Monday Morning Art School: four color exercises

By the time you’re done with these exercises, you’ll have lots more experience in mixing color.

Our basic classroom still-life for these exercises. 

Above is the still life I created for these exercises. Make your own, or work from a photograph. You can use the same subject for all four exercises. Keep it simple; it doesn’t pay to get lost in the details when you’re supposed to be thinking about color.

Mimicking the masters

The Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh, 1889, courtesy MoMA
What’s your favorite painting? Look carefully and mix the basic colors in it. One student referenced The Starry Night, above, for her painting, below. 
Jennifer’s painting based on The Starry Night.
The goal is to use those colors in various positions in your own painting. That means substituting Van Gogh’s blue for the blue in your painting, etc. You don’t need to use the same proportion of colors as Van Gogh used; just use them in your painting. If a color in your painting doesn’t appear in the picture you are mimicking, work around that. Don’t mix to approximate what you see.
Olive Trees with the Alpilles in the Background, Vincent van Gogh, 1889, courtesy MoMA
Van Gogh painted a series of olive trees in 1889. One of these, Olive Trees in a Mountainous Landscape, (above) was a complement to The Starry Night. You can see how he manipulated the palette (and linework and composition) to relate the olive trees to the night sky.
Color triads
For this exercise, I refer you back to this blog post on color harmonies. Re-read the section on triads, because you’re going to use either an equilateral triad or a harmonic triad to build a painting.
Mary’s color triad painting.
The easiest triad to use is a primary triad. The still life at top was set up to include primary triads and secondary triads, depending on which objects students emphasized. They started by choosing a dominant color and then from that, subservient ones. For example, one might base the painting on the cobalt of the blue vase, with the yellow bowl and red apples subservient to the blue.
Harmonic triads are not balanced, but are counted 3-4-5 in either direction on the color wheel (as in the section on triads). Again, mix a dominant tone, and then its subservient tones. Your goal is not to match the real colors in your subject; your goal is to substitute the color palette for what you see.
This, plus white, is a limited palette.
Limited palette
In theory, you can get to any color using just red, blue, yellow and white paint. But the chroma and clarity of those mixes depends on the pigments you start with. For example, cadmium red mixes brilliantly on the orange side, but muddily on the blue side.
Limited-palette paintings tend to be more unified than broader-palette paintings, precisely because you can’t hit all the points in the color wheel.
My limited-palette demo using the paints above.
The classic color pigments are cadmium yellow, cadmium red and ultramarine blue. You’ll need white as well. Don’t buy extra paints for this exercise; use what you have that’s closest to these colors.
Hardwood, by Carol L. Douglas. This is a color substitution painting.
Color substitution
The painting above is a kind of substitution painting, but we’re going to use a narrower interpretation of the idea. We’re going to substitute each main color for its complement on the color wheel.
Olive Orchard with a Man and a Woman Picking Fruit, Vincent van Gogh, 1889, courtesy Kröller-Müller Museum
In Van Gogh’s olive tree painting, above, he’s substituted a warm gold for a blue sky. We’re going to do the same thing, except we’ll do it everywhere on the canvas. Keep the value and chroma the same as the original color, but substitute the complementary position on the color wheel. It sounds simple, but it’s devilishly difficult. Have fun!

What is truth?

There’s more to truth than observable facts, and it’s your job to talk about that.
Last day of golden light, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard

On Monday, Ken DeWaardand I went out to catch the last of the autumn gold before yesterday’s drenching rain. We met at a beautiful old farm in Hope, owned by an elderly lady who gave us some hollyhock seeds in the bargain.

There were two structures that interested me—a fine old Maine cape, and a white frame building glowing violet with a young maple blazing yellow in front of it. “You choose first,” we told each other. This is often the hardest—and always the most important—part of field painting. In the end, I chose the farmhouse and he chose the maple, and I proceeded to complain for the rest of the morning.

