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.
When is colour arbitrary?
by Gregory Packard, Montrose, CO, USA
Color is a flicker, a spark within a painting which often gives the painting a life of its own. Whether it’s a mild cloak to emphasize a melancholy mood or a dazzling dress that takes a painting to the ball, it is color that is the spirit within. In the sometimes tight confines of representational art, color offers a great amount of freedom to experiment and express in abstract ways. Is it arbitrary? More so when the values and underlying design are correct. When the values are simplified and the design strong, the colors can be as wild as you wish within the value shapes. Monet learned that cooler colors tend to turn away on form and aerial perspective, while warmer colors come forth without the need for a great value change and that color as much or more than value modeled form is what turns a creation of pigment into a breath of sunshine.
Was Gauguin color-blind?
by Ed Pointer, Lindsborg, KS, USA
I’ve often wondered if Gauguin slipped into color-blindness in the latter part of his Polynesian explorations. As I understand it, some forms of color-blindness are in the red and green spectrum. Or, was he just experimenting with complimentary colors? This is probably unanswerable since none of us were there, but interesting, maybe…
(RG note) Thanks, Ed. I don’t think so. While he had syphilis towards the end of his life, which can affect vision, his ideas of color came much earlier. It all starts with his penchant for overemphasis. “How do you see this tree?” he said, “Is it really green? Use green, then, the most beautiful green on your palette. And that shadow, rather blue? Don’t be afraid to paint it as blue as possible.” Add to that his general idea, “Art is either plagiarism or revolution,” and you might come to the conclusion that he thought it was important just to be “different.”
Non traditional use of colour
by Yvonne Munro, Canada
Colour is also an emotional tool, and a compositional tool. I like to use colour to capture the feeling and the energy of the landscape. A visual experience may be lost if you are only trying to get what you see, or if you give it an “anything goes” approach. I also like to use colour to push and pull elements of the painting forward or backwards, depending on its place on the picture plane and, more importantly, my visual experience of the landscape. I like to paint outside, and capturing the light and energy of a landscape is a tricky thing. Our world is a glorious place, and for me the best way to represent or share my experience is through a non traditional use of colour. It is neither arbitrary, nor exactly what I see. It is what I feel.
Take the time to make it right
by Jane Kley, Hermann, MO, USA
I have a wonderful education; very expensive too. My favorite instructor, Chuck Shoemaker who taught drawing at East Central College, a junior college in a little Missouri town called Union, used to say, “When you see something in your art work that doesn’t seem right, don’t respond by saying, ‘Oh well, good enough!’ Instead, listen to the little voice that says ‘not good enough!’ and change it. Don’t settle,” he used to say. So if your little voice says, “That doesn’t look right,” your obligation is to take the time to make it right.
Dreaming in colour
by Manuela Valenti, MI, USA
Even artists who paint alike don’t use the same exact color composition. I’m arbitrary. I use a lot of black, certainly I’m not afraid of it. The palette for my landscapes is definitely not the usual one, but it works for me and that’s how I see nature, vibrant and bold. I believe we all see color in nature in a different way. Just as some dream in black and white, I dream in full vibrant colors. This is something that always intrigued me, how artists dream and see color in nature, and I believe that color reflects the true personality of the artist — and any human being. The color choices for an artist eventually become their style, their signature, a part of their inner self on canvas, that’s what makes a painting so special. Composition and color need to be related in order for a good painting to stand out.
Limiting your colour options
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA
Recent studies have determined that too many options confuse people. I work with a glass pallet that is cleaned regularly. I don’t put out a full spectrum of colors, rather start with the foundation wash – usually burnt umber or burnt sienna – and add one color at a time trying to limit the number of colors on the pallet. If, for example, I’ve added yellow ochre, then I try to make that yellow work throughout the painting. This helps with the color harmony which unites the image and looks “true.” It’s amazing the color range that can be produced in a simple 4 color printing process. That should tell you that mixing colors is an art in itself.
Free to be you and me
by Dyan Law, Pipersville, PA, USA
Having been a student of Josef Albers (once removed), I was required to do endless, often grueling color charts and witnessed the magic colors performed before my very eyes. No magician’s trick could excite me more. Mix a yellow and a blue and voila, we have green! Even black and white offers us the “feeling” of color because of the kinship of values to color and black and white, mixed along with our imaginations. However, a wise Sufi master I studied with years ago told me that our impressions are simply “not reliable because they are constantly changing.” I can only conclude that the colors we choose to use are as random as the impressions we have of ourselves in a mirror. We see them as they are to us at that moment. They often look different to ourselves on our own canvas or paper, etc. the next minute, hour or day. They may look different to the jury who judges our work for exhibition or those who buy our art. Most importantly, it’s the act of making those magical color mixes that please us, that reach out to others, that help record history, or simply thrill our Aunt Tilly, no matter how frustrating that can be at times. It’s the epitome of being “free to be you and me” despite the rules that guide or restrict each of us everyday.
