Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Yes, I Do Use Photo References

Rendezvous, 18 x 18 inches, oil on linen

Yes, I do use photo references. Hardly ever for landscapes, and usually not for in-studio figurative works. But I need structural references when I'm painting cityscapes and figures in environments outside of the studio - like this one I'm posting today.

The thing is, I'm not a very good photographer. I can take decent photos if I all the planets aligned at the point when I press the shutter, but that rarely happens. Consequently, if I'm out in the city taking reference photos, I'm not thinking too much about specific paintings. I'm just shooting (often while driving) anything that catches my eye. What I end up is a ton of crappy snapshots. 

But that's OK, I always find a few that has potential. The thing is, these photos never result in good paintings if I just painted them as they are. They need to be altered, sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically, in order for a workable composition to emerge. If I were a really good photographer, this may not be the case, but like I said, I'm not.

Here's the reference photo I used to make the painting;

What do you think? Taking liberties? You bet. For me, photo references need to offer information without which I can't build a painting. In this case, I needed the reference for the gestures of the couple. I can't make that up.  But everything else is supporting cast, you see. I simplified the environment to showcase the two figures. 

Using the photo reference this way, it's important to be clear about what's essential and what's not. And in order to know what's essential, you need to first have an idea about what the painting is going to be about. This is the concept. Composition supports the concept, and visual elements are manipulated to make an effective composition. If you are very clear about the concept, the editing decisions shouldn't be too difficult or confusing. 

Is it important that the girl be wearing a sweatshirt? It wasn't important for my concept, but depending on your concept, the answer may be yes. And if so, is it important that it be blue? Do her pants have to be red? Does he have to be wearing a whit t-shirt? Shorts? Does the cafe wall have to be green? Why?

In art school, the instructors in some classes would pummel us with questions like these in an attempt to get us students to think more deeply about the concept, and I think it's good practice even if you aren't in school. 

My aim was to create a sense of narrative which hinted at, but not explain, what the story was between these two people. I didn't want to spell it out for the viewer. I wanted the viewer to come up with his own storyline. 

I changed their clothes to suggest there was some kind of story beyond just two people hanging out. The dark color of the dress allowed me to create contrast there, so that the woman became the primary focus. One of the first decisions I made was to assign primary and secondary roles to the two figures, since I didn't want the two to have equal visual weight.  

Although I changed the clothing, I did refer to the photo to get the light/shadow pattern on the woman. The man ended up in a dark suit in the shadow, so that I may create more mystery, and also play with the design by losing a lot of the edges of his contour.

The woman's face being in shadow, and the man's entire head being in shadow, obscuring their identities, is intentional and an essential device in creating that sense of anonymity. I think the viewer can relate more to a painted figure if the figure's specific identity is not clearly defined. If you're familiar with my figurative work, you may have noticed that I do this a lot. Check it out.

In order to for the guy's head to be in shadow, I included the awning at the top of the painting. The lettering gave me an opportunity to include sharp, carefully drawn marks, adding to the variety of paint application I used in the picture.  I only showed a section of the words and the street number, because that was enough to accomplish what I wanted the lettering for, and I didn't want this to be a specific place.

Being faithful to reference photo works in some cases, but for me, copying a photo doesn't give me any pleasure at all. Because my photos are mere snapshots, often random, they are usually not based on ideas. Without an idea to drive the composition, I would just be going through the motions. (Even a study or an exercise has a purpose. Or should.) In that sense, my reference photos provide necessary information, but if I want to express an idea with my painting, making a painted version of a photograph will never work.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Windy City

Windy City, 12 x 12 inches, oil on linen

One of my favorites from my Chicago series.  The greenish grey color that make up most of the painting is done with black, white, and yellow ochre. Just different amounts of each to create variations of one another. I probably had Transparent Oxide Red on the palette as well, and mixed it in a little bit to get a warmer variation here and there, but not much.

I introduced a few high chroma notes to break up the monotony, but I tried to limit color as much as possible. Why? Because I didn't think I needed them to get the mood I wanted. 

There are a couple of key strategic moves here to make this work. One is backlighting. Backlit objects naturally lend themselves to silhouette treatments, and that means flat shapes which are recognizable without details nor modeling. Flat shapes are much simpler than something that has to be defined through light and shadow patterns, but they have to be interesting and strong. 

When we view visual elements in a painting as flat shapes, it's much easier to push abstraction because we're not worried about rendering form to make something believable. Silhouettes are already flat shapes, so the mental jump from representational to abstraction is easier.

If a shape is so strong that you only need to define a part of it for it to be recognizable, it gives us further opportunity to abstract. We can connect shapes of similar value - in my painting, the foreground figure to the left and the right both lose a chunk of their contour to an adjacent/overlapping shape, yet they clearly maintain their reconizability. 

Connecting shapes simplifies the design, and more often than not creates a stronger impact. 

Backlighting also amplifies the atmospheric effect. So in order to create a believable sense of a backlit environment, I emphasized the atmospheric perspective in the buildings by making the values much lighter as we go back in space. The rate of increase in values is more drastic than if I were trying to represent a  less atmospheric condition. (the distance from the foreground to the farthest building might only be a quarter or half mile)  I didn't really worry about color and temperature being affected by atmosphere because this was pretty much a monochromatic set up.

