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.