Questions about colour
by Petra Voegtle, Munich, Germany
The more I work with colours the easier I understand why some artists work in colour series. But while you can learn the techniques of mixing, changing hues, etc., you cannot learn the “feeling” you must have in order to get it “right.” There is something in this fact that cannot be defined because it depends on emotion and the willingness to subdue completely to instinct. I sometimes wonder why it is that we as humans react so intensively on colour and why colour is extremely influential on our psyche, while for animals (i.e. insects) certain colours are often only a means of survival, if they can see colours at all. Is it just a rudimentary remains in our genes that controls our self-preservation or is it more than that? And why do people then react differently on the same colours? And there is another question I have in regard to colours — why is it that when we try to “copy” nature in all its colourful glory — we mostly consider such a piece of art as true kitsch?
Like learning a foreign language
by Lorelle Miller, CA, USA
I have painted or drawn most of my life and considered myself fairly good at what I did. Then it began to dawn on me that I really am at the beginning of learning what painting really is. Funny how you can delude yourself for so long. It can be a case of misconception, teachers who think they are teaching you, but not really explaining the truth, or perhaps it is just all interpretation. I am not sure, but the thought has come through to me lately as I muddle through the steps to become better, that I am really learning a new language, the language of painting.
Each letter, each word, then a sentence, a paragraph and on down the line. You can go along fooling yourself into thinking that you are fluent and to many viewers who are laymen, you can get away with it. Imagine how funny and ridiculous it sounds to speak a broken form of a foreign language to someone fluent in that language. They would certainly pick up on all your mispronunciations and foolish lingual arrangements.
by Fay Lee, Alton, NH, USA
In reference to your recent letters on art scams, I received a request from a person in Malta wanting to know how much a certain painting was and how much it would cost to overnight Fedex the painting to Malta. One Michael Scot said as soon as he received the information, he would send me his credit card numbers. I searched out the name and it turned up on a scammer list. He has now received no reply from me. Michael Scot was on the list and his email shows two “t’s.”
(RG note) Thanks, Fay. It’s a scamademic out there. The website you mentioned, Art Quest, is an excellent one for artists to check, and while it’s an amazingly long list, it can’t possibly be complete. A lot of scammers are bad spellers — some don’t even spell their aliases properly — but you can’t depend on that either.
Back pains while sitting
by Carol Ubben, Mount Morris, IL, USA
I spend a good deal of time leaning over my canvas. I’m one of those artists who sits in a chair to paint. I forget to take breaks occasionally and end up with a hurting back. Sometimes my back hurts even when I take a lot of breaks. Do you have any thoughts on this?
(RG note) Thanks, Carol. I consider myself an expert sitter. I spent some time studying chair design when at art school and since then I’ve been sitting in one. Painters need a hard chair, with no armrests and no cushion. A twenties-style secretary’s chair with a spring back and casters is ideal. You need to place the working area of your painting just above eye level so your back will be slightly stretching up rather than bending or compressing. Believe me, this way you can sit for weeks and not get any back discomfort. This combination has been one of the main contributors to my daily studio happiness. No aches or pains so far — and back problems run in my family.
Art and current graphic design
by Lauren Penney, Toronto, ON, Canada
I’m a graphic design student in my twenties. I’m also a painter, and have just discovered photography. I’m beginning to find art everywhere, and have taken to making it out of almost anything. One place I fail to find art is in current graphic design that we all see every day. Can an information delivery system such as advertising also be art? Is it possible to hide significance, integrity, beauty, creativity, and mastery of a skill in a poster for Kleenex or hep B shots? I enjoy my work both in and out of school but is there a place for everyday art in our information saturated world? And is some girl no one has ever heard of really in a position to do anything about it?
(RG note) Thanks, Lauren. Some of the best and most brilliant art comes in the form of advertising and other media. Significance, integrity, beauty, creativity, and mastery of a skill are all alive and well in the world of commerce. Slip ups and shams occur, of course, but that goes for the world of “fine art” too. Believe in what you do, do it to the very highest of standards you can muster, in whatever direction you choose, and you too will be heard of.
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 Carolyn Rick of Fountain Lake, AR, USA who wrote: “We are painting/mixing colors in my K-6 classes. My 3-6 classes react well to mixing colors. But my K-2 students… Help!”
And also Helen Musser of Terrell, TX, USA who wrote: “I don’t always get it ‘right,’ but I’m still trying. It takes a twist of the imagination to take liberties with the true colours.”
And also Julianne Biehl of Dallas, TX, USA who wrote: “The joy of luminosity through color placement and close values, and of achieving unity through working one color into another in one’s palette is a constant aim of my painting process. Black, white and grey come under these methods. Color brings life to painting and rhythm to life.”
And also Greg McHuron of Jackson, WY, USA who wrote: “In teaching, I notice that we all see colour differently, and thus most people have the wrong colors on their palette. The result: They can’t get there from here.”
And also Norman Ridenour of Prague, Czechoslovakia who wrote: “I almost wish I was a painter. Three cheers for Fauvism!”