The middle figure in the front is my focal point. The blond hair is the only place in the painting that color is used, and the value contrast there really helps to draw the eye there.  I also intentionally used more sharp edges and value contrasts in the rest of the figure as well. If you compare the middle figure with the ones toward the edges, it's easy to see the differences in the use of sharp edges and value contrasts. 

Overall, it looks pretty loosely painted, and it is, except for a select few areas where the edges were critical in order to define the gesture. Also I snuck in some linear perspective cues in the sidewalk, and the top left edge of the building with the windows. Additional suggestion of perspective is found in the left most building halfway up (see that slightly dark stroke?) and in the crosswalk lines. You can find more if you look closely, but I tried to obscure most of the initial perspective lines and leave just enough to define the space. 

The horizon line / eye level is that of an average person standing on level ground, which makes it easy to place figures in the picture; no matter where they are – close, far, left, right, or in the middle – their heads line up at the same eye level. I can also place cars more or less accurately - the roofs of sedans and coupes would be slightly lower than than the eye level, SUVs at or slightly higher, and trucks and buses above eye level. 

If you're transposing a photo, you don't have to worry about this stuff, but I find that photos are never perfect and I always need to move figures and cars around in order to design a better composition. Understanding the basic rules of linear perspective will allow you to do this, rather than be a slave to photo references, so it's well worth spending the time to learn the basics!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Rambling About A Moody Landscape

Arcadia, 12 x 24 inches, oil on linen

Here's a moody landscape painting. There are a lot of ways a landscape painting can be moody, but the defining characteristic for this particular painting, I think, is the sky. The colors of the sky is greyed down, yes, but perhaps more importantly, the overall value of the sky is keyed down quite a bit. 

If you compare the value of the sky to the white of webpage that surrounds it, you can see how dark it is. Just because Carlson said the sky is the lightest plane in a landscape, that doesn't mean it's necessarily very light in value. It's all relative. In fact there are many paintings out there where the sky is intentionally keyed down so the harshness of the sunlit surfaces become amplified. (Look at Sorolla!) 

Mine is not one of those harsh sunlit paintings, of course. It's just a low-key painting. 

The sky and the lit part of the foreground are about the same value in my painting, but the grass is much more saturated in color, and the area is much more visually active (brush strokes, texture, small contrasty notes) so that it comes foreword without confusing the structure. 

The interesting thing about the sky, for me, is that the pinkish hue of the clouds and the blue-grey of the background is very close in value and although they are near-complements, they're really tightly harmonized. How is this done?

It's basically the center of the pie. Both colors are so close to the center that even though they're pulling towards opposite sides of the color wheel, they remain closely related. 

I made both colors from the same pile of grey- I don't remember if I made the pinkish grey first and bent it to make the blueish grey or vice versa. It doesn't really matter which came first, actually. You can do it either way, one's not more difficult than the other. 

If on the other hand, you were trying to get a closely related complements by starting with pure hues on the opposite sides of the color wheel and mixed with each other to bring them closer, you'd probably end up with a more colorful result, unless you were pushing specifically for something this muted.

Keeping all the elements in the sky close in color and value allows the whole sky to be viewed as a unit, so as to not distract from the trees and the ground. I also made sure the brushstrokes in the sky were much quieter than the rest of the painting.

The trees are keyed way down, too. So much so that the shadow parts of the trees are almost black. Making sure these dark areas are painted thinly (compared to the lit areas) and somewhat transparently allows them to be quietly subordinate. In a low key tonal painting the shadows can be very dark and transparent, which isn't usually the case for a color-filled high key shadows of an impressionist painting. 

Here's a good tip; don't mix the tonalist language (dark transparent shadows) and the impressionist language (high key color filled shadows) in one painting, unless there's a really compelling reason to do so. Most of the time, it's best to decide on one language and stick to it. In other words, don't try to mix the dramatic values of Velazquez and the bright colored light effects of Monet in one painting. 

It looks like I've totally gone off on a tangent - haha~ Oh well, I'm just rambling. If you want to learn more about this stuff, and would like me to show you how all this applies to your painting, I invite you to come to my next plein air landscape painting workshop that I will be conducting May 1 - 3, at Winslow Art Center on Bainbridge Island, WA. Please go to their website for more info and to sign up! It's a plein air workshop, so we'll be working outside, unless the weather is uncooperative, in which case we will work indoors using photos. Either way you'll get a ton of information and individual instruction. All my trade secrets are yours for the asking :-D

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Nocturne in Blue, Nocturne in Red

Chicago Blues, 16 x 20 inches, oil on linen

After I said in the last post that I'd post a blue cityscape, I realized I had already shipped this one off and the only photo I had of it was a crappy cell phone snapshot that doesn't show much of the subtler color shifts. Damn. 

It's no secret that being a professional painter doesn't mean you get to paint all day. You have to take care of the business end of things as well - marketing, promotion, maintaining relationships with galleries, event organizers, and collectors. Packing, crating and shipping, accounting and bookkeeping, doing photo shoots, inventory, website and social media management, teaching classes and workshops, doing prep work for teaching and workshops... it goes on and on. The actual painting time, sad to say, is less than 50% of my working time. I need an assistant! But of course I can't afford one, so I have to do it all. Sound familiar? Nobody said it was going to be easy, I know, I know... 

