Terry Miura • Studio Notes

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.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Start And A Finish

A Hint of Jasmin, 15 x 30 inches, oil on linen

Another recent favorite, A Hint of Jasmine (Click on image to enlarge) went through a lot of changes as well. The most obvious change is the color of the dress; it started out as a red dress, just like in the painting in the last post.

Somewhere along the way, the dress turned white. It's not because I wanted to express the idea of purity, or some other notion about this particular subject. The decision was a visual one. You see, I was having difficulty integrating that stark red into the rest of the painting. It seemed too isolated. By making it a white dress, I was able to lean the shadow areas toward violet, making them relate much more closely to the background.

At one point I had the background very dark. It was very dramatic, but also sinister in a way, so I brought light into it. The considerable back and forth resulted in more a involved abstract surface. Compared to the red dress stage, which was very early on, you can see the finished version has many more layers of pushing paint around.

In fact in the early stage, I was pushing paint around to find the light and shadow pattern in the folds of the drapery and the sheet. I was looking for shapes and values based on reality, whereas in the later stage, I'm going against it, in my effort to integrate and obscure.

The same comparison can be observed in the strokes that I used to paint the dress, her legs, arm, and hand; in the red stage the strokes describe form, or try to, anyway. The folds in the dress are painted fairly directly. It's straightforward. In the legs, the most visible strokes express the core shadows as the forms turn from light to shadow, meaning at this point, I'm sticking to "rules" of representational painting. In the later version, there are many notes that have nothing to do with describing form. They intrude and interrupt the conventional representation of form, becoming less about the figure lying there and more about the expression of the artist's (that's me!) identity.

It's very tricky to not lose sight of the subject completely, though, and I find it a struggle to maintain balance. I won this battle, but I lose many, too. One of these days, I hope to win more than I lose.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Lost Edges

Second Thoughts, 18 x 18 inches, oil on linen

This is one of my favorite paintings I've done recently. It took forever, too–though it may not look like it.

The background changed over a dozen times. I tried a very dark background, and a very light background, and a bunch of in-between values, and I flip-flopped a lot.

The figure itself (except the head) came together pretty quickly, mainly because I stayed within a "normal" color scheme. That is to say, the local colors of skin and dress are more or less what it was, and I did not emphasize the color of the light source nor use a subjective color theme.

I wanted her hands to be suggested and not rendered, so that took many tries of pushing paint around to make it look like I (almost) accidentally slapped paint on the right spot.  As nothing else in the painting is rendered tightly, the hands needed to fit that context too. But it's really hard to get the drawing right for a convincing gesture without resorting to noodling out each finger. I was very happy with the way they came out.

The head gave me a lot of trouble, too. I wanted to suggest anonymity and obscurity, as opposed to independent identity, which meant that I needed to paint it without much definition of actual features. 

Cropping the head where I did, is another way of not defining the identity of the figure. It has to do with creating mystery, and that means withholding information. If you know my work, you may have noticed that unless I'm specifically doing a head study, I don't paint facial features. I throw the face in the shadow, turn the head away from the viewer, abstracted it, or like in this case, chop it off and do all of the above.

This painting utilizes lost edges quite a bit. There are a lot of areas where one shape encroaches onto another, resulting in abstraction and simplification. If something doesn't need to be clearly defined, why define it? If there's a good reason – like separation of shapes creates two nice shapes rather than one boring shape, or may be it creates more tension, or it's a chance to use another color, or the painting just doesn't make sense without that separation– but there needs to be a reason for it. 

Wherever you see me lose an edge, you can be sure I've tried separating the shapes too. I may have gone back and forth between losing and keeping that edge several times. That's typical of how I work. I mean I just can't tell which is better until I see both ways. And even then, I may change my mind later as surrounding areas change as the painting develops.

One way to make losing edges less scary is to make sure your color harmony is working. In this painting, everything in light has yellows and reds in it, and everything in shadow leans toward violet. Even the brownish areas of the skin in shadow, and the dark red areas of the dress in shadow have blues in them. When two adjacent areas are not only close in value but also in color, connecting them to make one shape is a lot easier to pull off than if the colors are very different.

Two adjacent shapes being close in value is almost a given for a lost edge between them. They don't have to be exactly the same, but if they're very different, you can't connect them without having some sort of a gradation, which is more like a soft edge and not a lost edge.

The boldest lost edge in this painting is where I pulled in the background color into the girl's back. You can see I pulled the color also over the chest and the neck area. Though I didn't lose edges there, having the same colors there ties the whole area together, and helps to make sense of the foreign color in the area where we expect to see a normal skin color or that of the dress. 

The real key to pulling that off is to make it look absolutely intentional. If you're unsure or timid, it shows, and it'll look like you tried to fake it. You have to put it down like you mean it, even if you don't know what you're doing. As I always tell my students, paint like you're lying to a child.  Santa Claus? But of course he's real!

One more thing on edges. Very sharp edges are like accents, especially in a context where much of the painting is loose and brushy. I tried to use sharp edges strategically. Most of them, if paired with value contrast, help to lead the eye to the hands. Edges which are sharp but where values are close don't stand out so they don't demand attention from the viewer, but they do contribute to the sense of decisiveness and intention to the painting. But whether they're used as accents or not, they need to be used in conjunction with soft and lost edges to be meaningful. I'm only talking in the context of my paintings, of course. I can't make a broad statement like that and claim it to be true for all paintings.