About true colours

Dear Artist, 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.

“Self-Portrait with Halo”
oil on wood, 29 x 20 in
by Paul Gauguin

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.

oil painting
by Joaquin Sorolla

Best regards, Robert PS: “Colourists are epic poets.” (Charles Baudelaire) “Colour is the fruit of life.” (Guillaume Apollinaire) “Colour is an act of reason.” (Pierre Bonnard) 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  

“Angel Came Down”
oil painting, 96 x 84 in
by David Knoecklein

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.

“Light on the Curtain”
oil pastel, 14 x 11 inches
by David Knoecklein

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.   There is 1 comment for Colour needs to vibrate by David Knoecklein
From: Rose — Nov 19, 2013

Your angel and thought is pulling on my heartstrings….

  Valuable gift by Julie Liebling, Watford, UK  

original painting
by Julie Liebling

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! There is 1 comment for Valuable gift by Julie Liebling
From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Nov 19, 2013

A monumental painting! I just love this…it almost has a landscape quality. Wow!

  Oh joyous colour! by Kimberly Blackstock, Vancouver, BC, Canada  

drip painting
by Kimberly Blackstock

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! There are 2 comments for Oh joyous colour! by Kimberly Blackstock
From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Nov 19, 2013

In your pain have you painted your frustration as a veil over the information you need?

From: Sarah Wood — Nov 19, 2013

Your painting radiates happiness! My heart goes out to you, and I devoutly hope that you hear good news about your brother.

  iPad App for Josef Albers by Richard Nelson, Maui, HI, USA  

digital print, 11 x 15.5 inches
by Richard Nelson

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. There are 2 comments for iPad App for Josef Albers by Richard Nelson
From: Angela Treat Lyon — Nov 18, 2013
From: Michael McDevitt — Nov 19, 2013

I studied color theory with Judy Crook at the Art Center College of Design (Pasadena, CA) in the early 1980s. While I was there, Dan McCaw also taught me a lot about the subject in the context of his impressionist style. I have started to teach the subject in recent years with an emphasis on the development of painting from the Renaissance forward. Your website is terrific. I will encourage my students to check out your site. Thanks for sharing.

  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?

Jack’s colour charts

(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.”   True colours by Angelika Jaeger, North Okanagan, BC, Canada  

“Generation Warriors”
mixed media, 18 x 24 inches
by Angelika Jaeger

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. There is 1 comment for True colours by Angelika Jaeger
From: Pete Tully — Nov 19, 2013

About five years ago you suggested that I do my foregrounds first and then go to work on the middle and back. It was some of the best advice I ever had. Thank you.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for About true colours

From: Sandra Taylor Hedges — Nov 15, 2013

Sometime in the last 10 years colour became my hallmark. I think this was when I discovered the power of glazing pure colour in thin layers one over the other in order to do my mixing. It was a method I used in watercolour but had never thought to apply to acrylic or oil. Once I started experimenting with glazing mediums I never went back to thick pallet mixed colour. When we glaze one colour over the other the eye becomes more involved in the painting; it is required to do the work of creating the new colour through the layers of paint. The paint becomes exciting and vibrant. Master oil painters of the Renaissance knew this trick and used it to help the viewer be seduced into gazing longer than required to see all that the image revealed.

From: John Bellinger — Nov 16, 2013

“if you get your color right, you will get the right value. All colors have a value.” Makes sense, I think! Wishing you well.

From: Nakul Prashant — Nov 16, 2013
From: Ted Scoville — Nov 16, 2013

I think Color is like doing your scales on the piano. It’s more a matter of putting in a lot of time to see what you can do, then branching out and trying more difficult riffs.

From: Frank Stewart — Nov 16, 2013

When I started painting 12 years ago, I became obsessed with accuracy in hue and value. After figuring out that I could paint something that resembled something else quite handily, I became interested in what more I could say with color. This has been the most satisfying discovery.

From: Falcon — Nov 16, 2013
From: Rick Rotante — Nov 16, 2013

I happen to be one of those whose firmly believes value IS more important than color. BUT, I also believe that the values of colors used is equally as important. Random or indiscriminate use of color -of any value, weakens a work for me -personally. When this happens it moves a work away from where I prefer -my art- to be. If this is a preference for others, so be it.

