Saturday, September 14, 2013

Working on my Color Sense

White Tutu
Oil on linen panel, 12"x9"

We did something a bit different at last week's life drawing session.  We had Whitney, one of my favorite models, sit for a single pose for the whole 2-hour session.  This was the result.  I think it turned out fairly okay.  One of the fun (and frustrating) things I did was to experiment with my use of color.

A while back, I bought a DVD demonstration of an alla prima portrait done by Robert Liberace.  I've been going through it, slowly, and learning quite a bit.  One of the things that I'm wrestling with right now is his use of color.  To say that it's far beyond mine is an understatement ... by comparison, he's building the Brooklyn Bridge while I'm playing with tinker toys.  Still, I can learn enough to make better things with my tinker toys.

Some background.  For many years, I stayed away from color.  I could never understand how you could mix this blue and that yellow and get a bright green, or a slightly different blue or yellow and get a very muted green.  It was just PFM (pure frickin' magic) to me.  Then, while I was taking night classes at Maryland Institute College of Art, I read "Blue and Yellow Don't Make Green", by Michael Wilcox.  It was a revelation.  For the first time, I understood why painter's colors act the way they do.  I could finally choose my colors deliberately in order to get strong or muted effects.  It was great.  I highly recommend the book.  Ever since, I've had a pretty standard palette: three blues, two reds, two yellows, three earth tones, and white.  (Okay, for you painters: ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, cerulean blue, cadmium red light, alizarin crimson permanent, cadmium yellow light, lemon yellow, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, and burnt umber).  It's a pretty versatile, one-size-fits-all selection.

Except it doesn't quite fit all.  There are times when I've needed stronger tints, or don't want to keep mixing up a particular color, or just need some more variety, so I've gradually built up a secondary selection of colors over the years.  They've helped on the occasional painting, but they've never had a starring role on my palette.

But while watching Liberace, I saw that he uses lots of colors that I've never (or rarely) touched: magentas, violets, greens, rose, and purples.  He uses them instinctively, mixing in a magenta for a cooler red, or violet for a warmer blue.  Drives me nuts.  I don't see the subtle color shifts on the model, but on the painting, it makes perfect sense.  At least, it does after the fact.  No way would I have seen that particular combination coming.

I know that my color perception is deficient.  Back when I was taking my physical in order to go into the Navy, they gave me the PIP color tests - you know, the ones where they show you a circle made up of all these colored dots, and you're supposed to see the number.  Except I never did.  I still can't.  I found a short version online tonight and proved once again that I just don't see the numbers.  The funny thing is, I can see all the different colors and could probably mix up some paint to match any one of them, but I can't see the overall number pattern to save my soul.

Nothing like a color-blind painter, huh?

So I'm probably starting from behind the 8-ball.  Oh, well, that's life.  That doesn't mean that I don't see color - I see lots of color, and the more I paint, the more colors I'm aware of.  And I don't get a whole lot of criticism about my color choices, so they must not be too far off the mark.

I decided to look at how some other painters use color.  Lucian Freud, one of the greatest recent figurative painters, used a very limited palette - apparently earth tones (yellow ochre, raw and burnt sienna) plus a tiny bit of ultramarine blue and a lot of Cremnitz white.  Another of my favorites, Peter Howson, had a palette that was all over the place but consistent within each painting.  By that, I mean that the paint scheme in one work (as well as how the paint was applied) would be completely different in another.  However, his color use in general was much broader than Freud's but still not as far out as Liberace's.  I recently got a great book on El Greco, but he was on a different planet with his colors.  And subject matter.  And pretty much everything else.

So.  All that being said, I've got a lot to learn to take my use of color to the next level.  And despite my apparent "color deficiency" according to the eye tests, I think I have the capability to do a lot better.  So I'm going to continue to work on it.  This sounds like something I'll be working on for the rest of my life.

Sounds like the life of an artist.


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