Until you start playing and experimenting, you won’t really own your own color pathway.

Bobbi Heath once posited to me that painters learn to manage color in three phases:

  • They make everything grey;
  • They vastly overshoot the chroma;
  • They finally learn a pleasing color sensibility.

 “Is it even possible to overshoot the chroma?” I riposted, because I’m apparently stuck in the second phase. I was joking, of course. In being a high-chroma painter, I’m operating within my own time and place in history. High chroma is part of our current landscape painting style.

Beautiful Dream, 12X16, oil on archival canvasboard, available.

(For those of you new to the discussion, chroma is one of three aspects of color, which you can read about here. It means how intense the color is. Grey is low-chroma; fuchsia is high-chroma.)

Bobbi had it right, of course. Painters start in a world of soft greys because grey is safe. They need to blow through that safety net to master all aspects of color.

The problem is exacerbated when the painter lives in an area with grey skies. I spent 21 years in Rochester, NY, where the weather is controlled by tempestuous Lake Ontario. Those damp, overcast skies were great for gardening and my skin, but they mean indirect light. That, in turn, can lead to gloomier color and less separation between lights and darks. Beautiful, but dull in a painting—unless you take a page from the Luministplaybook and straight-up lie. Before you can do that, you have to be able to see it.

Giving birth to a brighter color palette can be painful. Brilliant color looks garish at first, often because our first experiments at high-chroma painting are garish. The question of color harmony is more important when our painting isn’t subdued by a leavening wash of grey. With chroma elevated, we can no longer ignore when color combinations don’t work.

Bracken Fern, 9×12, oil on archival canvasboard, available.

You can’t get to that phase of development until you let go of the crutch of neutrality. This is one area where a teacher or mentor can be a great help. “Leave it,” we say. “Set it aside and look at it again in two weeks.” Actually, it would be more helpful to set it aside and paint twenty or thirty paintings in this new high-chroma space until you start to see how it hangs together.

Yes, you’ll make some awful paintings. It’s a necessary phase of growth. “No mistakes, no success. Know mistakes, know success,” my buddy Ivan Ramostold me yesterday. That’s never truer than with color. I can lecture all year about color interaction but there are millions of ways to lay colors down next to each other. Until you start playing and experimenting, you won’t really own your own color pathway.

Quebec Brook, 12X16, oil on archival canvasboard, available.

I encourage my students to have tintson their palette because they help keep color clean. These premixes can save a lot of time and prevent a whole lot of dullness.

None of this is to say there isn’t room for neutrals in painting. Of course, there is, and the third phase of color management is to add those neutrals back in. (I’m still waiting.) But let’s not jump the gun here; neutrals are in some ways the apotheosis of color, a counterpoint to chroma. They come last in our color-sensibility development.

The intensity of color

Travel always reminds me of regional differences in color. 
Reed beds, by Carol L. Douglas, 9×12, oil on canvasboard

There were five Maine painters at Plein Air Brandywine Valley this year. One thing that was obvious was that our work was, overall, higher in chroma than that of the mid-Atlantic painters around us. Generalizations always lie, of course. For example, pastellist Tara Will is from down thataway, and she’s nothing if not eye-popping brilliant.