Harmony of color is a is more pleasing to me and I believe many viewers. Discordance not only looks amateurish, is indicates that the artist has little or no experience with color. This has been an ongoing trend that I feel hurts art in general and give the buyer/viewer a false sense of what is “good” in a piece. Gauguin wasn’t the biggest offender for me. Matisse bothers me more than any of his period. I know many may disagree with me, but that is my opinion and I stick by it.
From: George Carlos Ramirez — Nov 16, 2013

I’ve found that the most consistent way for me is to have one major color in a painting. (Monochromatic). Then the painting is more likely to draw attention to itself.

From: D. Jarvis — Nov 16, 2013

I notice that a lot of painters these days have no idea what they’re doing. They have never taken the trouble to really learn how to mix.

From: Leonard Curtice — Nov 16, 2013

Colour theory is often taught because it can be taught. There are historical theorists and a rich nomenclature. Intellectual non-artists and academics love the subject. Unfortunately, for the practical artist, a smattering of theory is needed and then one needs to practice. In other words one has to enamor oneself with the miracle of mixing. A curious, inventive mind is the first prerequesite of a successful colorist. Bristol, UK

From: Jorgensen F. L. — Nov 16, 2013

I just paint

From: Helen Musser — Nov 16, 2013

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.

From: Greg McHuron — Nov 16, 2013

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.

From: Randall Stone — Nov 16, 2013

The art and craftsmanship of color mixing can die out in one generation if neglected. It is in current danger. We live in times when, unfortunately, artistry is leaving art.

From: Karen Erickson — Nov 16, 2013

I was struck by a thought that came to me while reading this article about colour, connecting it to what I have been doing with paint and thinking about expanding the colour wheel beyond the primary, secondary and tertiary colours. I realized how understanding colour and working with it is a mathematical process. I love what Ted Scoville wrote above. Perhaps colour is mathematical in the way music is mathematical. As a teacher I learned that people who study music perform better in learning mathematics.

From: bryan — Nov 17, 2013
From: Jackie Knott — Nov 17, 2013
From: Gwenda branjerdporn — Nov 18, 2013

Thanks Sara and Robert for still sharing wonderful literary essays on art. I love it. Hope every day brings you peace, contentment and a sense of a fulfulled life. Thanks for sharing so much about you and your art.

Regards, Gwenda Branjerdporn
From: Cynthia Katz — Nov 19, 2013

I LOVE THIS PORTRAIT!!! Can we see more RG portraits?

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Nov 19, 2013

I agree about seeing more figurative work…your painting is an absolute capture of a real woman and her children.

From: Lorna Lee — Nov 19, 2013

I love that portrait of the family – and especially of the one hiding beneath a portion of the flower. SO special.

I am hoping you are feeling strong and able-bodied – as well as receiving inner peace and contentment. Lorna
From: Jeanette Rybinsky — Nov 19, 2013

The painting “Christmas Carol” is gorgeous!!! The composition is perfect. Everything about it is exquisite. This is my favorite one yet! Thank you so much for sharing it.

From: Melody Cleary — Nov 19, 2013

What a wonderful portrait! and a moment in time. Love it!

From: Lillian Tetreau — Nov 19, 2013
From: Marie Fortin — Nov 19, 2013
From: Mimi Ball — Nov 20, 2013

What A beautiful Painting , and lovely stories , Today ! Thank you .

From: Jill Trear — Nov 21, 2013

Wonderful, insightful, well written, human…..as always…interesting and helpful. I love the portrait of the family…all of the right elements are there. Thanks so much for sharing.

From: Helen Opie — Dec 04, 2013

Your are nourishing me, probably every one of us readers, even as you prepare to leave us on our own. I am so grateful for every letter and the little reminders to me; whatever the topic, I need re-reminding along with the nourishment of the additional places to go for further enriching information. Thank you and God bless you.

  Featured Workshop: Barry Coombs 111913_workshop Barry Coombs Workshops Held in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.     woa  

Antique white roses

oil painting, 16 x 12 inches by Nancy Medina, TX, 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 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.”

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

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