Learning about Color

My first experience in learning anything at all about color was in making color charts at the American Academy of Art. I was pretty bummed at the time and wanted to just move ahead to painting, but looking back now, it was a perfect introduction. In mixing up charts we learned about how paint handles, what happens when one color interacts with another, and how value is related to chroma. After this, we went on to painting monotone samples for a while, then with limited palettes, and finally full color, usually assignments ranging from still life painting, illustration, and figure painting. We always used gouache to paint, with the exception of specialized classes like oil painting or watercolor where we always painted from the model.

However, the real break through for me came from constant practice during my years as a background painter of environments and color scripts at Calabash Animation in Chicago combined with observational painting in my home studio and the Palette and Chisel Art League where Richard Schmid painted.

For my background painting job, there were usually 7-12 imaginary landscapes and interior paintings per commercial that I had to plan out and paint. Because of the fine art curriculum I took in art school, we rarely worked from imagination. My only guess then as to how to make convincing paintings with no reference was to apply the principles I learned about in Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting, which I kept at my desk and referred to constantly. This forced upon me a need to truly understand the concepts of atmospheric perspective, the way color behaves while in a landscape, and other principles of lighting that cause changes on local color of objects. By working backwards, studying light and atmospheric perspective, I could then put those principles into practice on an imaginary stylized landscape.

 A Lucky Charms commercial pan background I painted in gouache on illustration board, approximately 3 ft. x 14" wide, around 1994

 However, just working from what I learned in Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting was not enough. I also pored through books of other artists' work, studying paintings very, very closely. If I had no ideas on color schemes for seemingly mundane things like pavement or boring interior walls, I'd look at how Disney background painters were handling these subjects - usually with interesting lighting, chroma and contrast and learned how lighting and color can be an important compositional element in directing the eye. I combed through book stores and the library to find painters who were working from imagination; I practically memorized every inch of James Gurney's Dinotopia book for examples of great color. 

"Lillies", 11x14, gouache on paper, 1992

But working from imagination alone, I believe, is not effective unless an artist works also from life. One tends to inform the other. During my years in Chicago, I regularly painted the still life, figures and portraits from life over at the Palette and Chisel, which helped me to develop a sense of how to mix paint, see color, simplify it, and apply it on canvas. I learned from Richard Schmid the principle of "cool light warm shadows, warm light cool shadows", something entirely new to me at the time. It was there that I learned how critical value relationships are to color, and how important it is to keep your color clean. Interestingly, I also learned from painting the figure and still life how it seems the majority of colors in any given subject seem to be more greyed down that I usually think at first, and how few really true high chroma colors are usually present.

Later on, when I needed to switch to painting in Photoshop at work, the Munsell Color System in the program gave me a way to visualize how connected the relationships are between hue, chroma, and value. 

After having these experiences, I believe that learning about color is not simply the study of one component like a color wheel or color charts. I believe it has to be a combination of methods plus a relentless pursuit in training your mind to see and translate color accurately. I am still learning and sharpening my color and values sense, and hope that by making another concerted push now in my life I might break through a plateau I've been experiencing the past few years. By documenting my experiences and writing down what I know plus reading new research and methods while also painting from life, I hope to make some improvements.


Learning to Mix Color

Color mixing is one skill in a set of skills that an artist needs to develop for painting in color.

As stated earlier, the first time I ever mixed color was my first year in art school where we mixed color charts. Later, I made much more extensive charts on a recommendation that Richard Schmid made during a lecture at the Palette and Chisel. When he eventually wrote his book, Alla Prima, he included the exact same advice where you can find it to make your own charts. 

The purpose of making color charts is not so that you have "recipes" for mixing color. These charts are not meant to be short cuts, recipes or formulas for color.  At the time I made these I did not know what each oil color did when combined with another in the palette I was using. When I had problems remembering what, for instance, cadmium yellow deep did when combined with terra rosa, looking at these charts helped guide me. When I needed to figure out what color I was looking at in a still life, if I referred to these charts, it helped my eye understand what it was seeing in terms of chroma and value - usually I would mix that color up and go from there by adding a bit of a third. 



Going through the process of mixing colors for charts like this is important in learning many useful things about how to handle paint, how to physically mix it, apply it, manipulate it into values, observe what happens to it's temperature, and notice how important it is to keep it clean. Making charts like this is also useful when you add a new color to your base palette or for experimenting with a set of colors to find how it reacts with other colors in your palette. 


