“By adding two primaries together we end up with the secondary colours: red and blue make purple, blue and yellow make green, yellow and red create orange. The addition of more colours creates tertiary colours, but every time more colours are added, the purity of colour drops until eventually we end up with browns and greys.“
David Coles, “Chromatopia”, page 1
I added the bold to the quote. Purity isn’t a word I use when thinking about colour mixing, but it is key.
Keeping the number of pigments in a mixed colour to the minimum. keeps the result further away from an unintentional murky mess. This includes ‘hidden’ pigments in tube colours that are a mixture, such as an orange that is a red and yellow mix rather than a single orange pigment. The name won’t tell you; it’s in the small print on the side of the tube label or a manufacturer’s colour chart (and on the product info of some art materials shop websites).
For instance, looking at Golden Heavy Body Acrylics, the Cobalt Teal might be the colour you’re after but when you look at the price you realise it’s a Series 7 colour, gulp, so you might decide to go with the Teal instead or perhaps the Light Turquoise (Phthalo), because they’re fairly close in colour . But whereas Cobalt Teal contains contains only PG50 (a green pigment), these contain PW6, PB15:4, PG7 (white, blue and green) and PB15:4, PW6, PG7 respectively (blue, white, green).
Mixed tube colours aren’t inferior, they’re just mixtures. This becomes relevant when you’re then mixing colours using these as you’re mixing with mixtures and so have more ingredients (pigments) than you might realise. Knowing what’s in the tube when you’re colour mixing is one of the keys to not inadvertently end up at greys and browns.
In teaching creativity, I often have to remind students to play, or at least give them the permission to do so. This is why I ask students to make 100 sketches on one idea. This process forces them to plow through all of the logical, usual answers to get to the good stuff. It frees them up to make mistakes … helps students become adept at generating ideas faster and unlocks a wealth of possibilities. … New and innovative work comes from the unexpected places, not the “right” answer, and it’s our childlike sense of wonder, curiosity, and play that makes it possible.
Stop worrying about ‘wasting’ your art supplies by doing lots of painting without intending for it to be a perfect piece, doing it merely to see where it takes you. Art supplies are not helping your painting develop if they’re sitting on the shelf being saved for a special painting. Be generous towards yourself. Those paints we bought two, three, five, 10 years ago? Time we used them. Sure, replacing them will be more expensive than when you bought them, but hoarding them doesn’t benefit your creativity. Paint with them, play with them, mix and explore to see which colours you enjoy the most. Replace your favourites.
Got a colour you no longer use? It might be a friend’s favourite. Swap it for something. The colours no-one wants, mix them all together and spend some time playing in the colour world of browns and greys.
A quick and easy way to plan a composition is to draw a thumbnail of your idea. By thumbnail I mean a small drawing, simplified to the main shapes and elements that you’re thinking of including in the painting. I tend to draw thumbnails in pencil or pen, using line, as it’s fast and I don’t have to wait for anything to dry. You might prefer do it with shapes of tone, or using paint or ink. It’s a personal preference.
In the video below (link) I’ve done three thumbnails, one each as portrait, landscape, and square format, to give you an idea of how I’d draw a thumbnail. I’m certainly not going to win any prizes for the drawings, but for me it’s about thinking of the position of the face and ears in the overall composition, how much space there is around them. Studio cat Misty is helping.
For me there are three rules: 1. Work fast, don’t overthink it and don’t obsess about neatness. 2. Do more than you think are enough. I sometimes draw a page’s worth of rectangles in various formats (landscape, portrait, square), then challenge myself to fill them all. It’s surprising what can emerge if you keep going, and the ones you don’t use immediately can provide ideas for paintings at a later date or for a series. Often I do use my first idea, but by testing it against others I know that it’s a choice made from preference not from a lack of ideas. 3. If you don’t do thumbnails, be prepared to rework your composition as you’re painting, possibly multiple times.
Here are some other examples of thumbnails from my sketchbook:
“When teaching the creative process, it’s important to stress that the process is ongoing … Students often think once they have completed … it’s time to toss it to the side and move on to the next.
“Instead … the process is cyclical as it continues by thinking about how we will apply what we have learned from the previous artwork to the planning and creating of our next artwork. … the steps are not linear
“… sketching is only one way to plan. Artists plan by sketching, documenting, collecting, researching, thinking, journaling, listening, experimenting, and so on.”
I don’t sit in front of my paintings and write notes about every millimetre, every brushstroke, every hard or soft edge, every colour mixture. I think about what works for me and what doesn’t, what I’d like to do again, what I might change, what I could have still done, and what annoys me.
I like to stick a newly finished painting or plein-air piece up somewhere and let it live there for a while so I see it in various lights and moods. I’ve learnt that what I like/dislike doesn’t always remain the same. Some paintings grow on me, and sometimes I fall out of love with a painting.