But a brief survey of well-known painters of the Maine coast—people like Henry Isaacs, Connie Hayes, Colin Page, Jill HoyEric Hopkins, etc.—show a painting culture interested more in color and light than in fidelity to fact. Compare that to the paintings recently completed for the Hudson Valley Plein Air Festival. With the exception of Maine’s own Olena Babek, these painters are from eastern New York and Pennsylvania. Their work is less saturated and generally warmer in tone than the work here in Maine.
Fog over mountain, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard (available)
We Mainers have no hammerlock on high chroma. Go out to Santa Fe and paint with the folks from Plein Air Painters of New Mexico. They’re working in their own palette. It’s as intense as ours, but pushes the reds, ochres and blue-violets.
To a large degree, geography shapes our color choices. The light in Maine and New Mexico is harsher than that of the mid-Atlantic states, where skies often have high, filtered clouds. These create softer light.
A little (8×10) fantasia I finished in my studio on Tuesday (available)
Maine has more artists than you can shake a stick at, and many of us are ‘from away.’ Yesterday I was at a meeting and couldn’t help but notice the Long Island accent of one of my fellow artists. “Where are you from?” I asked. It turned out that all but one of us in the room were expatriated New Yorkers. Some have been here a very long time; others, like me, are recent transplants.
When I first moved to Maine, I was asked whether I’d moved because of the light. That’s certainly part of it. The Great Lakes regions of New York are actually temperate rainforests, they get so much precipitation. That means dark winters and many cloudy days. But that was only part of my decision. Maine art has a culture of color, and it appealed to me.
Midsummer, by Carol L. Douglas, 24×30, oil on canvas, available
Regional schools develop through example and imitation, and that’s a natural, healthy human interaction. But what should you do when you find yourself painting at cross-purposes to the people around you? I did that for a long time, and it was difficult. The misfit artist is under subtle pressure to change his style to match prevailing fashion. He doesn’t get the sales or the gallery space, and he starts to wonder what’s wrong with him.
The answer, of course, is that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with someone following his internal muse. The internet is a wonderful tool for getting out and finding one’s own tribe, but it doesn’t hold a candle to traveling in person. Go, take workshops, make friends in other communities, and validate your vision.

Monday Morning Art School: painting fall foliage

Autumn has started its great transition; here are some tips to paint it in a believable way.
Catskill Farm, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas. The light is definitely warm in Autumn, but the predominant landscape color is still green.
In the northeast, soft maples start to turn orange and pink at the end of August. There are similar phase changes happening throughout the north. For example, in the Canadian west the aspens are starting to turn yellow-gold and the larches prepare to shed their needles.
The transition from summer green to November’s dun will take roughly ten weeks, but the daily changes are incremental.
The Dugs, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas. The earliest foliage change in the northeast is in the soft maples.
Don’t delete the greens
Until late fall, the predominant local color remains fairly cool: there is the blue of sky and water, and plenty of green leaves. Trees change at different rates. There are some that never change at all, but simply drop their leaves. Mowed grass remains green all year long. And, of course, there are evergreen spruces and pines.
Adirondack Spring, by Carol L. Douglas. The same colors that appear in early spring return in the fall, but in a brassier way.
There are far more colors than just red and gold
The same colors that appear in early spring foliage are repeated in autumn, but in a brassier way—reds, pinks, golds, chartreuse, teals, purples. In early fall, tinge the tops of trees with these hues; as the season progresses, they will become more dominant.
Know how trees change color
Where I live, the brilliant soft maples and ashes change first. Later, the oaks and beeches rattle mournfully in the wind. Each species has a characteristic color as well as a specific time to turn. Observe these changes, rather than just dashing color around.
Glade, watercolor, by Carol L. Douglas. This painting is at the Jackson Memorial Library, Tenants Harbor, ME, through September.
Pay attention to the understory
There are wildflowers blooming on the edges of fields—goldenrod, asters, blue chicory, and Queen Anne’s lace. These are less brilliant than their early-season counterparts, but the overall effect is a beautiful spangle against dried grasses. Meanwhile, hayfields are still bright green and there are apples in every hedgerow.
Underpaint the sky in last
When we put the sky in first, we have a tendency to paint it darker and brighter than it is. (That’s because of how our eyes respond to light.) It’s easy to then make the whole painting too dark.
That’s a great argument for the dark-to-light rule of oil painting, but what should watercolorists do? Start with a monochrome value study, so you hit the blues properly the first time out.
How dark are the leaves?
Trees are often among the darkest features of the landscape, especially when we’re below them. But yellows and golds are naturally light colors. That makes us perceive fall foliage as lighter than it is. We need to take care to check the value of foliage in the design phase.
Avoid white in your foliage mixes, except to articulate a sun-struck passage. Darken yellow-gold with yellow ochre rather than with its complement, or you’ll kill the chroma. And check the leaf values against tree trunks; in some cases, they may not be that different.
Keuka Vineyard, Carol L. Douglas, available through the Kelpie Gallery. This shows the earliest autumn changes, which in New York are in late August.
How intense is fall color?
It’s easy to overstate the chroma in any season. It’s especially easy in autumn, because we’re responding to unusual brilliance. But Nature has a wide variety of chromatic intensities, from the delicate robin’s egg blue of a winter sky to the dazzling reflections off the ocean. There are plenty of greys in the landscape, especially in autumn.
There are other ways to convey the brilliance of autumn than to just use bright colors. Set the subject tree against more neutral tones, or place an intensely warm tone against a cool tone.
Autumn has its own color temperature
Above, I wrote that autumn colors were still predominantly blue and green. But the overall color temperature is warm, because the sun spends a lot more time on the horizon than it does in midsummer.
Autumn is known for its magical lambent light—the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness/Close bosom friend of the maturing sun,” as John Keats said.
Color temperature is a lengthy subject, and I’ve written about it here, here, here, hereand here(that’ll keep you out of the bars). The basic rule is that the color of the shadow is the complement of the color of the light. If light is golden, shadows are cool.
This was originally posted in September, 2019. Happy Labor Day, my friends!