Learning to Identify Color

Sometimes while I was first learning to paint, I used a small piece of white paper with holes punched in it. I would look through this piece of paper when I was stuck, aligning it with the color I was trying to identify. Very often I was surprised at what I found - a color that was either more grey, less saturated, and not at all what I thought it was. Often, I would mix up what I was seeing through the hole and put a small swatch up on the white piece of paper. I would keep doing this until I got the correct color.

To help visualize what I mean, I made up an example from a recent photograph I took. Although the water is somewhat greenish blue, it can be very difficult to identify specifically. Here, by calling out swatches, you can see just how green the water is and what it's value is. Our minds might tell us that the mountains in the distance covered with pine trees must be green, also, however by calling out the swatch, we can see that the hills are not green, but greyed blues.  

Screen shot 2012-08-14 at 3.36.17 PM
Since I was using Photoshop to make this example, I placed the color wheel there too so you can see where the green of the water is placed within that particular hue.

Isolating colors using a white card punched with a hole puncher can help break down the symbols of what our mind "thinks" it sees into what is actually there. Over time, this simple tool helped me to discover just how saturated or non-saturated a color might be. 


Tools to Understand Color

After sifting through multiple websites, I finally found two excellent sites that explain color and how an artist uses it. Just about everything an artist needs to know about the physical properties of color and light can be found on these two sites.

Other tools that help visualize and explain how color works are demonstrated in chart form.  It is widely agreed within the realist painting community that the Munsell Color System is perhaps the most accurate way of understanding color and identifying it in context with other colors. The system identifies three terms: hue, chroma and value.

value: the black and white scale, brightness, how dark or light a subject is

the local color of the subject 

chroma: the degree of saturation or greyness of that local color

Another useful visualization of the Munsell Color System is the way that the program Adobe Photoshop represents it. Photoshop has an excellent color picker that brings up a color wheel. However, I prefer to use an enhanced extension called Magic Picker, an excellent color wheel for Photoshop used by many professional digital artists. If you have a copy of Photoshop, open up the program and experiment with painting swatches using the color wheel. Playing around with the sliders and adjusters really helped me see how color works using this system. This is the same chart depicted above, but represented differently.

Screen shot 2012-08-14 at 3.26.40 PM

Adobe published a technical guide regarding the Munsell Color System. You can find it HERE.

For further reading on the color wheel, read James Gurney's "The Color Wheel" series, Parts 1-7 on his blog, Gurneyjourney.blogspot.com. Gurney has a different but related approach culminating from his years of research on the color wheel. Excellent information, worth the read, including the comments.

Artist Graydon Parrish teaches a three week workshop in using the Munsell Color System at the Grand Central Art Academy in New York City each summer. The usefulness of learning the Munsell Color System is that it can help any artist identify any color, and use that color to depict anything he or she wishes. It is complex to understand at first, which requires some study and practice. I hope Graydon continues to teach - his classes are on the top of my list to attend!

Here is how Parrish describes the way he determines color in his paintings:

"What distinguishes my system is that I make strings of single chromas combined with single hues. I analyze what I am going to paint, find its notation, then mix up strings to cover the range. Reilly's method used cadmiums, way out of flesh range. A string of cad orange brought down with burnt umber/alizarin crimson shifts not only in value, but in hue and chroma as well, making it hard to predict. Reilly too recommended the addition of neutral greys to kill the chroma, but this causes the hues to shift as well. This is something Reilly never mentioned.

The above is just the beginning. One can analyze, then translate so many effects of nature into paint. I have a photo of a Bouguereau drawing where he had written the various colors of his model: green-grey, yellow-grey, rose-grey etc. With Munsell, the notations can be much closer. No more vague terms. (How much grey, for example, is in green-grey?) Its better to say 7.5 YR 6/3 or 7.5 R 5/4, for the average flesh and the ruddies. Then with mixing and planning, one can create an entire palette of Bouguereau flesh, for every change in value, and predict the rise and fall of chroma.

Likewise, Paris Hilton, could be studied and painted as well in all of her sun-tanned splendor. She is likely a chroma 5. When you then know where the chroma rises and where it falls, why some colors pull yellow in the lights and others don't, and how various transparent objects are more chromatic on the edges, then you have the beginning of an entire repertoire of visual phenomena from which to create." - quoted from the wetcanvas.com forums, HERE.


How Color Behaves in it's Environment

In addition to studying the Munsell system, learning how to mix and identify color, it is critical to also understand the principles of light and how color is affected by it. Matching color in any given subject is an important skill in developing the eye to see color correctly and helps to determine your palette and pigment choices. However, also understanding the reasons that make color appear a certain way in a particular situation is equally as important.

