Saturday, June 20, 2020

How do you mix a color you're looking at?

Malcolm Marcus asked: "I would really like to see a video on how to understand what colors you are looking at. Sounds kind of nutty, but for those of us relatively new to painting, it's often hard to figure out what color something actually is."

Oil study by Charles Hawthorne (1872-1930)
Answer: The color you're looking at is a consequence of four main factors: 

1. The local color (or surface color) of the object.
2. The relative color of the light shining on it.
3. The relative amount of light shining on it.
3. The quality of atmosphere between the observer and the object.

You have to mentally combine all those factors in order to arrive at the color you will have to mix for that paint stroke.

For example, the girl's hat at left is a medium-value blue because it's a white hat lit by blue skylight which is less bright than the sunshine, and there's much atmosphere intervening.

The underside of her sleeve is a medium dull orange because it's in shadow, too, but this time the white material is picking up some bounced light from the warm-colored ground surface below her. Her skin is a dark brown because it's a light-skinned tan local color in relatively dim illumination. Backlit white subjects are popular with impressionist painters because they make make Factors #2 and #3 vividly clear. 

Most beginning painters see only the local color, because they don't yet recognize how their perceptual systems are filtering out the effects of the next three factors.

Learning to paint involves recognizing how those perceptual filters work. Once you understand them, you can analyze a subject in terms of the the relative influence of the four factors. 

I would recommend setting up a backlit white object on a sunny day and painting what you see. You could use a volleyball, skull, white cardboard box, or t-shirt. The experience of mixing the resulting colors will make these principles vividly clear.
There's a lot of beginning painting instruction on my new Gumroad tutorial "Color in Practice: Black, White, and Complements." and in my book Color and Light, available signed from my webstore or from Amazon. There's also a lot of information in my book: Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist.


Don Ketchek said...

An often used concept when teaching painting is to try to think of your painting as a series of colored shapes - while trying to forget what the actual objects are. Sounds easy, but it's not for most artists. So, rather than thinking, "I am painting grass, or a rock, or a white hat," try instead to just look at the shape and the color. This is because all of us have pre-conceived images stored in our brains. When our brain says, "Grass is green," it can actually override what the eye sees.

One thing I have found helpful when working from photos, its to use photo or painting software and use the eyedropper tool, picking various areas and seeing what the color is. I have even printed out my reference photos, creating color swatches of various areas that I have picked with the eyedropper tool. You could also print out a photo, and take a blank piece of paper with a hole or square cut out. this way you can isolate a color area without knowing what the object is.

A quote - attributed to Claude Monet says it best - “When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape.”

scottT said...

That is terrific advice, Don. It is often shocking to see spots of color in isolation vs. our preconceived perceptions. I think it may be helpful for a beginner to stress the importance of value over color. That is why a well observed one value painting can be so satisfying (when we are talking about realist figurative painting from nature). But once color becomes a primary concern, I would recommend studying the solutions of great painters over nature, at least at first. I think these hard won observations through years of practice by artist like Sorolla, Sargent, or Monet show the orange in warm shadows, or the purple in cool ones.

Without this conditioned seeing, I think any beginning painter would be hard pressed to see a shadow as anything but dark gray, or have the sensitivity to perceive the effects of reflected light on a given color in nature. I believe this kind of study of the great artists begins to retrain the mind and eye to break these preconceived notions of color so that we too begin to see them in nature. Then these two approaches build on and reinforce one another. After all, it's not so much the color we see in nature, but how it is translated in the limited spectrum of paint, and as I said, great painters have spent lifetimes working this out in practice. Let's avail ourselves of this knowledge.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Don and Scott, those thoughts are very helpful. One more thing is that it's virtually impossible to judge how to mix a spot of color when you look at that spot in isolation. The color is always seen in relation to other spots of color in the scene. You know you're getting the hang of it when you hear yourself saying "Compare, compare!"

Nicolas said...

Hi James,
Thanks for the quality of your articles and informations.

Speaking about light, I often find confusing informations here and there regarding the color of light. For example in case of a clear sunny day, some sources would state "the dominant light source is a cool bluish-white color". That's kinda confusing, as I would expect in that case the dominant light source to be the strong white-yellowy light coming from the sun; the blue sky color only influencing the shadow masses within the scene I am painting.

As for the "amount of light" you are speaking about, I understand it as the intensity/strength of it (dim light vs strong light). Am I right on that point?

Thanks for any feedback.

James Gurney said...

Nicolas, the color of light and amount of light are relative to other sources in a given setting. Noonday sunlight is generally regarded as neutral white light. But you're right: it can seem warm compared to the light coming from the blue sky. Or it can seem relatively cool compared to firelight.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this very good article. I'm a relative beginner and find that particular light in dark and dark in light space very complicated. Just trying to look at shapes is slowly coming though.