Color Theory

I have talked about the importance of drawing, absolute key to the connection of your passion for the subject matter and the painting.  Now, how do I get my painting to be dimensional, to have depth?  Your use of color and understanding all its principals is one of the answers.

Using a limited palette will give you an opportunity to deeply understand the colors you use and how they react together, you will know, as you view your subject, exactly what you need to use in order to make the hue you need for the painting.  I can make a promise to you that you will never make mud, but beautiful neutrals.

I use the triad system, two sets of red, yellow and blue, with two extra greens.  I only use Winsor Newton watercolors.  The first triad consists of Rose Madder Genuine, Aureolin and Cobalt Blue.  These colors are very transparent and totally liftable.  They will not go past 50% in value.  The second triad is Permanent Alizarin Crimson, New Gamboge and French Ultramarine Blue.  These are also very transparent, but staining.  They can take a painting to 100% in value.  The two greens are never used as green but combined with reds to make beautiful greys and blacks, or added to a blue and yellow to make that variety of greens you see in nature.

Demonstration of color wheel and compliments

Color Wheel and Compliments

To the left is a rudimentary colors swatch of those that I use with the first triad on the right of the points on the triangles and the second triad on the left of the points of the triangles.  In the center are the neutral, browns and grays made with both triads.  The variety of hues that can be made with these colors is just extraordinary.

Compliment are an important way to add dimension to a painting.  Nobody knew this better than George Seurat, a post impressionist who invented Pointillism, using dots of color who’s hues were complimentary, fooling the eye into movement.  The compliment of red is the combination of the other two colors, blue and yellow (green), the compliment of yellow is the combination of the other two colors, blue and red (purple), the compliment of blue is the combination of the other two colors, red and yellow (orange).  They must be right beside each other and they must be of the same value.

Value is another important way to make your painting dimensional.  I always talk to my students in terms of percentage of value about their work and so we can always be ‘on the same page’ when discussing ways to improve it.  Below is a quick value study of red, blue and yellow, using my palette.  It is a good idea to do this so that you know how much pigment versus water to add to go up each 10% of value.

I have a friend who has a PHD in Color Theory, so we know there is a great deal to learn about its impact on our lives.  This is only a small but important aspect focusing on dimension.


Developing your own style

I hope to use this blog to get into technique very soon, but before that, the question is why?  So many classes, even at the college level refuse to teach the basics, they complain that knowing basics is stifling and destroys one’s ability and freedom to experiment and develop a style.  A very famous university in California does not require drawing to get a Masters in Fine Art. Many an instructor has accused me of being too rigid when discussing technique, drawing and color theory.

My experience is so clear, at some point, after much experimenting and playing at art, the student gets very frustrated, opts to read a book, look at pictures and tries to emulate a style that they like, adding further frustration.  They have in mind a place that they want to be, but have no idea of how to get there.  This frustration leads to a lack in confidence , which first of all, results in this inability to drawing.  Then the budding artist copies masters, which is why you see easels set up in museums, or finds a well-known and admired instructor to learn from and copies them. These are both important steps in developing a style, but should come AFTER the basics.  Copying an admired  artist is good in the short run, you learn by watching, studying their composition, palette, how they apply paint, but finding your style requires you to take what you learn and apply it, not continuing to copy.  You have a natural ability to make images and describe them to the viewer, if you use someone else’s style you have disabled your own ability to speak through art.

Learning the basics is a rigorous experience, sometimes exhausting, requiring effort and practice.  But as a process, when successful, brings substantial possibilities for your own self expression.

More about drawing

Ted Nuttall turned me on to a book by Richard Schmid, Alla Prima.  I now keep this at my bedside and reread many parts of it.  The section on drawing is of particular interest.  Richard  points out that even though drawing is a skill that must be learned, it isn’t like swimming or biking, where you can always regain the ability.  Drawing is a mental discipline which takes continual practice and presence of mind.

As I have said before, in setting up relationships and giving everything a shape, “it is figuring out the hight and width of color shapes and fitting them together.”  It helps to choose the biggest forms first, then dividing them into smaller shapes.  A sound drawing is an absolute prerequisite to a good painting.  I see my students  excited about the composition and  anxious to get it enlarged and on watercolor paper, so they cut corners  in their drawing and lose control and power over the very thing that they were excited about.  The importance of a good drawing is the lesson learned when the painting becomes a frustrating experience.

Every class begins with a review of drawing.  Several still lifes are set up and I ask my students to go from one to the other setting up shapes and relating them to each other.  By the end of the two and one half hour session I am happy to report that everyone feels stronger in this skill, as if they had been working out in a gym and asked to lift 100 pounds, did it with ease.