The very best books I can recommend are:

 Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting

 Andrew Loomis, Creative Illustration

James Gurney, Color and Light

Richard Schmid, Alla Prima

Here is a summary of some important points I learned from these books about how light and color work together:
  • cool light produces warm shadows; warm light produces cool shadows. (Alla Prima)
  • the most saturated color in a particular area is at the transition between the light side and the dark shadow and also at edges of objects. (Color and Light)
  • Values in a landscape are often as depicted below, the source of the light, the sky, most often (even at night) being the lightest value in the landscape, the ground plane the second, slanting planes third, and upright planes usually the darkest. (Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting)
  • Value is the most important factor in a painting, with hue and chroma coming next. If values are correct, hue and chroma will still be able to read. (Color and Light)
  • a color will alter it's appearance depending upon the context of that color in the light or if other colors around it change. (Alla Prima, Color and Light)
  • the limitations of pigments prevent us from depicting the wide range of luminosity in the world around us, so we must make adjustments in order to get across an approximation of what we see. (Alla Prima, Color and Light)

page 34, Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting by John F. Carlson

In "Creative Illustration" by Andrew Loomis, he dedicates a chapter entirely to the great Howard Pyle. Loomis included this chapter in order to pass on directly, in print, information that was taken in note form during classes taught by Pyle regarding his general theory regarding light and color.

"All objects of nature are made visible to the sight by the light and of the sun shining upon them. The result is that by means of this we see the colors and textures of the various objects of nature.
From this it may be seen that color and texture are the property of light and that they do not enter the property of the shadow. For shadow is darkness and in the darkness there is neither form nor color.
Hence form and color belong distinctly to light. Shadow - as the object illuminated by the sun is more or less opaque, so when the light of the sun in obscured by that object, the shadow which results is more or less black and opaque, being illuminated only by the light reflected into it by surrounding objects.
By virtue of shadow all objects of nature assume form or shape, for if there were no shadow all would be a flat glare of light, color and texture...But when the shadow appears, the object takes form and shape.
If the edges of an object are rounded, then the edges of the shadow become softened; if the edges of an object are sharp, then the shadows is correspondingly acure. So, by means of the softness or sharpness of the solid object, is made manifest. 
Hence, it would follow that the province of shadow is to produce form and shape, and that in itself it possesses no power of conveying an impression of color or texture."
-Howard Pyle, as quoted by Andrew Loomis, Creative Illustration, pg. 136


A Plein Air Summer, Going with the Flow

This summer I left my job at games company Zynga so that I could accept a new job as Art Lead at Disney Interactive/Playdom, a position I am very excited about. In between jobs I had a month off, time I sorely needed and, of course, I used that time to paint. 

Jamie and I had tickets to attend an event called "Outstanding in the Field", a traveling chef tour that was hosting a dinner at Farm Fresh to You in Capay Valley. We booked the whole weekend with the idea of wandering around the valley sketching idyllic rolling hills and farm country. 

Tragedy struck on the first morning of the first day when we witnessed a terrible murder of a cute baby faun by a Labrador retriever. After seeing such a beautiful little creature murdered by the neighboring farm's family dog, I really didn't feel inspired to sketch the landscape. Since we still had three days and our fancy chef dinner wasn't until the last night, we wandered around the valley looking around for sketching spots. Somehow, nerves-of-steel-Jamie was able to concentrate, but my mind was completely shattered. Finally on the morning of the third day I asked Jamie to find a spot he liked. I resolved that what ever it was, I would force myself to paint - no matter how I felt. He had been eying some old trucks by the side of the road, so that's where we set up.

"Old Truck", 8x12, pastel on toned paper

What a challenge...I found the first  hour was the most difficult. Maybe because I'm not an old-rusty-truck artist, I found the subject sort of interesting and different. That was enough to suck me into it, trying to find the correct placement of angles and figuring out the lighting and color shifts. Eventually my mind started to float away from those images of violence and into another world, flow

Later that night we went to the Capay Farm dinner that was hosted by the "Outstanding In the Field" group. We listened to a great lecture by the owners of the farm and also by the people who run the chef tour about supporting organic farms. It was pretty great and so different from anything we've ever done. 

The entire time we were at this event, I was salivating over the GORGEOUS light all around us - and these photos certainly do not do it justice. I wanted to freeze frame so many moments and paint them! Alas, those images are locked in my private data base for future inspiration.

