CA, USA
Please note that in color, the rehash of the past theories is insufficient. We are likely to suffer the fate of Latin, a dead language. Albers and Munsell are old news and just a stepping stone for the painters. It is encumbered upon each painter to push color and form to a newer height. Sure we are not all colorists nor formalists necessarily, for that matter, as we read in the Inception Myth of Color and Form (The Grand Conference of Birds at Grant Park/Hueless in Chicago).
Yet whoever we are in whichever way and whatever capacity, we do paint, think, eat and sleep color, so we are adding to our cumulative knowledge of color every day. I am proud of our efforts; it is time to honor the color heavy weights (Kandinsky, Klee, Itten, Munsell, Birren, etc.) but not remain satisfied with the worn out theories of the past and reach for the new shores.
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by Mallory Rich, Sandgate, VT, USA
Very helpful. I’ve been studying Munsell and that is improving my work. But could you go a bit deeper into the topic of glazing? Thanks for your always-welcome letters.
(RG note) Thanks, Mallory. In my experience, most painters who actively use glazing use different methods suited to (and often invented by) themselves. Here’s my system: I’m pretty casual and loosely untruthful during the early part of the painting. At about the halfway point I start to think about glazing — my main reason being to “pull the painting together.” I put a glaze on with a rag — often a little at first, then, drying between, more boldly later. Sometimes it’s cool (Phthalo blue a favourite) or warm (Burnt Sienna, Quinacridone Orange, Alizarin Crimson, etc.) I then come back in on top with impasto and other finishing accents.
Drowning in wonderful colours
by Mona Youssef, Ottawa, ON, Canada
“Finding the right colour can be like looking for the Higgs boson.” That is the real challenge for nailing the exact colour. As a matter of fact, it is one of my pleasures when I paint. I feel as if I were sinking or drowning, not in waters but in colours and their many rich tones. You said it Robert, “It is a self-taught skill.” I taught my students so much but they really have to make it their own. One of the main keys is to try and try and never give up until you get it right as was visualized at first, but mostly work with passion. Do not be concern about what others may say or want to see!
Too much theory
by Cheryl Braganza, Montreal, QC, Canada
Your comment about “serious painters” has an elitist air. I have never studied Munsell or Albers but I do consider myself an engaged and dedicated artist who has picked up colour concepts instinctively and now have my own style. I am not averse to your suggestions, though, but I don’t think I could sit through a two hour video on Mastering Color. With Golden, Liquitex, Tri-Art coming out with luscious new hues all the time, I tend to spend less time mixing and just get on with it. For me, too much theory hinders the creative process.
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The CMV Palette
by Robert Masla, Ashfield, MA, USA
On the subject of limited palette, I have often suggested to students an exercise using a CMY pallet, as we know from the advances of printing that these colors can be mixed to produce any color. I have them purchase a large tube of alkyd white (to speed drying — I’ve used almost all alkyd for the last 25 or more years, and have, in the last few years, been using CAS AllydPro paints, as from my experience with all of them, they have the best Chromaticity due to the highest pigment content and pure alkyd resin and very little oil). Then for Cyan, a Thalocyan. Green shade, (if that is not available a Prussian blue), quinacridone magenta for magenta and cadmium yellow light or Hansa yellow for yellow, add to that a carbon black and you have a perfect limited palette. When teaching techniques of the old masters, I have them add yellow ochre for the creation of a verdaccio underpainting. I also suggest CAS alkyd medium fast dry, as it really does fast dry. I use liquin, which most oil painters use to speed the drying of their oils. I use it to slow the drying of my alkyds, but this is a whole longer discussion.
Richard Robinson videos
by Maria Reinhard, Montreal, QC, Canada
I have received Richard Robinson’s DVDs on Color and his Master Class Landscapes. I have watched them several times and keep watching them, as every time I see them I learn something new. I have become so frustrated in regard to colour, but since I am a visual person the DVDs have helped me to understand all these theories very clearly. Not only that, the notes provided are invaluable reference tools.
Featured Workshop: Margaret Ferraro
collage by Gayle Gerson, Grand Junction, CO, USA
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 Dennis Clarke of New Zealand who wrote, “I must congratulate Richard Robinson on his series about colour. I have been down the road for many years and I am still learning, and always will. He approaches the matter from a completely different angle to all the others I have seen and learned from. Absolutely brilliant!”
Enjoy the past comments below for Colour choice and adjustment…