Color

Color is an elusive subject and has largely to do with individual taste but there are some useful guides and I can discuss the path that has led me to my present color choices. I’ll begin with Eugene Chevreul. He was the French scientist who added immensely to our knowledge of how the eye perceives color and how colors influence each other. His book, The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Color, won over many of the artists of his time, the 1800’s, and remains persuasive to this day. The Impressionists learned what Chevreul had discovered but then painted intuitively which is the approach I have chosen. I learned what he called simultaneous, successive and mixed contrast of colors. Simultaneous contrasts have to do with how the human eye creates contrasts among what we see in order to more readily isolate and identify shapes. The following is a set of flat grays. Due to simultaneous contrast they seem to dish.                       Look at a dark Purpleish mountain against a light Yellowish cloud for instance. Where the mountain and the sky join the mountain is slightly darker and the sky is lighter. You may have to stare at the edge in one spot for a few seconds to see the contrast. Additionally, the color of the mountain will appear slightly more Purple and the cloud slightly more Yellow at the edge in this Purple/Yellow example. These phenomena my be seen anywhere in nature when a dark value and a light value are contiguous and there is a sharp edge. Successive contrasts have to do with after images. Were you to stare at a Red circle on a White field until your eyes begin to jump and then shift to a dot in the White field, a pale Green circle will appear, the complement of Red. Mixed contrasts occur when the fatigued eye looks at a color rather than White. I would recommend Chevreul's work as an area of useful further study. Instead of attempting the impossible task of keeping the complexities of Chevreul’s work in my mind, I have narrowed it down to a few easier to remember guides to help achieve the goal of harmonious color. The color wheel, invented by Chevreul, is my starting point…                   The color wheel has three primaries and three secondaries. The primaries are Yellow, Red and Blue and the secondaries are Yellow/Red (Orange), Purple and Green. The secondaries are a combination of two primaries, Yellow and Blue combined make Green and Red and Blue, Purple and Red and Yellow, Yellow/Red The most harmonious colors are complements near complements and analogous colors. Analogous colors are near each other on the color wheel. For complements not to injure each other, they should be detached. Complements alter each other where they join by imparting complementary color to each other and changing values.   As an example, I’ll point out some of the more important colors choices employed in a recent painting of mine, (May, 2015). Initially there are many considerations in addition to color on which my attention is focused, composition, drawing, central interest, aerial perspective, balance, etc. Focusing on color takes place during the beginning mass decisions and then at various times during the stages of the painting. The large trees I was seeing were a fairly flat Green and I broke them up using a dark Yellow, Purple, the complement of Yellow and Red Purple, analogous to Purple. I don’t like flat areas so I make them more interesting by breaking them up with value, chroma and/or harmonious color changes. I broke up the facing wall of the building on the left, with mostly close value and chroma changes. Red is emphasized due to the surrounding Greens. Full disclosure. As I'm painting out in the field, I use whatever color comes to mind hopefully based on previous study. At times I'll use something on the palette already mixed and add to it to get what I want. In the resulting mix I have no clear idea of what the colors are that it contains. Therefore color choices are not always as conscious as this account may seem to indicate.                                                   When you see a snow field on a sunny day, the shadows falling across it are a clearly identifiable Blue. This is sky effect. The sky is a diffused source of light and cool (Blue) and the sun is a point source, warm (Yellow) and stronger. This understanding gives me another way to introduce color into a painting whether I see it or not, mostly Blue in the shadows on top planes but also out in the light to create more of a warm/cool balance. Additionally, since the sun is a warm Yellowish, simultaneous contrast states that there will be found a tint of Purple in the shaded areas, the complement of Yellow. The more warm colors in the light, the stronger the Purplish tint.   There are harmonies of contrast and harmonies of analogy. True but exaggerated colors are more agreeable. If bright colors seem crude, higher values may be used. Some colors are inherent in the subject and must remain. The rest may be chosen by the artist for the most harmonious effect.   In the following example, the middle distance cliff is the center of interest and its shadow is mostly Purple/Purple Blue. I wanted Yellow in the near distance for two reasons, as a complement to the Purple and to bring the grasses forward. The Yellow was not as pronounced as I painted it and the complements are detached. When not detached complements may injure each other where they join. My teacher, Frank Reilly, used to say, "Paint what you know not just what you see." This painting is a Yellow/Purple harmony.                                                       If an area of color out in the light is viewed for a time and then the eye is shifted to the shaded area of the same color, the shaded area is affected by an after image and may appear more dull than if viewed without the after image. Mixed contrast.   In the following example I painted the model with a Reddish complexion. Again, mixed contrast of colors states that if the eye is at all fatigued by looking at the Red in the light and then shifts to the shaded area, the shade will contain the complement of Red...Green. This may be exaggerated by the artist for a more harmonious effect. A painting like this requires distance to be seen properly by the viewer.                                               "Value does all the work and color takes all the credit."   In this next example almost none of the colors are the same as I was viewing although some are similar. The trees were all about the same Green but I used Blue for the trees behind the house to lend interest, distance and variety. In various areas of the painting you'll find Green Yellow next to Red Purple, complements, Red Purple next to Purple/Blue, analogous, and other examples of Chevreul's teaching. There are many abstract shapes but the drawing and values are accurate within the demands of this loose technique.                                                       The following example is a Yellow-Red/Blue harmony. The Yellow-Red of the barn and the Blue of the mountain were painted with brighter colors than I was viewing. The Yellow/Red and Blue are detached. Whistler said, "Nature is always wrong".                                                       In this example I saw some Yellow in the leaves of the forward tree so I decided on a Yellow/Purple harmony. I began with a dark value Purple for the darker trees, a bright yellow for the forward tree and went on from there using color theory and compositional rearrangement.                                                       I've included this photograph of the scene used for the above painting to show how far I'm willing to stray from a literal interpretation.                                         In the following example, the basically Blue, Yellow/Red harmony of the mountain is somewhat muted compared to the foreground colors in order to achieve distance.                                                       This example is an experiment to see how far I can go with color and still retain a semblance of realism.                                                       In this example high key analogous colors were employed for the reflective surface of the water. The Yellow of the house out in the light is complemented by the Purple Blue of the mountain. The dark Reds in the shade and the Red chimney are complemented by the Green grasses.                                                       The key to this painting is the Red fence which I employed as a complement to the Greens. The fence I was viewing was a dull Brownish Gray.                                                       Many scientific advances regarding color have been made since the publication of Chevreul's masterpiece but for me as an artist they become too scientific. My teacher taught the Muncell system, for instance, but I prefer the less complicated Chevreul color wheel, and truth be told, I don't always abide strictly to what Chevreul had to say either. A general understanding is sufficient to assist painting intuitively.