One of the tedious and time consuming tasks is doing photo-shoots and inventory. My studio is not huge, so I don't have a permanent set up for photo shoots. Each time I do a shoot - and I try to do multiple paintings at the same session- I have to move stuff around and set up the lights and the camera. As I'm not a photographer, it takes me a while to get a satisfactory shot. And then I have to work on the file to get the colors as close as I can to the original. Then I have to enter all the pertinent information into a database, so I can keep track of where it's shipped off to. 

What makes it so inefficient for me, is that often I can't resist making changes to a painting after all the shooting and inventory-ing is done. And so I have to repeat the process, sometimes many times. I think a painting is finished, so I spend time doing all that administrative stuff, and then as soon as it's all done, I see something that needs changing. I can't leave it alone. It's like seeing a typo on your resume.  You can't possibly send it out without correcting it!

...And then there are times I have to send out paintings in a hurry and I either forget or don't have the time to take all the necessary pre-shipping steps, especially if multiple projects happening at once. 

I don't know how other artists deal with all these non-painting tasks. How do you do it? 

Midnight Crossing, 12 x 24 inches, oil on linen

OK that's enough ranting. I do have a decent photo of a recent RED cityscape nocturne, so we'll talk about this on instead. This is another Chicago painting. The color system I used is obviously the single color-theme system. Nocturnes tend to very tonal so this approach works pretty well. 

There are no color variations caused by local color shifts, so I included light sources that were different colors just to break up the monotony. 

I also organized the overall color/ value range so that the darker areas are predominantly red, then as it gets lighter, it leans to orange. and there are some yellows in and around the very light valued areas. 

In setting up the color / value structure this way, I had to be very careful not to let the more visible mid range values get too high in chroma. The orange range kept sticking out, so I had to repaint it several times to gray it down to where it wasn't an issue.

The darkest areas aren't pure black. It has a lot of red in it - I used Transparent Oxide Red, Alizarin, and Permanent Red mixed with black - to 1) harmonize with the rest of the painting, and 2) bring up the value a little bit for an atmospheric effect. All the city lights would be illuminating and bouncing around in the moisture in the air, so the dark areas needed to have a colored "veil" of sorts, in front of them.

Not so much in the foreground, but I still didn't go all the way black because I wanted to make sure the area harmonized.

The figure in the middle has no detail. I relied on gesture and a few select rim lights to pull it off. Having a few soft edges, especially in the backside of the figure, helped to give it a sense of motion, especially as it juxtaposes against the sharper edged elements in the stopped car.

Early on I had more detail in the periphery but I took them out and darkened the outer parts of the composition, so as to have more of a focus on the figure, and to make it more moody - later in the night when there are fewer pedestrians and shop lights. The decision was inspired by the title, actually. After I called it Midnight Crossing, I realized my painting looked more like prime time, what with other pedestrians and illuminated windows, so I took them all out to conform to the title.

Sometimes having a title beforehand helps a great deal in composing a painting because you're making design decision based on a solid concept. You're forced to communicate an idea, rather than impose a rationalization onto an otherwise "just a pretty picture".

I'm doing taxes this week. Ugh. I'll be back with something new after I've recovered!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Feeling Blue

Feeling Blue, 16 x 12 inches, oil on linen

When I get a lot of positive feedback for my "instructional" blog posts, I get into mindset that all my posts should be instructional. And then I get stuck because I can't think of a lesson that might be interesting to a lot of people. And besides, I've been blogging a long time and it feels like I've pretty much said everything I needed to say. It has become increasingly difficult to come up with anything new to say, especially if it also has to be instructional.

If I waited until I had a great idea to write about, it might be months in-between posts! Forget that, I'll just post a new painting and talk about it. Maybe a few of you might find it interesting.

So this painting is something I started in a figure session. It was initially a B/W study, but I had other colors on my palette, and I accidentally dipped my brush into a pile of Prussian Blue, which looks pretty black out of the tube. I liked the color, so I just went with it.

I used Prussian Blue, White, and Black. the black was used to tame the intensity of the blue, especially in the lighter values. Prussian with just White is just too happy looking, you see.

I painted this in two sessions. I let the first part dry before going back into it, so that I can do some glazing.

If you haven't noticed already, I have a preoccupation with lost edges. Where dark shape meets another dark shape is an obvious place to lose the edge in between, but we can do the same where a light shape meets another light shape, like the white fabric meets her butt, foot, and her knee.

Usually losing edges means simpler design and more impact. Sometimes it results in lost of information, and each time, I need to think about whether that lost information was critical. If so, I have to either put it back in, or find a way to suggest it without being literal. If I decide that the information wasn't necessary, obscuring it or losing it was the right decision.

All around the figure, I try to use a variety of edges combined with value contrasts (or lack there of). Super sharp edges coupled with high value contrast draws the eye the most, but sharp edged can also be combined with closer values to describe a well-defined but less obvious area. A soft edge combined with a variety of value contrasts are also used to manipulate the viewer's eye and to add interest.

