An illustrated tome on the history of colour theory that also follows the development of printing is my kind of coffee-table book! I’ve been reading Colour: A Visual History, published by the Tate gallery, in what I think of as “National Geographic reading”: first you look at the images, then you read the captions, and then you start absorbing the text. (Buy book , affiliate link)
The American edition is published by the Smithsonian and has a longer, mouthful of a title: Color: A Visual History from Newton to Modern Color Matching Guides.
It’s packed with reproductions of colour charts and theories, with well-written, accessible explanations of the who, what, when of each.
I’ve stared at this music-colour chart for ages, with do-re-me running through my head. Here’s the contents list:
“A day spent painting or drawing en plein air is an all-encompassing experience of fluctuating light, weather and comfort levels. These conditions, along with an intense focus, result in work that tracks a dialogue between observation, memory and abstract mark making. Mark making is key — the ability to describe both emotional intent and observation in one mark.”
“All that fabulous perspective so let’s make it a bit more difficult by doing it with (almost) continous line,” laughed Cathi when she told me about her painting of this month’s project. “My painting totally supports the theory that you don’t need to be completely accurate to get a feel for the place.”
Cathi continued: “I lost count of the doors and windows, and drew a line at including all the cars! Superb fun doing it. Not sure whether to add a suggestion of the colours in the buildings or not. Think I probably will add just a hint of colour.“
My response was that I love how it poetically captures the feeling of the location, pulling my eye along the dance of doors and windows up and around. Poetry in line. And at no point does it make me feel like I want to count the doors and windows to check it against reality; it feels right.
Whether it wants a touch of colour or not is is tricky decision, because it’s beautiful as it is, yet the colour is so part of this location that how can one not? Maybe use watercolour, then you could lift or lighten the colour easily (except for staining pigments).
Cathi decided she would add colour, sending me a new photo saying: “The sketch paper I used grabs the colour, unforgiving, but for a sketch I like it.”
The next day Cathi sent me another photo, as she’d decided to “make the greens darker so the houses pop out more.”
I think it works really well. I also like the negative space of the sky and sea, the former being delineated by a near-constant line, the latter broken up by that dancing line that tells us there’s water in the foreground. It’s also inspired me and made me wonder why I haven’t tackled this with continuous line yet. Thanks Cathi!
“With the development of landscape painting, there came new ways of seeing. Instead of always painting from the back to the front (such as sky, mountains, and then trees) the artist began to see that many times the backlight popping through and around an object forms the object.” Stephen Quiller, “Color Choices”, p111
Perhaps the easiest example of this is painting blue dashes of sky over the greens of tree leaves, rather than leaving gaps between leaves to let blue from a background show through.
It’s been a joy seeing what paintings have come from August’s tall trees photo, and hearing from people how one painting has sparked another. There’s a reason artists such as Monet and Van Gogh painted series! Scroll down and enjoy!
My thanks to everyone who’s shared their paintings for us all to enjoy and learn from. You’ll find a list of all the projects here. It’s never to late to do any of these, and if you email me a photo of your painting it will join whatever the next photo gallery is.
One of my reasons for selecting Portree harbour as the subject for September’s monthly painting project was to get me past the point of merely thinking about painting it and to give it a go, all that perspective in the buildings or not. The video below is of my very first attempt at this subject.
I regard it more as an exploratory study than an resolved painting, there are bits that I like and bits I don’t. Most of all it’s a painting that has got me past my fear of the subject, made me study the scene, and motivated me to try again.
I have since changed the building that shouldn’t have been pink to yellow using acrylic paint, but otherwise am not going to ‘fix’ this painting. Its job is to help me create other, future paintings. I think there’s too much black on the hillside, and some of the ink work is too messy rather than linear. My favourite bit is the water, and that I did it at all.
The non-photo blue pencil I started theoretically is easy to eliminate from photos; I like it for its soft colour that gives me a round of sketching before I get to graphite. I used a propelling pencil with 2B because it means I don’t have to stop to sharpen a pencil.
I’ve moved to the advert-free Vimeo for my videos. You can follow my channel here.
“… there is nothing stopping you from giving your [paints] new names to suit your own outlook. And doing so may not only shift how you see them, it may change how you use them, and in effect how you see the rest of the colors around you when you take the time to pause, observe, and consider.”
The names Undersea Green, Moonglow, Shadow Violet, Lunar Black, Sleeping Beauty are poetical, generating a smile and evoking my imagination as I reach to dip my brush into them (and all actual watercolour colours by Daniel Smith).
I have mental images rather than words for some of my standard colours: cobalt blue is the colour of a snow shower on the sea, Prussian blue is a heavy rain shower, cadmium and lemon yellow are daffodil (separate but always together).