My 2024 workshops:

Why should my students have all the fun?

What to do when you don’t know what to do.
Underpainting. The schooner is just a placeholder. I vowed to not paint nonsense from my head anymore. That lasted about ten minutes.  
This week, my painting class worked on skies. Not the one outside, which was crabby, but the ones in their imaginations. It was a small class, which sometimes allows time for my mind to wander.
I idly swooped some bright orange lines across a large, dull canvas I’ve been noodling to death. “That helps!” Jennifer Johnson said. The lines were ridiculous, but they pointed to a solution to my problem: the night has no color.
If you look at Winslow Homer’s Sleigh Ride or Edward Hopper’s Room for Tourists, you’ll see that they get around that problem by simply lying about what can be seen in the dark. I admire that, but I haven’t figured out yet how to do it convincingly. This canvas is the battleground on which I fight with myself over it.
Dawn sail out of Camden, so unfinished and a terrible photograph.
When class ended, I left the orange lines, intending to come back later. Before I knew it, it was bedtime.
One of our kids is studying fundraising. “The antidote to fear is a plan,” she said. “One of the biggest challenges in life is deciding what to do when you don’t know what to do.” I decided to mix some colors I want to see in this painting and then figure out where to add them. I had the orange-to-red already on my palette, so I mixed some reds-to-purples and let it rip.
How can I toss these colors in a nocturne?
I spent much of the day painting dreck and then scraping it out. But I think, in the end, I figured something out. The orange is still there, in all its original places, but subdued and modulated. When I get home from Scotland, this phase will be thoroughly dry. I’ll finish the water, tighten up the edges of the sails, and add the rigging. Then it will be done, for good or ill.
Canvases that never resolve are torture, but fertile ground for self-discovery. It’s taken time to understand what isn’t working chromatically, but it’s a lesson I’ll carry with me forever.
“Spare me from painting with no reference,” I muttered. But what to do with all those garish sunrise colors on my palette? Why, underpaint something new, of course. That will be dry when I get home too, and I can start to build another fantastical schooner painting. My resolution to avoid painting from my head lasted about ten minutes.
Fuel dock, by Carol L. Douglas
I was on a roll of sorts, so I picked up the plein air piece I hated last week. A few brush strokes and I’d lightened the wall’s reflection in the water and added a fictitious highlight to the boat. Would it still qualify as plein airfor purposes of judging? I think so, but no matter; it’s not good enough. But it’s less horrible than I thought.
I’m not going to paint the island tanker Capt Ray O’Neillagain any time soon, I vowed. It’s the second time I’ve tried and come up short. That resolution is probably as good as the one about painting without reference.
Sleeping model, by Carol L. Douglas
All too soon, it was time for life drawing, where I focused on a portrait of our sleeping model. This is familiar territory for me, so it went just fine. Now I can head to Scotland feeling as if my finer drawing skills have been buffed up.

Monday Morning Art School: an exercise in color

This exercise teaches you to think of the three aspects of color as separate properties.
Water lilies (Yellow Nirwana), 1920, Claude Monet, courtesy the National Gallery, London. Much of Monet’s work was experimenting about the nature of color.