So why don’t we continue to draw every day, knowing the result?  Why do we rely on a camera or computer to see for us?  I haven”t got it for sure but I’m pretty convinced that it has to do with confidence and time.  Time is a variable that we can control, allotting 30 minutes a day for a sketch, but the confidence is an abstract thing which wafts and wanes painfully while we try to experience this craft.  Robert Henri in the Art Spirit refers to this as negligence of drawing.  He points out that nature in all its forms, landscape, still life, human, will not reveal itself to the negligent . This is such a good way to experience this ability to draw.  I hope this encourages you, as an artist, you are worth it.


As you read through this new entry, I ask that you consider the word “relationship”, always something that goes with something else.  The more you relate things to one another, the more accurate you will be in learning to SEE.

For example, draw a rectangle, this will contain the oval shape for the face.  In relation to the top of the head, and the chin, where are the eyes, from the eyes to the chin, where is the nose, how about from the nose to the chin, where is the mouth, draw light lines to indicate those features.  Now, between the side of the face and the center, where is the eyeball.  As it is about halfway, I make a line to indicate that relationship.  Interestingly enough, the corners of the mouth, in repose, relate to the center of the eyeball.  The corners of the nose are directly under the inner aspect of the eyelid.

The ears relate to the eyes and the nose.  I use the negative shapes of the rectangle to help me determine the shape of the hair and the chin.  NOw we are talking about a face in repose and staring straight on, things change when, the face is looking down, sideways or way up to the sky, so then there are a different set of relationships.

Hand drawn faceEverything you draw, should have an initial shape, then you can determine where its parts touch that shape and making a mark or a line will help you relate things to one another.  The face you see to the right shows the use of      these initial shapes and lines, The one on the left is a little more refined, but  using the same process and relationships.

This method of drawing has been used by the masters, in fact, in some of  daVince’s drawings, you can see evidence of giving his subject  an initial  shape and then dividing up the shape to have things relate to one another.

You always have your hand with you, put it in an interesting position and  give it  a shape, determine where each part of the hand touches the shape and draw a light line or mark to indicate that, use the negative spaces to show slants and knuckles, all  of a sudden the hand will appear to you. Try this, after you have the initial  shape of your hand in an interesting position, use line to indicate where  things  are, use the negative shapes to show how much “volume” exists  outside the hand and relate the the fingers to the palm, etc, don’t worry  about the little lines and wrinkles in your hand, just the outside edges, and  no shading.

Remember, you are gradually going to learn to see again, gain confidence in  this gift you have.  Pretend that you are a babe and that you have never seen these things before, so that more than anything, you want to study them and document these new images.

It is not that drawing is never a struggle, anything that you do, as you become more powerful and try more involved subjects, is daunting. But this is a process, the more you do it, the more proficient you become and then…the more you want to do it.  Above and beyond that, find something that you feel passion for, every pencil line is a caress.


Why draw?

Today is the very first day of my new blog, I hope to add new information every week to discuss this process of making art.

Drawing is the absolute foundation of every painting.  It’s the connection from your eyes/brain to your painting surface, without it there is a disconnect.

You see something you feel passion for, with wonderful shape and shadow, you take a picture and when you look at the developed picture, you can’t for the life of you, see what it was that you wanted to paint. Frederick Franck says, “We do a lot of looking, through lenses, etc…our looking is perfected every day, but we see less and less.” Cameras and computers are taking over our experiencing and seeing.  Unfortunately, by relying on these wonderful technical skills, we have lost confidence in our own ability to record a scene that we wish to make into a composition.  As an artist, by creating paintings, you are helping your viewer to see that which he cannot and you can regain your ability, just by exercising your drawing skills.

To that end, I recommend that you draw a little every day, nothing lengthy, just 20 minutes, a still life, landscape, your shoe, you always have your hand with you, put that into an interesting position, just do a line drawing, no shading.

Carry a small 8 1/2 X 5 1/2 sketch book with you all the time. So many times, waiting for my children I would take out my sketch book and sit in the car and draw what I saw out my windshield.  I have designed a book, just this size that has drawing paper, collated with tracing paper, you can do the line drawing and if you are working toward a composition, turn over the tracing paper to give it value.  Next week I will talk about my method of drawing, used by the masters.

The second picture is a drawing which I have added the tracing paper to, with the idea of putting in the values.  It helps me decide how it will be as a composition, as essentially solving many of my design problems at an early stage.

But at this point, what you are wanting, is to draw, to see, to regain your ability to take off the labels, this is a tree, this is George’s nose, or eye, this is a vase and daisy…and see all the uniqueness around you.

Talk to you next week, try to do some drawing.