The scene I painted.
I know that narrative is very old-fashioned, but it has its place in grounding plein air paintings. The farmyard’s story was obvious. But with the building and tree, either the tractor would need to be included to explain the log pile, or some major narrative fudging would need to happen. That was out; the scene was inherently too delicately-balanced to muck with.
I believe in truth in painting as well as in life. But what does that mean? To a scientist, truth is what can be established through the scientific method. That viewpoint (itself not objective) has permeated our culture. It is, however, a very narrow definition. It leaves out aesthetics, ethics and the associative thinking that the human brain is so good at.
Snow on the forecast, by Carol L. Douglas
Today, we all know that Galileo was right, but by the scientifically-known facts of his time, he was wrong. In fact, part of what Cardinal Bellarmineargued was that heliocentrism shouldn’t be taught unless it could be proved.  What infuriates us moderns is the idea that the Inquisition could muzzle science, and we’re right to feel that way. But that’s based on an unprovable ethical argument: the idea that science should operate independently of church or state.
If you were to walk to the post office with me this morning, you probably wouldn’t notice the power lines. You’d see the elegant houses, grand old trees, and raking light across the harbor. That’s because we see with our hearts, and we focus on some things to the exclusion of others. When we’re very young and first investigating realism, we think we should include every detail. As we get older, we’re more attracted by that emotional truth, which has little to do with the objective truth.
The scene I was riffing off.
Yesterday, I managed to sneak in a tiny painting of the building that Ken originally painted. I was demonstrating limited palette. That’s another subject where truth is too complex to be boiled down to easy inanities. In theory, you can get to any color using just red, blue, yellow and white paint. But the chroma and clarity of those mixes depends on the pigments you use and the medium you’re working in.
It’s not that the paints transmogrify, it’s that each different pigment and base has different undertones. These mix well in some directions, but cancel each other out in other mixes. If you doubt me, try to make a classic chromatic black (cadmium yellow, cadmium red, ultramarine blue) with acrylics. You’ll get something that looks like you picked it up on your shoe.

Monday Morning Art School: the warm and cool of it all

Mixing paints is simple if you understand how pigments work.
Tilt-a-Whirl, by Carol L. Douglas. Painted plein air.
Let’s start with some simple review of the color wheel. Red, blue and yellow are the primary colors. Across the wheel from a color is its complement—the color that completes the circle. The complement of a primary color is always a secondary color. A secondary color is one made by mixing two primary colors.
The color wheel.
In theory, you can paint with just four pigments: red, blue, yellow and white. For beginning painters this is sometimes a good idea, because it’s the fastest way to learn color management in a hurry. It simplifies the thought process so you have only one decision to make at a time, and it is easier to get a more unified color scheme.
But there is a big limiting factor, and that’s the impurity of pigments. They all have overtones that muddy them up in certain mixes. That’s why your local paint dealer uses many, many more pigments than just red, blue, and yellow.
The takeaway lesson here is that different pigments may look similar out of the tube, but they reflect light (and thus mix) very differently. From Scientific Examination of Art: Modern Techniques in Conservation and Analysis, 2003, National Academy of Sciences.
Claude Monet’s palette shifted over time, but included these paints:
  • Chrome yellow
  • Cadmium yellow
  • Viridian green
  • Emerald green
  • French ultramarine
  • Cobalt blue
  • Madder red
  • Vermilion
  • Flake white
  • Ivory black (before 1886)

These are sets of paired pigments. That means he has a warm and a cool of each color. Gamblinmakes a modern version of this impressionist palette. It includes:
  • Cadmium yellow light
  • Cadmium yellow medium
  • Cadmium red light
  • Alizarin permanent (actually anthraquinone red)
  • Ultramarine blue
  • Cerulean blue hue (actually phthalo blue plus white)
  • Viridian
  • Ivory black
  • Flake white replacement (or titanium white)
Paired primaries.
Both Monet’s and Gamblin’s palettes are paired primaries plus green, white and black. I use paired primaries as well, omitting the green but adding in some other earths. (Here are my supply lists for oils,  acrylics, and watercolors.)
The distinction between warm and cool colors has been important in painting since the Impressionists. Warm colors are said to be hues from red through yellow and cool colors are said to be the hues from green through violet. Each hue around the color wheel also has a warm and a cool version.
There’s no factual hot or cold point because this is a poetical description that works, rather than a scientific fact. Much of what we believe about the psychology of color is hocus-pocus, but it’s true that if the light is what we call “warm,” the shadows are what we call “cool,” and vice versa.
When we say that lemon yellow is cooler than cadmium yellow deep, we mean that if you are trying to mix a greenish yellow, you’ll get a clearer shade with the lemon than you will with the cadmium. The warm-cool language is just a convenient way of saying that.
Different pigments may look the same when squeezed out of the tube, but there the similarity ends. Pigments are impure, and you have to learn and work around those impurities.
Today’s lesson is an experiment in working through those color shifts. I want you to make the above color chart, using three sets of paired primaries:
  • Prussian blue—Ultramarine blue
  • Quinacridone violet—Cadmium orange
  • Indian yellow—Lemon yellow