This month I’ve chosen a subject that’s got bright colour and lots of architecture, the harbour in Portree. It’s a wide scene with a lot going on: buildings, boats, sea, shore, trees, a bit of reflected colour in the sea. I took the photo from the roadside on the other side of the bay, which looks down at the scene; the distant view is hidden by cloud.
The building with a point at the back is a church, as you probably suspected. The long brown building in front of this to the left is the Skye Gathering Hall. The left-most section of the pier is full of the less aesthetic elements of a working seafront such as fuel storage, which I’d probably leave out.
You could look at all this detail and start panicking about getting it all right, or you could relax and think that with all this variation in real life, some more variation in your painting or drawing will fit just fine. For me it’s foremost about getting the feel of the location, the poetry of the place, not about accurate perspective, which we can all do if we spend enough time learning and practising.
Emotion first, analytical second. Have a go, then compare and analyse, then go over it, perhaps with another medium, or have another attempt. Remove the unrealistic expectation of getting it all ‘right’ the first time, and instead treat it as a painting in which things may move or be repositioned as it develops.
When you’re looking at the row of colourful buildings, notice that:
The green building’s roof windows have flat tops rather than pointed and the central one isn’t aligned with the windows on the floor below.
The right-most blue/yellow building has roof windows that have tile below them and there are two shades of yellow/orange.
The left-most pink building has two roof windows but three windows on the floor below, as does the white building next to it.
The left-most white building has a gable end and chimney over the two central windows.
Some windows are single, others are double.
Some buildings have chimneys, others don’t.
The first decision is how much to include, and how much to leave out. Part of that decision lies in the format of your composition, whether it’s landscape, portrait, square. For me if you’re going to include the whole row of buildings, then landscape. I’d crop off the buildings on the right and the left.
You might decide to focus on a small part of this scene. After I painted the whole scene, I found myself entranced by the chimneys on the right hand side. This became the subject of my second painting:
As always, medium, size and format are up to you. I look forward to seeing what this inspires. If you’ve done a painting in response to a project, whether the current month or any earlier one (see list of painting projects), do email me a photo to put in the photo gallery so we can all enjoy it. Happy painting!
Studio cat Ghost enjoyed helping me with my first attempt at painting this. He also features in the video of this painting (which I will post later this week) and the one of my doing composition thumbnails (which will be available to project subscribers).
Take the pressure off yourself by regarding every painting (or, perhaps more realistically, most paintings) as part of the journey to mastering painting rather than every single piece having to be a completed journey by itself.
It’s not failure to stop working on a painting or drawing. It’s like setting out on a walk and then turning back when it starts pouring with rain rather than the hoped-for light showers; you just didn’t do it that day.
“I can see how experimenting and letting go of the outcome can increase the joy of painting but how does that square with the desire to improve continually and do your best work? Does one just have to trust that experimenting will lead to better results in time? ” — Eddie
My short answer is “yes”.
My longer answer starts with seeing the journey as circuitous and tangential not linear, much as it would be easier if it were.
Being open to trying new things, materials, subjects, approaches simply to see what happens, to see where it may lead you. Taking the bits you find interesting and intriguing further on the journey (not necessarily the same as the bits you like or others regard as successful) whilst shrugging off what turned out to be hideous, discarding that which was unenjoyable. Always remembering, some things may be a matter of wrong place, wrong time; it’s not necessarily a never again situation. Then mixing the new with the existing, the familiar and the favourites.
Happy accidents become familiar by deliberately trying to repeat the result. Even with not entirely controllable techniques predictability increases with repetition as you acquire knowledge of the range of possible results, and how you might respond to these.
Spending time looking at what you’ve done, pinpointing what you like and don’t, what you might try again and won’t, is part of the journey. Don’t throw things out too soon, in the emotion of the moment. Do it dispassionately at a later date.
It should be like pure science, research to see what happens and to learn, driven by curiosty, rather than applied science, driven by a desired outcome. Intertwined but with different approaches, hopes and expectations, for different times and projects.
Paint, play, ponder, paint, that’s my path.
In an interview I read earlier today, author Susan Steinberg describes her writing process in a way that I think fits painting and drawing too, of it emerging not coming out fully formed first time:
“There are several writers who have told me that they assume that when I sit down to write, that I write a sentence and then I don’t move on until that sentence is perfect. And then I write the next sentence and that’s how I write. And when they find out that that I make the biggest mess you can imagine. I just write and write and it doesn’t always make sense and I go really far out there and then pull back and start to pare it down.” (source: Susan Steinberg on the Value of Writing an Ugly Draft by Diane Cook, Literary Hub, 23 August 2019)