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STRETCHING COLOR IN OIL MEDIUM
What is an artist’s stock in trade? Why, color, of course.
Color is so important major conferrences are held annually on the colors used in high-end trade markets. Colors are so important that studies are made on their psychological effects on a person’s well-being. Hospitals pick their paints based on them. I have even heard of 6-figure jobs whose primary duty was naming colors, and I’m sure paint stores pay someone to name their colors, big time. What is color, but the separated emissions of white light into a rainbow prism, which in part, depends on the color that is blocked out of your vision range.
That’s why I am so big on both the range and order of my palette of colors and value the tone or tint way over the longevity or archival nature. I try not to do this, but darn. It’s such a big deal that even in my Old Masters’ paintings of darkest darks, I try to bring in a wide range of hues on the dark side as well as the light. I cannot go with one neutral and let it dirty up all the colors. When you go to the light side, I’m especially keen on a kaleidoscopic dose of color, and I specialize in making sure I know the additives to clean up the chroma of a color, while still leaving it toned. (Toned means there exists some grey in the mix.) Today I got an A-plus on a test naming the colors in famous Old Masters paintings. That was fun.
Rainbow emissions of colors have wonderful names like ‘magenta,’ ‘cobalt blue,’ ‘alizarin crimson,’ and ‘phthalocyanine blue.’ In oil painting, these colors come from a pigment base of one of earth’s natural substances or a man-made chemical. The worth of the color is rated on this and the topic of hot discussion in my oil painting circles. This knowledge is invaluable, and yet is only part of the help I give those who follow my trail of color crumbs.
Have you ever wondered why some people’s paintings work like magic, why people rave over the color? Or why some paintings look to you like random spitup? Well, of course there is the subjective element, which could be the reason early reviews on Wyeth’s works were called out by a major critic as a palette using “mud and baby poop,” an opinion that echoed almost all the major art critics used to abstract expressionism and pop-op art that models high school and college teaching on art. They put down not only Wyeth’s realism, but his morality and austerity. Association is a factor in a human’s reaction to color. Taste testers have proven this in non-blind tasting events: when the water is colored orange, people taste orange juice without a drop of orange in it.
Funny, I never had a bad reaction to Wyeth’s subdued colors. I look at them and think, earth, earthy, spare, awesome composition, about this wonderful American artist.
Participation in artists’ discussions for any amount of time will eventually turn to talk of getting the colors all ‘muddy.’ Many courses claim to teach how to avoid making mud in their color mixing. Muddy is best described as the reaction felt when colors are observed as ‘yuck’ colors. The ‘yuck’ reaction happens when the color seen resembles no known color on earth, and not in a good way. In my experience, mud develops from over-mixing colors indiscriminately. One version of mud comes from not perceiving the difference between what are called ‘warm’ and ‘cool’ colors. Just teaching the eye that one distinction could fast-track a student to more radiant and consistent colors. It is then that they begin to clean up all those nondescript paintings they display to sell unsuspecting, well-intentioned, and potential art-loving owners who come with a prospect to buy.
Let’s talk about warm colors. What would you immediately designate as hot? Sunshine, fire, sun-lit grass, molten lava spewed by volcanoes, red peppers. Now you can find a whole group of them by name–they are the cadmium oranges and yellows, the fire engine reds and the neon greens. Color theory teaches that the warmth factor can change simply by who yellow sits next to on the bench. So if alizarin crimson, a cooler red, sat next to ultramarine blue, a cold blue, it would be warm by comparison. Complexity will grow on the foundation of the basics. Think, concentrate for now on what colors pull the object close up, painting with those colors that draw an object forward. They would be warm. Warm red is associated with hearts, love, and also anger.
Then imagine colors pushing a cloud or a mountain back into the distance, like blue and purple, and you have a cool color that helps the illusion of perspective and distance. These colors include blues and lavenders and blue-greens to push an object back. That is why mountains seen in the distance are blue, purple or lavender. Blues are synonyms for depression in some circles, but to me blues are peaceful and restful.
The emotive power of color in conjuring up a feeling or a taste on our tongue should not be discredited. You can memorize colors on tube labels, but that does not order them in terms of warmth. That doesn’t even tell you where or on which color scale it falls.
Back to the very beginning. Not many people know how many colors make up the set called primary. Or secondary. For that, it’s three guesses and the first two don’t count. There are three primary colors–red, blue, and yellow–on one color system, the one most of us use. But is every red primary? There are hundreds of them. Phthalocyanine blue has been re-marketed with an ‘RS’ and a ‘GS’ on the call number to further identify the blue as to the red side or to the green side. Visual images of colors are so important. Call a color by the name that conjures that color up to your mind’s eye, like orange sherbet, or raspberry, so you can navigate more easily among all the foreign oil colors with strange-sounding names, as I’ve mentioned in my eBook, Oil Painting Techniques Easy(ier). link
I personally use a primary palette and a secondary palette, the terms primary and secondary not directly related to the primary and secondary colors at all. On the primary palette are all the colors to the blue side, which would be a lemon yellow, yellow ochre, alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, veridian green, and some neutrals. Eventually experiential knowledge can be coordinated with book knowledge to ground you in the wonderful world of color.
• colors range from light to dark
• colors conjure up things like tangerine, pineapple, or raspberry
• there are warm and cool colors
• learn your primary, secondary, and complementary colors
• ‘read’ a color for its content, what other colors are in it (it’s a journey)
Once you begin to recognize what hidden colors you ‘see’ in another color, THEN you can begin to stretch your mix toward that color. This will give your color an unexpected excitement. Once you learn complementaries, you can begin to experiment by stretching those to new and exciting combos. Stretching your colors leads to a whole new room in your color house. As does devising your own color wheel.
Start with your own personal favorites and make a journal with samples of these colors. Soon you will be mixing up a storm, and your efforts will no doubt please the eye—and another eye as well as your own. Now you can begin to follow the Hansel and Gretel color trail home to easier and easy oil color recognition, mixing, using, and stretching. And you won’t let anyone talk you into shading every color with black or brown ever again (more in an advanced installment, later).