Soft edges aren't all the same, either. Some are smooth transitions from light to dark shapes, while others might be a broken edge. Different brushes and tools produce different kind of edges, too.

My point is that there are many ways two shapes can meet, and I like to explore this variety in every painting. I often try different types of edges on one area before deciding what works best.

I usually make decisions on what areas should have the most impact - usually the focal area or some outside contour area that has a beautiful gesture – and make sure that gets a punchy edge; sharp edge combined with big value contrast.  Then the rest of the edges must be subordinate to that, so I just start playing with softness and value contrasts to make sure they're less impactful than the focal area.

I'd do the same with color saturation (in terms of manipulating impact) but this painting is monochromatic, so I didn't have to worry about that.

Another "tool" that I consciously employed in this painting (and all my other paintings) is the juxtaposition of relatively noisy and active brushstrokes in the background, against the quieter, smoother application of paint on the figure itself. I'm not using soft brushes so even my tighter areas aren't all that slick, but surrounded by expressive strokes, the figure looks smoother and more "realistic". If you enlarge the image and take a closer look, you can see that my rendering isn't tight at all.

Anyway, I like how it turned out, so I'm doing more with Prussian blue. I'll post a blue cityscape next.

Thursday, January 29, 2015


Crosswalk Shadows, 12 x 20 inches, oil on linen

OK, so I thought I was going to do another color systems post - one on high key impressionist color, but guess what, I didn't have any appropriate paintings to show you to make my points! Not surprising, considering I rarely paint that way. But I thought I'd find one or two in my archives! No. I find it kind of funny, actually.

So until I do a high-key impressionist painting (fat chance), the color systems series of posts are suspended. Sorry~

Instead I'll post and talk about some recent cityscapes that I've been working on. This is one of my Chicago paintings. I think it's a pretty good example of connecting the darks to simplify and organize.  You can actually go all the way across the painting by following the dark areas. 

The shadow areas actually has a few different values; if you look at the left side of the painting, you can see that the dark shadowy mass is one value, the sidewalk / pavement another value, and the crosswalk lines (in shadow) are still another. There are small variations within each of these shadow values, but basically I'm working with three in that area. Could I have simplified it further and bring those values together, since they're all shadow areas?

Yes, and that's kind of what I did first, in my study for this painting;

Not as much separation within the shadows. Simpler, and it still works. However, since this was a backlit situation, the light side was going to be very high key and sort of washed out. There's really not a lot of information in the lit areas. It means that most of the interesting information happens in the shadow areas. In order to make that happen, I broke up the shadow areas into a few different values, and used some local color as well. 

By contrast, the lit area has one or two very close values (to separate the painted crosswalk lines from the asphalt) and not much more. 

The red "don't walk" light adds yet another little accent make the painting feel less monochromatic.

In general, with a backlit view, the interesting stuff happens in the shadow. In order to see this interesting stuff, it has to be keyed up a bit so we can see the colors and other information. (You can't see anything in the dark!)  But not everything has to be keyed up, you can still have very dark areas where either the local value is very dark (black clothes, for example) or there is very little reflected or ambient light illuminating the area. (underside of the El, for example)  These dark areas can be connected to create a simpler, more impactful design. It can add to the mystery, too.

You don't have to spell out everything. Let the viewer complete the image in his or her own mind.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Little More on the Color Wheel

It seems there's a bit of confusion on the color wheel thing in the previous post. I had a couple of questions asking me about the relationship between chroma and value. I said that in the color wheel I presented, in each slice of the pie, the chroma changes (becomes grayer) but the value remains the same as we travel toward the center.

Sometimes our eyes are tricked into seeing lower chroma as lower (or higher) value, when they're actually the same. I really can't tell you what the scientific reason behind that is. I have noticed a tendency to confuse lighter (value) with brighter (chroma). But confusing the terminology is one thing, to actually perceive a color as lighter or darker than it is something we all experience to one degree or another. 

Squinting is always a good way to simplify what you're seeing - by limiting the amount of light that the eye receives, you limit the amount of information as well, and we see only the simplified picture. If you were to squint at my color wheel, I think you can see that the values do not change within any slice of the pie.

…that is, within reason. I don't claim my pie is perfect, but the aberrations are (should be) within a few percentage points at most.

Below is a good illustration - I converted the color wheel to grayscale in Photoshop to eliminate hue information. All we see now is value.  See what I mean?

I did the same with a couple of color wheels that I found online. Here's one in which the colors move toward black as it moves toward the center.

And another one in which the color moves toward white as it moves toward the center. It's got a hole in the middle, but you can see what I mean. 

In all three examples, all I did was convert the color file to grayscale. There's a huge difference in what information is presented, isn't there?  I really don't find the second and third color wheels helpful. I mean the second one shows what happens to a pure hue if you mix it with black, and the third one shows what happens when you mix it with white. That's not really useful information for a painter. I don't want to know what happens to red if I mix it with black or white. What I want is to be able to show how chroma affects color. I want to show that value and chroma are two different functions.
That changing the chroma of a color doesn't change its value. (Changing the value of a color does affect its chroma. Chew on that one! hint-the second and the third color wheel does show us this fact)

Anyway, I hope these examples clear up the confusion about chroma and value. Remember to squint!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Color Systems - The Center of the Pie

Another Working Day, 9 x 12 inches, oil on linen

Happy New Year! I hope you had a great Holiday~ We stayed home this year and spent a nice, slow-paced Christmas and New Years with good friends. Very relaxing, which was good, but so relaxing that I did not work at all for two weeks. (gasp!)

