Saturday, April 27, 2019

Lightening Colors with White

Painting by Frank Brangwyn
When you're using opaque paint to create the illusion of lighted objects, you need to lighten colors on the planes that face toward the light. So you just add white to those colors, right?

Well, not so fast. Just adding white to a pure color tends to weaken the chroma and shift the hue toward blue or gray, with an dulling effect on reds and yellows in particular. If you use too much white in the lighted areas without adjusting the mid-tones and shadows, it can lead to a pale, chalky look.

Paul Strisik, in his book The Art of Landscape Painting, said: "Always think twice before using white. It can give your pictures a chalky look. If you want to lighten a color, sometimes try using another color instead of white. If you want your paintings to have brilliance, think in terms of more color, night lighter color."

Tom Lovell said, "color obtains in the light," meaning that we perceive chroma growing in force as it become more brightly illuminated within a scene. Therefore, we don't want to risk weakening it with white without adjusting all the color relationships.

In her book Daily Painting, Carol Marine describes the remedy this way: "If you can't quite get the color light enough without adding white, but white makes it chalky, maybe it doesn't need to be so light! Maybe the values around it simply need to be darker. If you're sure it needs white and it still looks chalky, try adding a little yellow and/or red."

Do you have personal experience with this issue? Did your teacher ever express a similar caution about white? Please share it in the comments.
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Books:
Paul Strisik:The Art of Landscape Painting
Carol Marine: Daily Painting: Paint Small and Often To Become a More Creative, Productive, and Successful Artist

Previous blog post: Color Obtains in the Light, with insights from a vision scientist

27 comments:

Julia Mills said...

I have definitely been cautioned about white, especially to not use pure white in highlights. I always try to seek out the color. When I teach my young students I try to show them how to modulate the value using the colors next to it. I also show them how you can add yellow to create a brighter value. I have them save the white for where it's really needed!

Charley Parker said...

I think all of these are good suggestions, I particularly think Carol Marine's comment about reducing the need to lighten already light colors by controlling the surrounding values is useful. Marc Dalessio, in this video of a plein air demo, points out that it's helpful to key your values off of the sky (likely the lightest value except in show scenes), and compress the range of values in other objects — like trees and bushes — so that they read as more unified value areas when compared with the sky. See this video at roughly 38 minutes in.

sfox said...

I took Scott Christensen's Ten Day Plein Air Intensive years ago and this was one of the things, among many, he told us that has stayed me. Don't use white to lighten an area, increase the saturation. It seemed counterintuitive but, yup, it worked.

Luce said...

Stanton MacDonald Wright wrote a great book on color and color mixing to keep the intensity:

The art of Stanton Macdonald-Wright; including a treatise on color by S. Macdonald-Wright; introduce
Washington, D.C : Published for the National Collection of Fine Arts by the Smithsonian Press, 1967.
100 p. illus. (part col.) 23 cm

Glenn said...

I did a watercolour sketch of a glass artist at her furnace and tried to emulate the actual colours and tones that reflected the lighting in the studio, which was well lit, but found that the degree of intensity of the furnace was, although reasonably accurate to what I was seeing, (pale orange and pinks) was not reflected in the finished sketch. All the values were too close together to achieve the dynamic lighting of the furnace. I had to darken all the other values in the image considerably to achieve some sense of the intensity of the furnace even if it wasn't really that dark because there isn't enough dynamic range in the pigments available to indicate this. Plus the human eye has automatic brightness control that evens out most lighting over an area so we have to do an artists trick to make a 2d representation seem as bright as what we saw.

jeff said...

If I"m not mistaken Paul Strisik was a student of Frank DuMond's. He used a similar full spectrum palette that had gray, blue, violet and green, value scales based on the cadmiums up to alizarin crimson. For instance, Orange value is the middle of the palette or half tone. Cad yellow deep is middle position of sunlight. Other painters who used and taught with this concept were Frank Mason and Arthur Maynard.

Frank use to take his ASL class up to the Stowe VT. area every June for a month of intense landscape painting. I learned so much from that month long immersion into landscape painting.

jeff said...