The purpose of this exercise is to understand how paired primary pigments work together, so that you can make neutrals when you want them, and avoid mud when you don’t.

Draw the chart onto a canvas, and then mix across and down for each square. The left column and the top row should be pure pigments. Fill it in, then, just like the multiplication tables of your youth. For example, the intersection of cadmium orange and ultramarine blue should be a 50-50 mix of those two colors.
Unless you’re painting in watercolor, the result should be opaque.
Let me know if you have any questions. And have fun!

Manna from heaven

Corinne's exquisite pen-and-ink drawing of our still life.

Corinne’s pen-and-ink drawing of our still life.
The last time I was certain that I had my phone on Tuesday was when I launched Dark Sky to check the weather. A few minutes later, it was missing. I checked with the Schoodic Institute staff, other guests, and my students. I retraced my steps for the prior two hours. No phone.
I’m a pro at losing things, so my searches have become methodical. I don’t panic, since most of the time I eventually find the missing item. Nor do I tear things apart in a frenzy. I clean and straighten until I find what I was looking for. After all, one might as well get some benefit out of the experience.
Cecelia's lovely painting of the mouth of Frazer Creek at low tide.

Cecelia’s lovely painting of the mouth of Frazer Creek at low tide.
Although I was certain I’d had my phone at supper, I returned to my suite and carefully stripped and remade my bed. I tidied the kitchen. No phone.

Each morning I collect a giant cooler with our lunches and snacks in it. On Wednesday, I resolved to clean and reorganize my car before putting the cooler in. I was halfway through when someone asked me a question. I walked about twenty feet away to answer it.
I gave Lynne six pastels of my choosing and told her to do a painting with them. She did an awesome job.

I gave Lynne six pastels of my choosing and told her to do a painting with them. She did an awesome job.
When I returned I was stunned to see my phone sitting on my car roof. It was covered with dew. If there was anyone else in the area, they were pretty nippy on their feet.
“Manna from heaven!” exclaimed Ken Avery. “It returned with the dew!” Answered prayer can be big or small but it always leaves you chuffed.
As Lynne did her limited-palette pastel drawing, I painted alongside with a similar palette.

As Lynne did her limited-palette pastel drawing, I painted alongside with a similar palette. Very unfinished.
We began our work at Frazer Point. This area was named after Thomas Frazer, an African-American who established a salt works near the mouth of Frazer Creek sometime before 1790. Our view looked across Mosquito Harbor to Norris Island and the bridge across Frazer Creek.
Yes, it got cold when it started raining.

Yes, it got cold.
By 1 PM a light mist was developing and the air smelled of rain. Lynne collected a mess of still life material from the beach before we returned to the Schoodic Institute Pavilion. There we did color temperature exercises in what eventually developed into a downpour.
Corinne was captivated by the reflections from Norris Island.

Corinne was captivated by the reflections from Norris Island.
By 5 PM, all we wanted were hot showers and dry clothes. We met for dinner at 6, where we were joined by a late arrival to our group, Matt Avery.
I got back to my suite at 7:30, thrilled to be in early on such a cool, rainy night. I changed into my nightclothes and settled down with my laptop. There I found a message from two of my dearest friends in the world: “We are at Schoodic for the night. Have to leave by 8:30 AM.” After a brief war with my lazier self, I got dressed again and headed back out. We had a nice but all-too-brief visit.
The still life materials on a beach are limitless.

The still life materials on a beach are limitless.
A fog swirled through the dark woods as I walked back. Yes, there are black bears and moose in Maine. I don’t like surprising wild animals in their native habitat, so I sang the first song that popped into my mind. “A Mighty Fortress is our God” seemed oddly appropriate.
Manna from heaven, indeed.