The actual colour in painting
The ability to identify actual colour is not as simple as it sounds.
The ability to correctly identify colour is to first cleanse the mind of
any preconceived notions as to what colour we have been conditioned to
With changes of colour you can create a different atmosphere
Skies, for examples, are rarely blue. Secondly, we must identify
colour in relationship to surrounding colours.
A red ball on a green floor has a very different colour from the same
ball on a yellow floor. Thirdly, we must be specific about colour's
subtle changes of value and intensity. Lastly, we must remember that the
three-dimensional world, from which we gather our colour clues, is
filled with reflection.
Every colour we see reflect on to every other colour. It is this
reflection of colour that makes even opposite colours harmonious. The
flat surface on which we paint cannot reflect a colour on to its
neighbour. Therefore, it is our job to make the colour changes to
achieve the same effect.
The truth of the matter is that local or actual colour is of little
value other than a beginning point. The best paintings are not those
that match local colour to record the truth but those that exaggerate
colour to express it.
Be sensitive to colour. Look at the scene, room, figure and identify
the ambient colour, temperature and intensity. Then use that information
expressively and compositionally. The colour of the ambient light
affects the colour of everything it touches. If the sky is blue, there
should be evidence of blue on every plane upon which the blue light
There seems to be a belief that if a painter matches each colour
exactly as seen reality will be the result. Nothing could be further
from the truth.
You need only look at the photographs from your vacation to know that
they don't reflect the feelings you had when looking at the real
scene.Our impressions of a place are the result of many realities, the
visual reality being only one.
How you feel about a place might be in direct conflict with its
appearance. Blue skies, blue-green water and green foliage are not very
expressive of the warmth of a tropical island.
Take time to look beyond the visual facts. At times the local colours
are appropriate to the subject, and at times they are totally
inappropriate. You need only look at the work of great painters to
realise that many of their colour choices are not factual but
'What if' approach
An approach to colour selection that I find informative and exciting
is the "what if" approach. Here you look at the local colour of a shape,
such as the sky, and say, "what if?" I paint that blue sky yellow. After
having painted the sky yellow you have set in motion an entirely new
direction for that painting.
First, you have escaped the rigidity of the factual colour. Secondly,
all subsequent colour decisions must be related to the initial colour.
Having freed yourself from the fact there are no limits to
possibilities, you may discover that you are a latent abstract
expressionist who has been dying to be set free. Why, you may find that
green roses against a red background are not only more exciting but even
more expressive of how you feel about roses than you imagined.
People will look at your work and praise your creativity or perhaps
suggest you are crazy. In either case you will know the satisfaction of
receiving a genuine response.
At the very least you will know the joy of making colour choices that
come from your heart and mind rather than your eyes.
Your willingness to experiment with colour will yield many surprising
results, the most rewarding of which is when selecting the opposite of
the actual colour turns out to be exactly what you want to say. Another
benefit of "what if" colour choices is the satisfaction you get from
What was thought to be outrageous 100 years ago is now considered
This can only be the result of changed taste. Our changing tastes are
the result of education, familiarity, and conditioning. What has this to
do with designing with light or creating moods? Nothing! It is just a
way of encouraging you to free yourself from erroneous concepts of what
painting should be. The choices are clear.
Either you follow the traditions of an evolving art or you break
tradition and explore the possibilities. I am not talking about change
for the sake of change. I am talking about your willingness to listen to
your inner voice and make art that is an honest expression of what you
think, feel and know. It is not so much a case of seeking new approaches
to art, as much as a willingness to let go of the old. If it feels right
to print the shadowed shape of a figure's face green, do it! Who knows,
100 years from now your paintings may be the standard of beauty.