I should add, white was never used much other than a mixing tint. The idea was to control the overall pitch of the painting and light effect using values.

Terrace said...

If you want something to be brighter, you also have to think about color temperature, not just light and dark. For instance, in a picture that has a lot of warm colors, if you want your whites to seem brighter, add a bit of ultramarine to the white, so that the contrast is not just bright-dark, but cool-warm.

A Colonel of Truth said...

The sun illuminates - strengthens color. The sun does not wash - fade (“whiten”) color. To paint light, paint with color.

Don Ketchek said...

The quote from Paul Strisik's book - which I have been lucky enough to own for many years now - is right on, in my opinion. Despite the usual "truism" that values are always the most important thing, I have adhered to Strisik's suggestion and taught it to many others. Given a choice between the correct value, but having the chroma weakened too much, I will choose the correct chroma for brightly lit, colorful objects pretty much every time.

While many "truisms" are certainly good advice in many situations, new artists really need to be aware that not all of them that might appear in art how-to books, or in classes or workshops, are actually rules. The oft repeated painting advice that "as long as the value is correct, any color will do" is something that held me back for many years. Until I was able to understand the fallacy of the above statement, I was unable to understand using color and the importance of the color of the light. The same can be said for always putting the priority on value. Sometimes if you get the value right, the painting comes out wrong. As an artist, decisions sometimes need to be made that go beyond the simple truisms.

CerverGirl said...

Thank you for the post and all of the helpful comments...I have the book by Carol Marine, and it is well worth it in my opinion--as a beginner, she breaks things down in well organized manner, and it is fun and has approachable methods. And nothing helps a beginner more than the practice of painting daily.

scottT said...

I read something interesting recently. It said that the intense chroma of most of our paint colors sit around the middle value of the scale. If this is true, then it does make sense to compress our values in the middle and shadow range and make them darker to let pure color create the lights. Then it showed a couple of examples, one by Willard Metcalf of two trees as the focal point in a composition, one blazing red orange, and another an intense cad. yellow medium. Fall foliage. They looked light in value, yet when the same picture was shown as grey scale, they were actually middle value. It was sort of like one of those optical illusions. I'm going to look for this next time I'm out painting. Possibly another of those little "rules/not rules" that can be helpful sometimes.

OscarR said...

Made me think of akrhip kuindzhi paintings. Interesting how in some of his compositions the light side is darker than the shadow although the the chroma is so brilliant we still percieve it as brighter. He is a master at compressing the value key in order to achive brilliance through satturation.

Eugene said...

thanks for yet another great lesson and recommendation. I've just purchased The Art of Landscape Painting by Paul Strisik and went on to purchase also the Guide to Landscape Painting by J. F. Carlson, I'll be happy if they're a fraction as informative as your own books. Best wishes, Eugene

Mary Aslin said...

Yes! LOVE this topic! All the comments so far are fabulous....what a thoughtful and educated group of followers and commenters you have!

I had an epiphany one day years ago about the use of white and the color of light. I was taking a course at the Watts Academy in Encinitas, CA and the teachers absolutely were adamant about using warm light on the models, and yet I had just read about artists who love having a studio with cool, north light and then it struck me: When painting in cool, north light, using white to lighten values is a natural choice. It is much easier and more intuitive. But how does one paint a brilliant red rose in warm outdoor light? The light side must have a greater degree of warmth and saturation, and the areas around the light side must be modulated in value, as you all have noted. Geography matters too: When comparing the paintings of Anders Zorn and Joaquin Sorolla, Zorn would have easily used white to lighten colors in the northern latitude of Sweden, in but the warmer light in Spain, Sorolla's whites were warm and his colors more saturated.

Thanks for a GREAT topic!

Timothy Bollenbaugh said...

James' Post and Comments following have concentrated more insight and wisdom than one could hope to find in decades of books and workshops.
Hopefully anyone who's searching will upon reading this back up and work through what's been presented rather than moving on and searching more, which can come later after these points are well exercised.

My Pen Name said...