When we ask people, “what’s your favorite color,” we’re using the word color in a simple way, and we expect a simple answer. In fact, color has three basic characteristics:

Value – How light or dark is the color? Blue-indigo is the darkest color, yellow is the lightest. Red and green fall somewhere in the middle.
Hue – Where does it sit on the color wheel? All colors fall into one of the following hue families: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. Within those families, however, are many subdivisions.
Chroma – How much intensity, or “punch” does the color have? Grey is low-chroma; fuchsia is high-chroma.
For more detail, see here.
Complementary colors are opposite positions on the color wheel.
Analogous colorsare a set of colors that sit next to each other on the color wheel.
This exercise teaches you to hold value and chroma steady and manipulate only hue. It’s hard to make these judgments subjectively, so your samples may not look exactly like someone else’s.
Go to the paint store and select paint chips in two different color schemes—complementary and analogous. I want you to choose paints with the same value and chroma but the hue will be different.
Complements where the value and chroma are the same.
They don’t necessarily have to be high-chroma combinations. Here’s a pair of complementary hues which have less saturation (lower chroma):
An example of an analogous color scheme where the value and chroma are the same for all three hues:
Once you’ve selected the three paint samples, chop them up and arrange them on a little card as a design. Glue them down in a pattern that pleases you. Try to leave no space between the different colored tiles so your finished work looks something like this:
Above: my chops. Below: Photoshop’s evaluation of how close I came with the values. (Remember, Photoshop is interpreting as much as I am.)

I don’t care what kind of shapes you make or how complicated your design is. I just don’t want white showing between the sections.

If it proves difficult to get out, and you want to get started, you can always make your own paint swatches. But it’s fun to get them from the hardware store, cut them up and make patterns.

Devilishly difficult in the details

Color theory is a great place to get caught up in what you know versus what you see.
Schoodic fog-bow.
It was a splendid North Atlantic morning, looking more like November than August. The horizon was obscured in sea smoke. The rocks at Schoodic Point were covered with gulls who either felt a weather event in the offing or were sick of work. There was an onshore breeze and thunderheads building over Cadillac Mountain.
Plein air painting requires, above all, flexibility. I’d had a different plan for Wednesday, but everyone should spend one day painting the sheer magnificence of Schoodic Point, and today’s weather forecast is iffy. I swapped my plans as well as our location. Instead of teaching about believable greens, I concentrated on the color of light.
Visitors to Schoodic inevitably stop and stare. It’s stupefaction in the face of overwhelming power. 
On a day with a sea fog, all color theory goes out the window. What is the color of light when you are enveloped in a blanket of thick, peaceful, fluffy wool? It’s grey, sometimes tempered with pink, sometimes with blue, but ever-changeable. There’s a lot to leave to the imagination in such a setting. I sometimes paint the fog pale violet, because I like that color, but I don’t want it to become a gimmick.
There are three components to color: hue, saturation and value. They’re all the artist has to lead his viewer through his story, develop points of emphasis, and drive the eye.
I demo through the lunch hour at my workshops…
Value – How light or dark is the paint?
Hue – Where does the color sit on the color wheel? All colors fall into one of the following hue families: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. Within those families, however, are many subdivisions.
Chroma – How much intensity, or “punch” does the color have? A red geranium flower is high-chroma, a fog bank is low-chroma.
That sounds so sensible and neat on paper, but it gets messy on the canvas. The same is true of the color of light.
When the whole visible light spectrum strikes your eye at the same time, you perceive white. In the real world, this doesn’t happen. What you see is always filtered by our atmosphere.
Which is why I was so angry at the gull who thumped me in the shoulder and stole my sandwich from my lips. Rude.
It’s easy to see the gold and peach light of sunset, or the cold light of midday, but what is the color of fog? It’s often a cool, desaturated blue-grey, but that isn’t always true. It depends on the direction you’re looking and the time of day.
Color theory is a great place to get caught up in what you know versus what you see. When that happens, try to understand why it’s not working the way you thought it would. Then paint what you see, or, better yet, paint what you feel.