The very next week Jamie was working in LA. I flew down to Santa Monica the following weekend, where Jamie and I spent our entire Saturday and Sunday exploring the beach and sketching.

and also some time relaxing in the sun!

Although I tried both days to paint the Santa Monica boardwalk, I was not successful in capturing what I saw. The light was shifting so quickly, almost moment by moment! Trying to figure out what to focus on was my biggest concern. I really love touristy sites with all their bits of busy color and activity. I would love to come back and do an entire series of sketches of this subject and other lighting conditions I observed on the beach.

After that experience, I realized what I needed to do mentally and physically during this rare month off from work - I needed to focus and get some paintings done. When I think back on it now, I have not had a month off since I was 20 years old in college. Since then, I've worked full time every single day with just a few weeks off for vacations here and there. I've never had time to explore a particular subject or a concept in a series or do very large works - something I am itching to do. A month off from work certainly is not a lot in the big scheme of things, and at the same time, incredibly precious to me. 

With that in mind, I decided to rent a hotel room up at Lake Tahoe by myself. All I brought with me were my backpack, Terry Ludwig pastel box, paper to draw on, my horrifying paint box and too-heavy tripod, my camp chair, painting umbrella, a book on John Muir meditations, flip flops, bug spray, hygiene necessities, my iphone, and some painting clothes. 

"Lake Donner Sketch", 8x10, pastel on toned paper

Actually, I forgot to mention my family was visiting too, staying at a rented house in Truckee. I really didn't paint during that time. Instead, we did all sorts of cool things like kayaking, hiking, hanging out, and watched the Olympics. The only sketch I did do during my family's visit was this one, above, about 1 hour.

Ok, so I was a total loner AFTER my family left. I rented a cheap hotel room in Tahoe City, with the goal of completing one painting per day. That's right, only one painted sketch per day. Although I can if I have to, I am not crazy about fast sketching. I like to find a spot I love and spend a full 4-5 hours to record what I see. My goal here was to really get in there and study the light, get everything working together rather than an abbreviated sketch. Too much of my life already consists of half completed thoughts and quick sketching; I simply had the urge to complete full thoughts and go at a slower pace.

"Tahoe Vista", 10x12, pastel on toned paper

What attracted me visually about the coast of Lake Tahoe was the surprising juxtaposition of the earthy palette of the mountains and lake against the extreme saturation of summer time water sports, outdoor cafes, and boats. Again, I found myself gravitating toward touristy sites full of tiny bits of saturated color.

After painting a few busy spots, I ended up at the AMAZING Sand Harbor. Everything about the place was so incredibly beautiful that I ended up coming back for several days, completely floored by the color of the water, the rocks, the sand, kayacks, and stand up paddling, while also impressed by the cafeteria, well maintained public bathrooms, food stands that served fish tacos and pomegranate margaritas, AND an outdoor theater that performed Shakespeare plays nightly!!!

This beautiful rock formation was littered with kayaks, boats and swimmers when I began the sketch, but after a mid-afternoon nap I woke to find everyone had left. I like the solitude of the rocks and the amazing blue-green hue of the water at this beach just as much with the swimmers as without.

"Sand Harbor Rocks", 8x10, pastel on toned paper

  A little about my plein air set up: it is ridiculous. 

I am never that comfortable standing and painting, and even sitting on a camp chair and painting. After trying lots of variations, I finally found that if I attached my umbrella to my camp chair, placed my purse on it as a weight and then used my backpack as a cushion to sit on and propped my pastels on my paint box, I was magically able to concentrate more deeply. Finicky, I know...  

"Sand Harbor", 8x10, pastel on toned paper

After having such a nice time at Sand Harbor, I searched around for subjects that contained no evidence of human activity, especially given that I had just experienced several days of people peeking over my shoulder and asking me questions about what I was doing and why. I finally found a seemingly perfect spot along the rocky shore line that I had to climb down pretty far with my set up. At 8:00 in the morning I had no way of predicting that by noon a steady stream of people would be climbing down the rocks right in front of me trying to get to the water all day. But as anyone who paints outside knows, there is always a surprise or some difficulty and you just have to go with it.

"Tahoe Shoreline Overlook", 8x12, pastel on toned paper

Fortunately there were moments of uninterrupted solitude at other locations.

"Lake Tahoe Shore", 8x10, pastel on toned paper

"Vikingsholm, Lake Tahoe", 8x10, pastel on toned paper
 After a week of bliss painting and long walks at night thinking about all of the future paintings I would like to do, I returned to San Francisco and the endless summer fog. Not feeling super inspired to paint city scenes, I spent a little time in the DeYoung looking around, trying to regroup. I found this great little painting tucked away in a quiet corner of the museum by Jefferson David Chalfant (1865-1931), entitled "Bouguereau's Atelier at the Academie Julian, Paris, 1891".