I studied with Nelson Shanks @ the ASL - with 21 color pallet, we would start with a neutral gray underpainting -but one natural way to do it - think of the radience of watercolor and tempera - is to start with a white canvas- though it can be harder for beginners to get values right...

I think i recall doing an exercise without white ... but the real strength came, I think from getting very deep darks with viridian-Dioxinene Purple for black, for example...


also remember too much color everywhere can be issue - so the more understated some colors (assuming the typical contrasts) the more chromatic others will appear.


James Gurney said...

Mary, I agree, the comments on this post show so much insight and experience. I think you have an important point about the coolness of traditional north light studios. Incandescent makes me have to reach for the cadmiums when painting anything in the light. I have brought my LED spotlight (such as https://amzn.to/2GPam2e ) to sketch groups and have encountered the reaction "whoa, that light is so weird and cold" because people aren't used to cool key lights.

Steve said...

Just want to affirm the value of the blog format for extended “conversations” on a topic, relative to what Instagram usually elicits. I’m grateful you keep the blog going, Jim, when so many others have shifted entirely to Instagram. I realize it’s energy and time out of your day — every day — but the impact and benefit has been incalculable. Thank you.

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Eugene said...

James, would it not also depend on the subject, for example when painting nudes under warm light I find warm highlights and warm shadows but cool midtones, whereas a still life under the same light seems to have cool cast and form shadows

Petr Stranik said...

This is what I used to do in the past a lot. I have to say that I cringe every time when I see my older work with this mistake. Now I try to avoid it by those approaches - making adjacent value either little bit darker or cooler or both options together. Putting in pure white opaque paint (in gouache) and after it dries quickly (with one stroke) just glaze over it transparent warm colour . this is something that I learned from Steve Huston over at New master academy. It is a pity that white isn't warm inherently :-)

Judy P. said...

I also have to marvel at this post, and all the insightful comments- this is the best way to learn about painting! Like the 'get the values right, the color doesn't matter' rule, it took years to shake off that simple 'paint what you see' quote, so mis-leading! I know I'm in trouble painting, when I keep squeezing out more white- still my eyes need more training.
But when one keys surrounding values down to make the colorful, mid-value light mass stand out, don't you end up with a pretty dark painting? I judge much of my work by how it looks in my dull, typically lit living room. The dark painting just doesn't sing. That leads to the separate problem of bringing a plein air from a bright day, indoors; what a disappointment that can be at times.

James Gurney said...

Petr, I'm glad you mentioned that method of running a glaze over pure white gouache (or oil) that has been allowed to dry thoroughly. Sargent did that in his watercolors all the time, and he got brilliance, variety, and texture in his highlights that way. Also you can get higher chroma at extremely high values than with opaque mixtures, especially if you use one of the Azo yellows or Indian yellow or Quinacrodone reds.

Mary Aslin said...

Thank you for your comment about the LED spotlight, James.

The Method Direct Plus lights can transition from about 2700K (warm) to 7000K (cool) with the use of a remote control. When I show my students this difference in warm and cool, they gasp. It's a great way to show an immediate comparison between a warm white and a cool white.

Loving all of these educational and interesting comments, especially yours, Petr, that "it is a pity that white isn't warm inherently."

Petr Stranik said...

James I have to try those high croma, high value warm pigments that you've mentioned. For watercolours I use orange, cad yellow light, vermilion, Cobalt blue and black. The orange is around 3-4 value (1 being the lightest) so it is quite hart to bring it to some sparkle even using it really diluted. Your post here nodded me to try out some exercise: avoiding using white all together and be disciplined enough to draw as accurately as possible from the beginning to know where to leave the paper blank for the highlights. I did it on the work of great contemporary artist Nick Alm, here's result (check Nick also, you can make post about him he's sooo great - soulful, Sargent like):

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bw2YJl2AXUG/

I think using watercolour without any white (most traditionally in fact) is a great discipline builder for any other media. It learns to think ahead, to see mistakes in drawing and fixing them before one ruins them with a brush loaded with too of a dark colour for example. (Hopefully I haven't made so many mistakes Language wise and everything is comprehensible)

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