But it is now the new year, and I'm starting to get my brushes in gear. I actually wanted to do this post sooner, but I couldn't. You see, I needed a color wheel as a visual aid, and I did a search on Google, but to my surprise did not find the kind I was looking for. I found a surprising variety of color wheels, but many were just plain useless, and some were very confusing. It's no wonder students get confused when learning about basic color theory.

Anyway, since I couldn't find the one I needed, I made one. This is why this post is late! But anyway, my color wheel has 12 slices of the pie. It's your typical Y-O-R-V-B-G wheel with the in-betweeners like Yellow-Orange and Blue-Violet represented as slices as well. Now that I look at it, it still needs refining, but I think you get the idea.

The important thing about this color wheel...and what I could not find on my search, is this; the hues lose saturation as it moves toward the center, but their values remain the same.  This is important because when we talk about manipulating color, we need to be able to isolate the specific aspect of the color we are messing with; hue, value, and saturation. If say, the red of the apple is too saturated, we need to be able to change its saturation without changing its value. 

Most color wheels show the colors moving toward white or black or mid gray as it moves toward the center.  Which doesn't help us understand saturation because with these wheels, value and saturation are not treated as separate things. The grayest part of the yellow slice of the pie should not be the same value as the grayest part of the red slice of the pie, see. 

OK, so with the single-color themed approach that I talked about in the last post, we are essentially working with a narrow slice of the pie. May be a few slices at most. The idea is to limit the range of available color so that everything within that range is closely related to one another, thus ensuring harmony. 

We can apply this limited range idea in a different way. Rather than using a narrow slice of the pie, we can limit the range by using the colors in the middle of the color wheel. The pure hues are unrelated to one another unless they're analogous, but as we move toward the center, they have more and more in common, so the colors become more harmonious. 

Granted, we give up the brightness of pure hues, but this is a strategy for keeping colors from going out of control while still having a full spectrum at our disposal. If the problem is over-saturated colors that lack harmony, then desaturating to gain harmony seems like a logical solution, doesn't it?

If we go farther in, the colors become grayer and grayer, but look! the entire spectrum is still represented. (unlike the narrow slice of pie approach)

I should explain that this color wheel doesn't address value changes within a hue. To really express the full range of color, (hue value, and saturation), we need a three-dimensional model a la Munsell Color Tree. I'm not suggesting that we paint with just the values we see in my color chart; I'm just showing saturation changes without bringing in value changes. I hope that makes sense.

In practice, I use this approach most often when painting outdoors, responding to natural light and the colors I see in front of me. I don't particularly try to be literal with my colors, but I do tend to work with a full spectrum (albeit limited in saturation). 

Coastal Farm, oil on linen

I've noticed that most of the time, when a painter is responding to the colors they see - as opposed to values and shapes - in picking out what to paint, he tends to identify the hue first, go to its purest form out of the tube, then gray it down by adding complements or other muted colors (like black or brown).

If you start your mixing from the pure and move toward muted, you are always comparing your mixture against its more saturated version, which tricks your eye into seeing your mixture as more muted than it actually is.  When you become experienced at color mixing, there's no problem, but often in the beginning, the student struggles to control harmony because he's not getting the colors muted enough (closer to the center of the pie) for them to be harmonious. Isolated colors are just that; isolated colors. Colors need something in common for them to be "related", and if you stay too far to the edge of the pie (the more saturated area), it's not easy to relate the colors to one another.

Autumn Around the Corner, 11 x 14 inches, oil on linen

What if you approached the target color from the other direction? Rather than identifying the hue and graying it down to reach your target color, why not start at neutral gray, and add to it the hue until you have the desired saturation?

This actually works very well. In fact, I used to paint that way all the time, when I felt my colors were out of control.  This way, I can saturate the mixture a little at a time, and it's always going to look more saturated than it actually is, because I'm comparing it to neutral gray.

Because you are starting every mixture from gray, harmony is virtually guaranteed. (Every color has the same gray-the colors used to mix that gray-in them)

There are a couple of problems that arises. One is  that the painting sometimes look too gray and blah. The solution is simply to allow more saturation in strategic areas. These can be accents, or just push the saturation in one or two of the colors, not all of them.

Wanderlust, 11 x 14 inches, oil on linen

Another problem is controlling value. If you simply start at a neutral gray at mid value (or some other arbitrary point on the value scale) and start adding a bright tube green to try and arrive at a target color that is a muted green, chances are the value is going to be wrong.  When I was trying to figure out this color stuff, I came up with a solution that worked pretty well. 

Since I tried always to compose a picture in three or four major value groups, why not have three or four grays from which to mix colors? That way I can get the value in the ball park very quickly, and once I've identified the hue direction, I only had to worry about the saturation. From there, fine tuning the value was not that difficult. 