Jefferson David Chalfant (1865-1931), entitled "Bouguereau's Atelier at the Academie Julian, Paris, 1891"

I also went outside the museum and looked at some fantastic sculptures by Melvin Earl Cummings, whose sculptures appear all over San Francisco. Oddly, all of these particular sculptures are in cages. I am unsure of what the reason is for putting these in cages. It is unfortunate since the sculptures are well executed, although a bit...odd, children wrestling giant rabbits, lions fighting with goats, and dogs attacking a kangaroo.

Despite the cage, I tried to sketch "Greyhounds and Kangaroo". I am certain I did not capture the gesture well; to me this looks a bit jumbled. My only defense is that the subject matter brought back vivid memories of the violence we saw a few weeks earlier in Capay Valley.

"Greyhounds and Kangaroo sculpture by E.M. Cummings, Golden Gate Park", 8x10, pastel on toned paper

While I sketched, I thought about this subject Cummings chose to explore - animals fighting, one being at a clear disadvantage. I also thought about a Richard Dawkins essay I read earlier in the year regarding deeper aspects within the theory of evolution and survival of the fittest. 

 Apparently, survival of the fittest does not necessarily mean the strongest vs. the weakest, although that dynamic does play a part. Survival of the fittest also means the advantage of being flexible, of being a species that can "go with the flow", absorb and adapt. I think that concept can also apply to painting. Painting is hard. It takes a lot of practice, a lot of time, investment in education, money to buy supplies, and hard work. It is difficult to get all of those things working together and can be frustrating and easy to internalize, creating a mind environment of "I am not talented". I believe the true key to what we regard as "talent" is really quality education. This for many reasons is difficult to access, and when accessed requires a lot of time to practice. However, it is during those moments of doubt that I need to remember: I am doing as much as I can possibly do! take a deep breath, and go with the flow! 

And go with the flow I did. It's been a few years since I've plein air painted in oils, finding it frustrating and not really getting good results. Even so, I decided, what the heck, I've got some time, why not try again? I headed over to the Conservatory of Flowers on a very cold and foggy day to paint this building I've been intrigued by for a long time.

NOTE: I do not at all recommend using a hand held palette on top of your plein air box, unless you are finicky about your set up like me. I like the hand held palette because I have access to the entire surface as opposed to a palette that is set inside a box. Open Box M has a shallower palette surface, so I plan to purchase one soon. 

It took me an entire day to figure out the color range of the building and contemplate the drawing challenges involved in this building. When I recently took a perspective class taught by Carl Dobsky, he mentioned that he would do a field sketch of a subject and then recreate the perspective in the studio before doing a larger more formal painting. I had that in mind when I was painting this, so I tried my best to get an impression of what I observed, painting only the most important information and not worrying too much about correct perspective - which is difficult to freehand on a subject like this.


"The Conservatory of Flowers, Golden Gate Park", 8x10, oil on panel

Although this is my first study of this fascinating building and great lighting conditions, I plan to paint some more studies from different vantage points and explore some larger compositions. I hope to take this to the next level by creating a large painting using the method of perspective recreation that Carl Dobsky taught us in class.

"Aboriginal Art is described as a method for gaining knowledge of Nature and it's invisible dreaming".

Painting in Golden Gate Park in the foggy and cold summer is always interesting more for the people within the park than anything else. While I painted the conservatory, a man set up about 50 feet away from me and began playing a didgeridoo, an incredible Aboriginal instrument from Australia. How amazing it was to paint while I listened to this incredible sound!  

I also tried at least twice to paint the fantastic Dahlia Garden and failed miserably, I still felt ok. 
I did not group together my lights and darks cohesively and instead created a complicated light pattern that does not read well enough.
Jamie painting along side with me in the Dahlia Garden. :)  

But what the heck. On this day I just went with the flow. I wish I could have a couple of years just to paint, but I'll take what I can get and feel fortunate that I had enough time this summer to inspire me over the coming year. This year, I plan to streamline my plein air paint kit, expand my pastels, work with higher quality oil pigments (which I will talk about later), and get out there on the weekends to paint!  

I'm also continuing the "Advanced Open Studio" series of workshops on Sundays with Sadie Valeri, where I am learning the Flemish Technique. My next blog post will be a continuation, covering my color block in. Please stay tuned!

The most astounding fact, ever: