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How to Understand Color in Painting

Nov 24, 2007
Unlike some teachers of watercolor, I advise students to start painting as soon as a satisfactory drawing is completed. So let's start right in with a simple explanation of value and color. Value, according to Webster, is "the relation of one part or detail in a picture to another with respect to lightness and darkness." The primary colors of the painter's palette are red, yellow, and blue. When these three are mixed in pairs, we get orange, green, and purple.

To learn as much as possible about color, take each color in turn and play with it. See how alizarin becomes pink when water is added and how it becomes dusty rose when you add various shades of gray. Then experiment with various mixtures. You'll want to make copious notes as you go along with these experiments. They will be invaluable references later on, and unless the notes are on paper they may be forgotten.

Perhaps the easiest way to think of color is to divide your pigments into two general classifications - warm and cool. The intermediate, borderline group between warm and cool can be slanted either way by the addition of a warm or cool color; this group is useful for such elusive color effects as weather-beaten barns, dirt roads, etc. However, do not concern yourself with these until you have assimilated the essentials, the elementary principles of color.

To fix the warm and cool divisions in your mind, think of the hot, sultry colors of the tropics - the dazzling reds, magentas, yellows, oranges, purples - and compare them with the austere, cool, almost bleak colors of such northern regions as New England; think of the brooding grays, glacial blues, icy greens, and of the effect that these colors have even upon the personalities and temperaments of the inhabitants of those climes.

Think also of the emotional impact of color: how color determines the mood of a picture, how color can denote joyousness, gayety, and laughter, or how it can be stark, ominous, and foreboding. A wide, almost limitless range of effects can be achieved with the colors I use.

Once you have grasped the fundamentals, strike out on your own because every individual can develop his own sense of color. For example, a group of well-known painters worked simultaneously from the same model. When the paintings were finished, each artist showed a different color concept in his work, but each painting, viewed individually, was a true portrayal of the sitter. Despite the variations in each artist's color, all of the values in the paintings were properly related.

Another matter I would like to impress on your mind is that there can be happy, almost providential, accidents of color. If you make an unintentional brush stroke or drop some color where it doesn't belong, the effect may be well worth while keeping in the picture. Don't be in a hurry to delete such a mistake unless it actually harms the work.

There are really no set formulas to restrict or inhibit your creative urge. So let yourself go!

Fog and Rain

In painting fog, you will note that objects very near you - because of the softness of the fog and mist - have a tendency to appear quite sharp. Remember, too, that because you are painting fog, you will have, at times, a strong, penetrating light which will give the picture intensity totally unlike that of sunlight.

To paint the fuzzy background, keep the paper wet. Keep working down, leaving un-painted only really white areas. Work from light to dark and keep the paper wet while at the same time establishing your values. The reflections should not be added until the paper is almost dry. In translating this tonal sketch into color, always remember that fog leans toward the cool side.

Above all have fun with your painting!
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