Monday Morning Art School: what is color?

Understanding color space is the most important thing an artist can do.

A little bit of everything, by Carol L. Douglas. That’s the incredibly cool light of a midsummer day.

Color is a word with radically different definitions depending on its use. In optics, it refers to

the unique way in which the cone cells in the human eye are stimulated by electromagnetic radiation. How an object reflects or emits light gives it its unique color.
In common parlance, we think of red, green or blue as colors. In art, however, those aren’t colors. Colors have three attributes, all of which you must understand in order to navigate color space successfully:
Value – How light or dark is the pigment?
Hue – Where does the color sit on the color wheel? All colors fall into one of the following hue families: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. Within those families, however, are many subdivisions.
Chroma – How much intensity, or “punch” does the color have?
Doe drinking in the woods, by Carol L. Douglas, has warm light and cool shadows.
Since color has three attributes, it exists in a three-dimensional color space. However, we’re used to looking at it in two dimensions, in the form of a color wheel. I think the Quiller watercolor wheel is the best color wheel, since it shows you where neutral pigments fall inside the hue families.
Still, the conventional color wheel doesn’t take value into consideration. Every pigment has its own natural darkness or lightness. Dioxazine purple, for example, is very dark coming out of the tube. Lemon yellow is very light coming out of the tube. That does not mean that dark colors are cool and light colors are warm, however. Consider burnt umber. It’s very dark, and it’s also very warm.
Winch (American Eagle),by Carol L. Douglas. There was definitely some warm light that winter day.
There’s a misunderstanding that mixing across the color wheel darkens pigments. Only with certain greens and reds does this work. Mixing across the color wheel gives you neutrals: grays and browns.
We call the hue families of green, blue and violet “cool” and the hue families of yellow, orange and red “warm.” Within each hue family, there are warm and cool variations. Gamblin has this nifty chart of warm and cool pigments so you can see where your paints fall.
White, black, and grey are chromatic neutrals. Raw umber is fairly neutral. Naphthol red and phthalo blue are very high-chroma colors. In general, modern pigments are much more intense than the mineral pigments of the Renaissance.
Cobequid Bay Farm, by Carol L. Douglas. Warm evening light translates to cool evening shadows.
It works to sort colors this way. I use a system of paired primaries which gives me a great, high-key mixing range. However, the whole idea of warm-vs.-cool is a painterly convention. It’s best to not have this discussion with a physicist, who will tell you that you have it backwards. He may be right, but that doesn’t mean he can paint.
I’ve written about the color temperature of light here, but there’s a simple rule that helps. The predominant shadows will always be the opposite (across the color wheel) from the color of the light. On a sunny day, the light will be cool and the shadows will be warm. At dusk the light will be golden and the shadows violet. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but it’s a good place to start.
Breaking storm, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy Camden Falls Gallery. I’m potting around on this boat this week, teaching watercolor. Wish you were here!
I strongly recommend this video from Gamblin, which organizes color space in three dimensions. It’s also full of information about the history of color.
There’s no internet (and darn little cell phone service) out in Penobscot Bay. After this post, my blog is going dark for the week. Don’t be alarmed! Assuming there are no pirates, I’ll be back next Monday.

Secret superpower

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, by Carol L Douglas. Still in draft form, I’m afraid.
I generally feel about clouds the way Winslow Homer felt about rocks: they’re easy to paint. So I wasn’t expecting to be tripped up by this painting. But when I finished my first iteration, I realized it was too monochromatically grey.
I mixed three different greys and went at it with both hands. Most of us Lefties have a secret superpower—we’re more or less ambidextrous. I can write and paint with either hand, although my right one tires more quickly.
Added greys. I think it actually looked better here than when “finished.”
I don’t usually paint two-handed, because I only have one brain. In certain situations, such as when laying down large masses or alternately painting and blending, it’s a useful skill.
Two-fisted painter.
Unfortunately, I fixed the chroma problem but seem to have lost the original organization. I’ll go back in with some darks when this has a chance to set up, but for now I am moving on to my next painting. I have to hang this show a week from tomorrow.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!