While I was at it, I thought, hey, since I'm trying to paint a rich full spectrum colored painting by mixing all colors from grays, why not mix the initial grays from pure colors (rather than mixing them from black and white)?  And so I mixed all my starter grays from cad yellow, cad red, ultramarine and white. I just varied the amount of white I mixed into the puddles to achieve my three or four starter grays. 

[Eventually I only needed two gray puddles to begin with; one for the lit areas, and one for the shadow areas. The value variations within the two categories were mixed as I went along, and I found that I didn't need three or four gray puddles any longer since separating light and shadow values were more important than separating values within the categories. (Note: this doesn't work as well in diffused light situations) ]

The primaries you use to get these grays have an impact on the colors you mix from them. the basic cads + ultramarine is a good one, but it's not the only combination. In fact, you can use all kinds of different mixes of pure colors, as long as you end up with neutral grays. I encourage you to find what works for you - everyone has a color bias, and preference, so a strict recipe is not recommended. Just try different yellows, reds, and blues. You can even use secondaries to mix your starter grays. How about Viridian, Cad Orange, and Cobalt Violet?

Garnet Lake Morning, 12 x 9 inches, oil on linen

This painting above, and all the ones before it on this post are painted in this system. You can easily identify one or two relatively intense colors in each of the painting, (though they're still not pure hues) and if you hide them with something, the rest of the image is pretty muted.  Another way of looking at that is, you only need one or two bright colors to make a painting not look drab. 

There are a couple of other factors that contribute to a sense of colorfulness in these images. one is a strong value structure; value contrasts increase impact, which gives the impression that the colors are strong. (whatever that means) The other thing is crisp edges. This is important when painting with subtle colors. If you soften or lose an edge between two areas with subtle colors, you diminish the colors' identities significantly. You can easily lose them completely. That's not to say you can't have soft edges, but you have to be aware what a soft edge does to adjacent color notes, and use your hard and soft edges strategically. If you always put down the paint in such a way that you're not mushing each stroke, you'll avoid this problem of losing subtle colors on canvas.

Afternoon on the Farm,  9 x 12 inches, oil on linen

This last one uses a little bit wider gamut than the others, but still done the same way. the green is the only thing that's saturated. The other clearly identifiable hues are not as intense, although they may not look very gray. 

In the very light end of the value range, as in the sky, you can get very clean colors without going out of harmony because everything is so close to white. If you think of white as essentially a very light neutral gray, then you can see that even if you try to paint with intense colors, you're not that far from the center of the color wheel. The white, in this case, is the common denominator. 

I encourage you to try this center-of-the pie system. Even if you're not a gray painter, it'll may give you another tool to control saturation in your colors.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Color Systems: Single-Color Structure

Working with a single color theme naturally puts the painting in a tonalist category, I'd say almost by definition because you have to do most of your composing with shifting values. 

It's simpler than using a lot of colors, but the flip side of that is you cannot hide behind splashy colors. You really have to have very good value control to pull this off. 

The idea is not complicated. You basically pick one hue, and paint more or less monochromatically, and strategically adding a little bit of color shifts to make the painting seem less monochromatic.

That's about as close to a formula as I can get! (there's that F word~)  But let me talk about each painting and see if I can pull out some of the things I did which deviated from the strictly monochrome structure, because that's where we can add a little bit of complexity and interest into an otherwise very limited color space. 

The top image of the delta, obviously, has a violet themed structure. It never gets very saturated, which help to maintain a quiet, somber mood. If you look closely, the very distant mountains(?) and the sky are slightly different in temperature - the sky has a tiny bit of red in it, which differentiates itself from the cooler hills. This is subtle, but not a tricky color shift because violet is made from blue and red. Adding a little bit of red warms up the color, and adding blue cools it, and we don't have to worry about the new mixture being out of harmony. 

The darkest land mass in the front has some Transparent Oxide Red in it. Which, if you think about it, is still red. The TOR is used, then, to control the saturation of the violet so that we don't have a screaming purple. Another way to control saturation is an addition of a low chroma blue, instead of (or together with) Ultramarine or another intense blue. For this I probably used Ivory Black as a low chroma blue.

One more thing about controlling saturation. (Because you know, I'm a little shy about using loud colors) Ultramarine is already a violet-leaning blue. Alizarin is a violet-leaning red. They are both very intense colors, so if you mix them, you get a very intense violet. Great, if that's what you're looking for. But if you want a little less intensity, you can try Ultramarine plus an orange-leaning red. The orange being complementary to blue, the resulting violet is much more muted than if you mixed Ultramarine and Alizarin. Because nothing I paint requires screaming violets, I like to use the mixture that's already a little muted even before I gray it down further with Black or TOR.

 Green. The color shifts toward yellow a bit as the values get lighter. It doesn't have to, but that's what I chose to do to deviate from a strictly green painting. I also used TOR in the underpainting and the darks of the foliage interior. Red is complementary to green, so it helps to gray down the green if you mix them. If you juxtapose them without mushing green and red, you start to get simultaneous contrast, a little bit of which helps to break up the monotony. 

Mixing Ultramarine and yellow ochre, the resulting green can't get too saturated even if you want it to, so that's a good way of limiting your intensity. You can always add Cads later if you need to punch up an area.

