Color is one of the most exciting aspects of painting; be it grays, black and white, or in-your-face big, bold, pure pigments. It can also be one of the most challenging, often vexing, conundrums of life in the studio.
So much so, that myriad books have been written on the subject, courses taught, desperate answer-seeking inquiries sent, conversations over coffee, and “how’d they do that” up-close inspections have gone on since who knows how long. Therefore, my intent is not to cover the entirety of color (who could?) but rather a small, tiny slice of it. I am a lover of color. I personally lean to the bold and intense; but am intrigued with the sublime subtlety other artists achieve and often find myself stepping ever closer to their work wondering, how did they do that?
One thing I’ve discovered about color can be summarized with the old adage, “there’s more to this than meets the eye”. By this I mean; that often the colors you see are not purely an individual color standing alone, but rather have been mixed or layered to achieve the perception of that color before you. Of course, a master of this was Georges Seurat, with his dot upon dot, dot beside dot of colors-not mixing his paints on his palette but allowing the eye to mix them upon viewing his work…far too tedious for me. I’ll stick with mixing and layering with a broader brushstroke and a lot less eye strain.
Left: Detail of Seurat's Parade de Cirque 1889 Right: Zoomed in to see the dots . . . pretty amazing!
Beyond mixing colors as we were taught in school; red plus yellow gives you orange… consider trying red plus yellow, plus a touch of blue still gives you orange. I know for many that brings to mind a muddy mess, but it doesn’t have to. When you begin opening up to formerly preconceived barriers, you will discover some really incredible colors. Adding a smidge of white broadens your range even more. You might consider a transparent mixing white if you don’t want to increase the opacity or create a chalkiness to your color. I decided to give this an earnest try after reading “Daily Painting” by Carol Marine, which I reviewed in my Live An Artful Life article “Take a Look At This Book”. I admit I’ve mixed some truly hideous colors, but I’ve also mixed some delicious colors that have allowed me to achieve more depth and interest in my work. How much more visually stimulating it is to look at an apple that is painted with a range of reds; some muted, others made more intense by mixing those three basic colors together in different amounts plus the touch of white. A suggestion would be to save the addition of white for mid to top layers. Of course, I still use my colors straight from the tube, but working in this principle even with something like a turquoise works. It doesn’t really matter which red, yellow, or blue you use; but I would guess you will have the most success with your three favorites in those colors. If I want to create a more muted range I will use something like quinacridone magenta, a yellow ochre, and a Prussian blue, with warm white. Time to put on your lab coat (art apron) and get to work mixing colors like a mad scientist! When you discover combos you really like, use a sharpie and write the color names on your palette and when it’s dry, three-hole punch and put in a binder. That way you can flip thru anytime you need a quick reminder. I’ve also taken a picture of my work with that palette so I can look at it holistically as well.
A painting I wanted to remember "how I did it" on the colors. Zoomed on the right so you can see the details.
Beyond color mixing, applying a foundation color on your substrate is something else to try. As I’ve peered ever deeper into the canvas’ of artists whose work I admire, I often see little hints of color peeking out beneath the surface colors. This is a wonderful technique for achieving depth or adding vibrancy to your work. I noticed that one of my favorite artists lay in a ground of a muted pumpkin color before beginning a particular scene, and didn’t try to completely cover it. It added warmth to the ensuing layers, as well as created visual tension where it peeked through, achieving interest. Many artists do this to get rid of the pressure of a pure white canvas; but I often do so to create a foundation of temperature (depending on the rest of the work to come) to make my painting surface a bit smoother than the original gessoed way it comes, and now to reveal this once hidden treasure of color.
Another thing to consider is to use an unusual color as your building blocks. For example, on the trees I was working on recently I initially painted the trunks in a muted red and purple, rather than the usual brown. When I added layers of colors, I was sure to allow hints of those colors to show between brushstrokes of my new colors. I repeated this in the grass and other plants. Once I added the other colors I wanted for the trees; and the different colors for the grasses, the finished result was a unification of the whole because of the initial foundation. When you look at it, you don’t necessarily see the under colors individually but there is an interest that’s created by using them as the base colors. Any color would achieve the same goal; as long as it’s different than the majority of your other colors, or even what is traditionally expected.
The image on the left shows base colors of red and purple for trees and purples in the grasses. The finished image on right.
Embrace the challenges of color! Don’t let a mud-pit of a paint mixture dissuade you from trying again. Besides, if you take a little of that muddy color and add some white you might discover a truly amazing hue. That’s all for now-
More articles about painting from Amy Hutto here.