Below is a pleinair seascape painting that has grown on me over the past few weeks, as I’ve forgotten the irritation of leaving my brushes behind and really wanting a rigger brush to add some white to the edge of the sea. I had a one-inch silicone paint spreader and a plastic pipette.
I got a surprisingly decent result with the white acrylic ink using a grassy seadhead, but it wasn’t as I’d envisaged (i.e. a technique I’ve used before with pleasing results).
Rather than fuss and struggle with it, I stopped painting after this layer of acrylic white ink, and sat in the sunshine watching the waves.
Looking at it now, I like the composition with rocks on one side only, which isn’t something I’ve done before though I’ve admired in other people’s paintings. And the white on the sea is okay really.
The two reasons I get given most often for not learning to draw and paint, despite having an interest in art, are “I can’t even draw a straight line” and “I haven’t got any artistic talent”. The first is easily solved — if you want a straight line, you use a rule. The point being that there are art techniques we can all learn.
It takes time, and it’s this that we’re less willing to spend as adults. We forget it took us years to learn to read and write. It feels like something we could always do. We didn’t memorise the alphabet in a day. We did it bit by bit, day after day. We weren’t expected to know it all after our first attempt. Nor the second, nor the 50th. Give yourself permission to allocate time painting and drawing. Enjoy the challenge, the learning. Persist past the frustrations. Spend the time. You’re not “wasting” it. And even if you were, it’s yours to do so.
This painting project challenges you to paint portrait of a dog with expressive brushwork, against a background dominated by a single colour. To use visible, loose brushwork on the body, getting more detailed in the face.
This trio of photos are provided for inspiration, from a friend of mine on Skye. (Click on photo to get a larger version.) If you’ve your own favourite four-legged friend, you will likely find taking a reference photo is easier than painting from life unless they’re sleeping, or if you really like a challenge, first do a painting from memory, then compare the result to reality.
SIZE AND MEDIUM: The format (portrait or square or landscape) and medium are up to you. If you use pastels or coloured pencil rather than paint, think about the different sizes of mark you’ll make depending on how you hold it.
BACKGROUND: As it’s to be a portrait, keep the background simple. Use colour variation, but avoid having the background look flat and even, it wants some energy to it through some gentle colour variation. Use a colour that’ll enhance the colours of the fur and/or eyes. For example, a blue will make the golden oranges of eyes brighter, blue and orange being complementary colours. You can then use blues in the shadows and blacks, so the background connects with the subject.
Watch out for the background feeling like it’s painted around rather than going behind the head. With longhair dog this can be solved by painting fur so it goes over the background at the edges of the face and body
BRUSHWORK: For an expressive style, leave brush strokes visible and don’t blend them out. Use loose brushwork that suggests things and leaves our imagination to fill in the details, rather than telling us everything. Use ‘streaky’ brushmarks where the hairs of the brush are spread out giving a broken mark rather than a solid one. Use a big brush for the fur on the body, at least an inch — pick the one you think you want to use, then swap it for a bigger one. Use a brush half that size for the ears and sides of face, again keeping it loose. Then smaller mark making again for the face, but don’t paint every single detail; remember to leave some things suggested.
COLOURS: Add life and energy by using colour, going beyond what’s “real” for poetic effect.
Don’t use pure white except at the very last layer. Think of “almost white”, using warmer tints in the areas catching the light (yellow, orange, pink) and cooler in shadow (blue, green, purple) as well as areas the light doesn’t fall (such as below chin). Remember to think about two different aspects to the colour choices: tone and separating warm/cool. (I don’t do much with warm/cool in my own painting, but it’s an interesting way to approach colour. What’s warm and cool is relative, depending on context. So a yellow-green can be warm whereas a blue-green is probably cold.)
For black, either mix a strong dark so it’s not pure black and makes a more interesting grey when you mix in white, or use Perlyne black because with white it’s such a lovely earthy black with green tinge (perfect for a sheepdog). In terms of adding a dark blue (Prussian) or purple into areas so it’s not only black, I’d possibly start by painting the areas black, then overpainting with blue and purple that aren’t quite as dark.
COMPOSITION: think about how much space there is around the head and body, doesn’t want to feel squashed in. Also whether you place it centrally or to one side. Another option is to let the ears go off the top, though you loose the lovely sharp points.
FUR DIRECTION: look closely at the direction the fur grows, and have brushmarks follow this. It may be worth taking the time to draw a fur map so you know what direction to move your brush across each part of the body and face (see this article of mine from Painting.About.com days).
FOR INSPIRATION: It’s a subject contemporary artist Sally Muir paintings beautifully and tenderly. Sally has two books of her paintings: “Old Dogs” and “A Dog a Day“, and posts photos of her social media.
Painting a dog’s portrait not a modern idea. This painting is attributed to 19th century English artist Joséphine Bowes (1825–1874), in the Bowes Museum in England.