I tried to get some color variation in the ground plane, mixing the same three colors plus white (Ultramarine, TOR, and Yellow Ochre) in different amounts to get different, yet very closely related notes. 

Peachy! Or red orange. The single color theme sometimes isn't strictly single colored. Sometimes it's better described as a "narrow slice of pie". The pie refers to the familiar color wheel, and narrower the slice, the more specific the hue. If you cut a fat slice of pie, you're basically using analogous colors - neighboring hues such as red and orange, orange and yellow, etc.

As long as the slice of pie isn't too big, it still works the same way. In this painting, if you ignore the violet in the distant tree masses, we basically have an orange themed painting, but the lither colors (sky) has more yellow in it, and the darker colors leans more to the red slice of the pie. We are not seeing bright yellows, oranges and reds because saturation is kept in check. In this case, I'm reserving the saturated (relatively speaking) colors for the lighter range of the value scale. In the shadows, I drop not only the value but the saturation as well.  Can you use a saturated dark red in there? Sure you can. But you have to ask yourself, what's making it so bright in the shadows? The color of the sky affecting the dark areas, where it's not even facing the sky? Might make sense if someone was having a bonfire at the base of the trees. The point is, without a good reason, pushing color becomes a purely subjective decision, and the more you do it, the more you deviate from a structure that makes logical sense. What's wrong with that? Nothing, but if the painting ends up not describing a convincing light / atmosphere environment, that will be the price for your expression.

The little bit of violet in the back trees is a deviation from the slice of the pie. But not by much. The violet leans heavily toward the reds I used, and the yellow's in there too, to tamper the intensity and ensure harmony. The saturation and value are kept in check so that the violet, even though it's different from the rest of the painting, doesn't stick out.

Yellow. The lighter end of the scale is obviously yellow, and the darker end - I needed to go very dark - becomes a very grayed down dark warm color. Grayed down because at that value, we can't tell a yellow from a red. But kept warm (it's a reddish brown, very close to black) so that it harmonizes with the yellows. To ensure this, I used TOR and black both in the very dark areas, and in the very light areas. The yellow sky isn't very intense after all; the impact comes not from the yellow color, but the strong value contrasts.

This painting is a little more complex than the previous ones in that color deviation from the single-color structure includes introduction of local colors. The green of the trees, for example.  But notice that only the trees in close to the viewer is green, and the far ones just become darker version of the yellow /brown structure.

And, the greens you do see are not super green. They're more like green versions of the foundation color. I figure out the value that these greens need to be, and nudge the yellow/brown in the direction of green by slowly adding green into it. It helps to use the same yellow (ochre, in this case) to make that green. This way, I can maintain close harmony and the look of a very tonal painting.

The same thing is done with the violet grays of the pavement. They're just slightly violet version of the yellow/brown that I started with, and nudged the colors a little bit at a time till I got what I wanted.

The big exception is the bright red I used for the tail lights. Why does it work? Because 1)they're accents, used very sparingly. and 2) they are their own light sources. Because a tail light is a light source in itself, it can have its own color, especially if they're close to the viewer and are being less affected by the colored atmosphere that we have established.

Peachy again, with some local colors used as accents - the green of the palms, the reds of the tracks, and a few small spot colors on the figures at the bottom. But again, these colors are used very sparingly, and are nudges versions of the foundation colors. The red can be pushed without going out of harmony because it's part of the peachy DNA.

Blue! The dark areas become almost black, but still has a lot of blue in them. In the distance, I have a few different color shifts - some violet, which is a closely analogous color to the main blue, and green in the trees, which is also a closely analogous color, but on the other side of the slice of the blue pie. They're both nudged versions of the blue.

The sunlight in the distance is a pale yellow, but it's not very saturated at all. It does have blue in the mix, along with a bit of black, but the biggest common denominator between that pale yellow and the blue is white. You can see that the blues, especially surrounding the pale yellow sun light isn't very saturated, and the values are closer to the yellow.

To further integrate the yellow into the otherwise blue painting, I brought it in to the big field of passive area near the bottom of the painting. The Double yellow line helps to tie them together, also, but that's getting into the accent for expression's sake domain that I mentioned earlier.

And the red tail lights again. I can get away with using bright reds because they're light sources, and used as bling.

This last one is built on a muted red-violet structure. The color deviations are either analogous (pavement), nudged local color (yellow bus) or light sources (tail lights). All other variations happen within the slice of the pie.

It's a simple system, but when you put it together with slight variations, you can end up with a painting that doesn't feel monochromatic, yet very tightly harmonized. I love working this way because it's logical, yet allows for a lot of subjective variations, and I can push and pull between simple monochromatic structure and complex combinations. Tonal paintings are very effective in creating the kind of mood I want to express, and building on a single color structure keeps things from getting out of control.

Boy that was long winded! Thanks for reading till the end! Happy Holidays!!!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Color Palettes: The Brown Palette

One of the most common questions I get asked is, "what colors do you use?" so I thought I'd talk a little bit about my colors in a series of posts.

I work with a handful of different color "systems", depending on what I'm trying to do. But whatever "system" I'm using, I typically have the same set of colors on my palette - I may add one or two others as needed, and I don't always use all the colors that I squeeze out onto my palette.

