I confess I am not an expert at color theory, elaborate color wheels, or the science of color and optics. My training in color theory was minimal in art school. I suspect that many artists had a similar experience. We looked at famous paintings, learned surface knowledge of complementary colors, and the very basics of mixing paint. At that point, we were turned loose like lions who were never taught to hunt. Artists I admired became the only anchor I could tie my little boat to. Monet and the impressionists interested me as did fantastic realists who were well known before impressionism. Looking at paintings at least inspired me and perhaps some guidance by osmosis. I felt lost in an exciting but inaccessible world of colors and techniques.
Finding the Key to the Door of Color
Knowledge is only its most valuable when you are ready to receive it. It’s like being handed a key that only works in the door when you are ready! This was my feeling when I went to a workshop by the well-known painter Albert Handell and spent two weeks immersed in the world of a highly skilled and knowledgeable artist. I could wander about looking at paintings that seemed both glorious and out of reach to a young man with my skill level. I listened intently during his demonstrations. When he began to talk about color value, it was as if I was a blind man being handed a pair of magic glasses that opened my eyes to the world. This was the system I was looking for.
Seeing Color as Value
Color exists only in relation to color around it. It never exists alone. That idea alone was revolutionary to me. Was this color lighter or darker than the color around it? How did they compare? This is the basic idea of value. Each color has a value on a grayscale that runs from white to black. A black and white photo of a color subject will yield a range of grays from very light to quite dark. A painter had to change their entire way of seeing. Instead of seeing red apples and green grass and brown trees, a painter learned to see shapes of value. Instead of a world of details, labels, and named objects, artists learned to see shapes, relationships of light and dark areas…...areas of color value. One of our first exercises at Albert’s workshop was to organize our pastels according to values. One tray was light values, one tray was middle values, and one tray was our dark values. We were to use this system of trays to get used to the idea of seeing color as a value. I was ready for this new system, and it seemed as natural and logical as taking a drink of cool water on a hot day.
What is this system suitable for?
The world is full of systems that are touted as being something of great interest. Few live up to the promises made, but the color value had immediate and exciting applications for me. If you could see a color as a value, you could group colors of similar value together to weave layers of color. If the value of the color was right, any color was the ‘right color’ This was the core belief I adopted over forty years ago, and it has not failed me. This concept allows me to use any color I wanted, as long as the value was right. The skin could be blue or green, brown hair, purple and blue. It’s as if I have been given a ‘color license’ that allows me total freedom in choosing color. This license allows me to develop my own style of using color and to choose colors that I liked. We each have a different and very personal experience of color. Why not develop our own voice, a voice of color! Color is a way of communicating, a way of expressing emotions. It is its language that each of us speaks in a unique dialect. Color in itself can be a reason for creating a painting!
As part of my basic art school training, I learned that color could be warm or cool. Warm colors were like reds and oranges, and cool colors were bluer. By itself, this was about as appealing as a stale bag of potato chips. Combined with my ‘seeing color as value’ concept, though, this idea became an important addition to my color toolbox. I learned that colors of similar color temperature and value could be combined very effectively in a painting. What was a ‘dirt road’ before could be an intriguing mix of salmons, oranges, pinks, browns, and golds. I could infuse an area lit by the sun with a dazzling group of warm colors.
Conversely, I could combine cool colors of similar value together in equally exciting ways. The discovery that thrilled me, even more, was that “colors of the same value, but different color temperatures created magical effects” This was putting the idea of complementary color into practice in a useful way. I could take a lime green and pair it with a warm pink of the same value, and the color would vibrate. By layering colors in this manner, I discovered that this was the look of the Impressionists that I had admired so much. I used warm pinks and cool blues of similar values together in skies. Soon I was on my way to discovering many ‘magical’ combinations of complementary colors that I could use in my paintings. By combining color value and color temperatures, I had a system of color that would keep me busy for the rest of my painting life. I would never discover every color or color relationship. Painting would always be a quest into the unknown, a journey that would never be tiresome or routine! What a deal!
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This article appears in RAPIDRIVERMAGAZINE.COM | RAPID RIVER’S ARTS & CULTURE | VOL. 23, NO. 11 — JULY 2020
Paul deMarrais makes fine art oil sticks and teaches at 310 ART in the River Arts District.
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