“In my beginnings, I thought that in order for a work to be worthwhile I had to care for it, coddle it, obsess about it. I had to ‘get it right’ and push for perfection. …
“What I really needed to do was treat the work as if it was the best I could do in the moment, with an eye on improving in my very next attempt. That approach forces one to realize that the exercise of growth depends on failed and discarded attempts that achieve at least a little something to carry into the next piece.
“… Let it go. Start again. Fail. Again. And again. Again. Again. Again.”
“Think of your painting as being an example of peripheral vision, with some areas being seen more sharply than others. Deliberately throw some forms a bit out of focus, or treat several forms purely as color areas or shapes that have no specific meaning or reference.
“… If you sense that a painting needs a green smudge here or a bright red accent there, put it in, whether or not it has a logical counterpart in nature.
“… Consider the idea of making your viewers put forth a little more effort to get the most out of what your pictures have to offer.”
Edward Betts, “Creative Landscape Painting”, page 86
A painting that doesn’t stipulate every tiny detail encourages the viewer to engage, interpret, and possibly never know why something is like it is. A poem not an instruction manual.
I may have only painted sporadically in the five months since we moved (not counting all the metres of interior wall) but have had a colourful summer thanks to the wondrous flower garden. There are still new plants emerging, new flowers opening. One of the latest is this (an echinacea the PlantFinder app tells me):
I think it’s almost impossible to look at without tracking along the squirls and spirals in the centre, then out along the petals which seem determined not to touch one another.
In the photo below my camera blew out (overexposed) the colour in the petals. For me it’s become one of those “abstracts from nature” images, with the oranges and greens of the centre feeling as if they’re reaching out towards me, whilst the petals have become a gentle background rather than part of the flower.
Another flower that’s strongly grabbing my imagination with its lanky stems and blobby ends is Japanese anemome. I’ve had a go at painting the pink flowers (see this blogpost) but I also think that there’s something to be explored in the curves and lines without the flowers.
This could be minimalist, as lines against white paper, or a dominant layer of pattern/line/shape against a background of broken colour (like the out-of-focus colours in the photo below).
It’s not all about bright colour either. There are plants with grey foliage and flowers that have gone to seed where the colours are more muted, inviting explorations of “interesting greys and browns” along with line and pattern.
I’ve spent time watching various pollinators too. This globe thistle is such a favourite I’ve been able to get up close without them flying off.
Three of the apple trees we planted are “unknown apples”, ones at half price because the labels had blown off during a storm. Looking at the apples, they’re all different varieties of reds. Which creates possibilities for a “still life with red apples” investigation of reds. If they survive that long before being turned into apple crumble.
Giving the white tables and chairs that were in the garden a fresh coat of paint is on my to-do list, but they won’t rust to bits over another winter if I don’t manage before it’s too cold. The in-house art critic and I have enjoyed many a coffee sitting there.
“Turner, really, was the one who made the first significant break with the conventions of light and dark. In his last period he bunched value intervals together at the light end of the color scale, to show how the sky’s light or any brilliant illumination tended to obliterate half tones and quarter tones of shading and shadow.
The picturesque effects Turner arrived at made his public forgive him relatively soon for the way he had dissolved sculptural form. Besides, clouds, steam, mist, water and atmosphere were not expected to have definite shapes, and so what we now take for a daring abstractness on Turner’s part was then accepted in the end as another feat of naturalism. The same applies to Monet’s close-valued late painting.
Clement Greenberg, ‘American-Type Painting’ in Partisan Review spring 1955
[Note: value = tone]
I came across the mention that Turner was “the first painter to break with the European tradition of value paintings” whilst reading “Monet and Abstraction” (which I used for last week’s Monday Motivator: Monet the Abstract Painter). A look at the footnote, then the bibliography, then a long-tail internet search (i.e. searching using a lot of keywords) and I found the essay Greenberg wrote. A printed copy is now in the book with the quote that started me on this.
I’d assumed that, being an art critic and notoriously opinionated, Greenberg would have had a bit more to say than the short quote, and indeed he did (as quoted above). I’ve never thought about how Turner’s contemporaries would have perceived what we now call abstraction, other than maybe considering his paintings unfinished. That it could be seen as part of Naturalism (which the Tate Gallery describes as “a broad movement in the nineteenth century which represented things closer to the way we see them”) is intriguing given paintings in this genre seem so realistic to my eyes compared to Turner’s. But if Naturalism were pushing the boundaries of painting, then either Turner was on the far edges of this or in a category of his own. From biographies about him, I have the impression he believed the latter.
This esoteric bit of art history is of interest to me because it’s part of the tone vs colour approaches to painting. I get distracted by colour to the detriment of tone (cue: the in-house art critic and artist-friend Katie Lee quoting Margaret Livingstone on the number of rods and cones in the eyes of women and men in “Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing“) and have developed a workaround to compensate. On my wishlist is writing a book that focuses on colour as the foundation to painting not tone.