Thursday, February 13, 2014

Colors on the Palette

As I wrote about last month, I've been trying to revitalize my painting techniques.  One important aspect of that is the feel for color.  I haven't been happy with the way I select which colors go on the canvas - I've been too tentative and too literal, and that has carried over into the way the final painting is perceived.

So a while back, I got an instructional DVD from Robert Liberace.  His portraits had really struck me with their liveliness and energy and I wanted to see if I could pick up on that.  Liberace uses a much larger selection of tube colors than I do, and he uses the colors in very imaginative ways.  So I added some new colors to my palette, played with them in some small paintings to test the concept, and learned some new stuff.  But his colors and techniques are not something that I can fully follow.  Besides just being different artists, my color vision is not as sharp as his.  It's common for men to have some color perception difficulties, and I suffer from that.  You know those color tests where they show you a card with lots of colored dots, and you're supposed to see the number?  I've never passed that test.  But the funny thing is, I can mix up paint to match any of the colored dots.  My difficulty is in seeing differences in adjacent colors when they are the same light/dark value.  That's kinda important when you're a painter, particularly one who uses a wide spectrum of colors.  So while I learned a lot from Liberace's video, I will never be able to match his color sense.

A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a workshop with the painter Steve Huston.  He considers himself a tonalist painter and uses a more restricted palette of colors with many standard colors like ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, and burnt umber.  But where Liberace would pull in, say, violets and greens and rose, Huston relied more on controlling the light/dark values and only slightly adjusting the basic color.  It was a very different approach.  Both artists, though, have very lively brushwork, and both have very similar approaches to the initial block-in and early refinement stages of a painting.

This evening, a friend of mine posted a link to a blog post about Anders Zorn.  Zorn was a Swedish painter, a contemporary of John Singer Sargent, and painted in somewhat similar style.  What was really interesting is that Zorn primarily used an extremely limited palette of yellow ochre, cadmium red medium, ivory black, and white.  That's it.  Yes, he used some other colors, like cerulean blue, on occasion, but normally he just used those four.  Yellow ochre is a muted yellow, cadmium red medium is a strong but controllable red, and ivory black is a cool dark blue.  So all three primary colors are included, only with very muted versions.  I'm going to have to do some color charts using those colors and see how they turn out.  For a more in-depth discussion of the palette and how it works, see Michael Lynn Adams' blog post.

I thought I'd seen a similar palette before, and after a bit of looking, I found it.  Odd Nerdrum, the great Norwegian painter, gave a portrait demonstration in New York a couple of years ago, and he used yellow ochre, Chinese vermilion, Mars black, and titanium white.  It's almost the same as the Zorn palette.  Nerdrum's painting style is very different from Zorn's - it's more closely related to Rembrandt's - so the end result is very different, but it's interesting that two painters who are so damn good use such restricted choices of colors.  Nerdrum's demonstration is described in Matthew Innis' blog post and is well worth reading.

One other artist with a limited palette came to mind: Lucien Freud.  Looking at his paintings, you can see that he relied heavily on earth colors (yellow ocher, burnt umber, burnt sienna) with limited use of brighter colors.  I wasn't able to find a technical discussion of his actual color choices, though.

So my plan of action is to do some color charts using the Zorn/Nerdrum colors and then try some portrait studies.  I'm thinking that a restricted palette could be helpful to somebody who's color-vision-challenged like me. At the same time, the color techniques that I learned from Liberace would be good things to have in the back pocket to use when necessary.  And the only way to find out if all that is true?  Try it out!

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