Sunday, September 20, 2009

Art School #4: Know your colors

Awright! You're ready to begin painting. You've got that photo of dear young Edwin that you've been dying to paint a portrait from.

First thing: Put Edwin down. Wait until perhaps your third painting to try your first portrait. You should be comfortable with your materials and the way they work before you try a portrait.

So you've probably got a landscape you want to paint. Isn't this a perfect time of year to go out and paint en plein air! (Then why am I painting inside this weekend?) Terrific! But first... Or since we've already dealt with the first thing up there, secondly...

Know your colors.

The two things you can do before you paint the first stroke that will improve what you're about to do 100%, are:

• Do a preliminary thumbnail, or small sketch, of what you're going to paint. Make it the same ratio as your canvas. Divide things up into four values so you can see the simple pattern of eye movement and composition involved. You may want to make another thumbnail, try your values a different way. Or even (gasp) a third.

EACH TAKES ONE MINUTE TO DO. Most students miss doing this entirely and then wonder what went so terribly wrong?

• Look at the paints you've got squirted out onto your palette. Okay, this step is probably best done BEFORE you start to paint a subject, so look at the paint you've bought, the paints you're usually going to use.

Play with them.

No, I don't mean to smudge them all over yourself! Cheez! Okay, okay, let me explain.

When I was in high school and my high school wouldn't let me take art because college-bound students Didn't Take Art (and girls couldn't take auto repair or tennis), my parents let me take art lessons for a few Saturdays from a local lady. We worked in her garage.

(A few months after lessons ended, she walked into a 7-11 down the road from my house and was killed by a punk robber. I hope they caught him and that he fried painfully somewhere.)

Anyway, when we first started, she handed out index cards blank except for a pattern of circles on them. We were supposed to take them home and fill them in with color, seeing how the colors mixed. She had cards for just about every "opposites" combination she could think of.

And yeah, I think I did about six. Bad, bad me. Yet those six cards increased my knowledge of color enormously.

So this is what you do, and if you want to use blank index cards, that's just peachy. You've only got a few colors, so it won't be that bad. Each card will take you TWO MINUTES to do. You will keep these cards. You will take them to the grave with you, they'll be so handy.

What you do is pick out two opposite colors. What are opposite colors? These are colors that are placed opposite each other on a color wheel. Now, WHY is this?

Because when they combine they can cancel each other out. They will make a gray or neutral. A lot of times this "gray" will be brownish. The trick is that you won't be able to see either color in the mix when you get it right.

It's magic. And even better, you'll find it INCREDIBLY useful as you paint.

So go ahead. You may have to mix up a secondary color from your primaries to do this. You'll want to look at combinations for red and green; blue and orange; yellow and violet.

We did these things by sticking our thumbs in the color and mooshing them onto the card. You can use a brush. Start with pure color. Put a dab of red on one end of your card, centering it vertically, and a dab of green on the other end. Now on your palette begin to play with your color, combining them until you can't see either a red or green in your mixture. Put that in the middle.

Now if you really want to do this right, you'll add in a couple stations between these so you'll get a reddish-gray mixture on the red side of your gray and a green-gray one on the green side.

Now add white to the whole lot and place that result above your little spectrum. These are TINTS. You can make even lighter ones if you want.

Add some black if you've got it to the mixtures you did from the pure colors (the stuff that doesn't have white in it) and arrange those on the bottom half of the card. You can add even darker mixtures. These are SHADES.

And voila! You know what two of your colors can do. Isn't it amazing the amount of lovely color you can get out of a mere two starting colors!

NOTE: I know you only have so much money as you begin in art. You've only bought a few colors. As I said in an earlier lesson, the target is to have a cool version of yellow, red and blue and a warm version of the same. Cool means they lean to the blue side; warm means they lean to the yellow side. There is no way to produce a "pure" primary color in paint, so all the primaries you find will be "tainted" in some way.

So as not to end up with mud, you'll want to mix warm with warm and cool with cool. (And sometimes you WANT mud.)

Stephen Quiller ( is a GOD of color. I was just watching one of his videos this morning and noticed that he not only gives exact names for what he wants in each position of his palette (he lays down primaries, secondaries and tertiary color straight out of the tube), but he's got a Violet named after himself. He had a company formulate it so it precisely neutralized Cadmium Yellow Light, which he uses as his yellow.

So FYI, his ACRYLIC primaries and secondaries are: cadmium yellow light, pyrrole orange, quinacridone red, Quiller violet (available from Jack Richeson), thalo blue (green shade) (as opposed to thalo blue [red shade]; this is one of those warm and cool things we talked about), and thalo green. Before you start jumping up and down in dismay, let me remind you that these are just his personal choices for colors. I know a couple of very famous artists who swear that a ruby red is the one, the only, true red in the entire manufactured-pigment universe. Others say cadmium red is the only way to go.

If you bought your paints as a set, that's likely JUST FINE.

Use the colors that work for you. Use colors that will neutralize each other so you can get a great range of color on your painting.

ARTEEST NOTE: It is very okay, even chic, to refer to the cadmiums as "cad" this and "cad" that. Quinacridone? "Quin" this and "quin" that. You'll impress everyone with your artistic savoir-faire!

Th-th-that's all for now. Feel free to ask questions! What subjects would you like me to cover? If I don't know the answer I'll track down someone who does.

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