The basic colors are as follows–they're all Gamblin paints, unless otherwise noted;


  • Permanent Red (Rembrandt)
  • Alizarin Permanent
  • Transparent Earth Red


  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Cerulean Blue
  • Ivory Black


  • Cadmium Lemon
  • Cadmium Yellow Deep
  • Yellow Ochre

Titanium White

Basically, it's a variation on the primaries palette. I mix my greens, oranges, and violets instead of using tubed secondary colors. There is a warm, a cool, and a low-chroma version of each of the primaries.

Transparent Earth Red is Gamblin's name for Transparent Oxide Red. Each brand has its own name for this one.

I consider Ivory Black to be a blue. A very greyed down blue, but a blue nonetheless.

Sometimes I use Cobalt Blue instead of Ultramarine, Prussian Blue instead of Cerulean, and Paynes Gray instead of Ivory Black.

Sometimes I use Indian Yellow instead of Cad Deep.

Sometimes I use Asphaltum instead of Transparent Earth Red.

OK so those are the colors on my palette, most of the time. Now let's talk about the brown palette, which is what I used for this painting. This is your basic earth tone palette that the pre-impressionist guys used; Velazquez, Duveneck, et al. Mind you, I don't know exactly which pigments the masters used, but the system is a simple one. For the core colors, I use Ivory Black, Transparent Earth Red, and Yellow Ochre for the three primaries, plus White. I don't have some of the classic earth tones like umbers and siennas.  Nothing wrong with umbers and siennas – after all, they were good enough for the Old Masters – but mine is just an earth tone version of the simple primaries palette. I believe that the modern Transparent Oxide Red is a synthetic color as opposed to having been made with natural iron oxides, so they (the TOR) have much more intensity and are cleaner (less muddy, both visually and literally) Most of my painting I'm posting today is done with just these four colors.

The few bright colors used as accents - the green jacket the woman is wearing and the dark blue-green of the seat back has some Prussian Blue in it.

I may have used a tiny bit of Permanent Red for the man's jacket and the server's ear...and there's a spot of red on the table, and again on the bow-tie guy's cheek. But just about everything else is painted with Black, Trans. Earth Red, Yellow Ochre, and White.

This "brown" palette system works very well for old-school tonal paintings like this, especially interior scenes where there isn't very much ambient light.  Without much ambient or bounced light, the shadows become very dark, and these dark shadows are painted very thinly and transparently.

I don't particularly think that transparent shadows work very well if it's lighter in value or if you can actually see lots of color and detail in that area. There are stylistic considerations of course, but for "traditional" representational painting, I tend to reserve transparent shadows for very dark areas, and this brown palette interior genre is full of them.

You can see that the shadows in this painting are so dark they're practically black. You can also see that these dark areas connect with one another, and there are no details or color information in these areas.

There are just a few areas where you can actually see anything in the shadows - the server's apron has some shadow patterns which are lighter than the dark receding shadows so that they're visible. It's only because the apron's local value was so light to begin with that I thought I should keep it visible even in the shadow areas.

In this type of set up, you don't have a lot of colorful impact, and it would be a mistake to try to impose color contrasts into it–the brown palette is not very good at accommodating impressionist temperature shifts. You can try it, but I think you'll find that the more you do it, the less convincing the light and shadow relationship will become.

The brown palette is really good for–surprise!–brown paintings. Seems obvious, but I see students trying to combine this tonal palette with high key color temperature shifts all the time. In fact, I've tried to do it (despite my instructors telling me not to) for years before I finally came to the conclusion that may be my instructors were right.

So we can't rely on color contrasts to provide impact. But we can rely on, and get away with, value contrasts! In fact, you have a much wider value range to work with than when you're working with lots of color. You can't easily get away with huge value ranges when working with color temperature shifts, because, quite simply, the saturation of colors diminish to nothing when you approach the extremes of value (black and white).

If I were painting this scene with a more impressionist approach, you can be sure that the server's black vest and white shirt / apron would not be painted in these values; they'd be much closer in value, and taking advantage of the saturation ranges available in the mid values.

The bright(ish) colors I do use in this painting are just spot colors, or accents. They're used sparingly, and if saturation is emphasized, it's still the local color that's pushed, not the color of the light source(s).  Consequently, even if you do see light and shadow on a brighter colored area, temperature shifts therein is minimized or nonexistent. I might even say that temperature shifts are almost irrelevant in this context.

Did I already say that the dark shadows are painted transparently? OK, yes. The opposite is true of the lit areas, which are all painted opaquely. That's kind of a simple rule of thumb. But what about the shadow areas which are still visible, like the shadows on the apron? That's painted opaquely too, but not as thickly as the lit area. Plus, I dragged some transparent paint over it (glazing) after it was dry, so that it relates better to the rest of the dark shadows.

Another exception is the background, where it's a little lighter (upper right corner). That was part of the underpainting where I took a paper towel and wiped off the dark paint. I left it like that because it seemed to work as is. Thin paint doesn't jump out like thick opaque applications, so in this case it worked well even though the area is not a dark receding shadow.

Next I'll talk about the single-color-themed tonalism.