Thursday, December 22, 2011

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE – UNDERPAINTING IN COMPLEMENTS

Mesa Meadow, 18" x 12"

Color and value are inextricably intertwined. They're very much like a hand in a glove; although the glove exists independently in the material world, it does not function until the hand is inside it. So it is with the glove of color, which needs the hand of value to motivate it. Artists rely on color as one of the fundamental elements of painting. Value is an issue that comes up as the artist advances in skill and consideration of the theory of painting. Value or tone, which is the lightness or darkness of any color, is independent and exists with or without color. It's black and white and all grays in between, as well as all of the dark to light tones of any given color. It's an essential component of any color. You cannot separate color from its value, but you can and should consider value as an issue of primary importance, separate from color.

Understanding value can strengthen color. Most artists use color easily, almost without thinking, far more often than they consider the underlying, driving force of value. This doesn’t mean that they disregard value -- quite the contrary. Value is so intimately linked to color that they seem not to consider the hand apart from the glove. As the artist progresses through her career, value sneaks in, becoming increasingly important. As fundamental as it is, value is often left to the consideration of the more experienced painter. This should not be a surprise since, as in so many other disciplines, the further one goes into the depths the more elemental the concepts become. Still, the most experienced painter can learn new things, which is why art is one of the richest and most varied of pursuits and may continue for a lifetime.

One way to come to understand the interdependence of color and value is to plan a painting that utilizes only complementary colors but retains the original value of each of those colors. In doing this you will come to see the value or tone of the color more exactly as you challenge yourself to duplicate it while using its complement. Spend some time looking at a painting you have recently completed. Select one of the colors you used and name its complement. In your mind begin to choose the complements. If the sky is blue, it becomes orange. The green tree is now red, the yellow grasses are purple, the white clouds are, surprisingly, white. Why? Because the complement of white is not black. White is a value, in this case, not a color. If you’ve retained the correct values of the colors in your mental painting, they haven’t shifted except in color. If the clouds aren’t really white, but are a very light pink with touches of pale purple and blue, they become very light green with touches of pale yellow and orange. If they’re white, they stay white. This exercise will help you begin to think of value and color independently, and will increase your awareness of the multiple colors you can use in any value range. It will aid you in learning how to layer or lay side by side different colors of the same or similar value in any one tonal area.

In doing this painting it’s best to have two photographs from which to work, the original color photo and an excellent grayscale copy of it that accurately shows a range of dark to light values. The photograph is helpful because you’re freed from making compositional decisions and are also able to study the colors separately from their values. This is strictly an experiment in value and color. Using the grayscale photograph, do an underdrawing or value study of the image using black, white and grays. Accurately render the tones. This can become an elegant rendition of the scene that develops your sense of colors as values. As you draw, you’re able to see the color of the object you are depicting in your mind’s eye, which helps you identify its value.

White Wallis paper toned with gray pastel.
Charcoal underdrawing on gray-toned Wallis paper.


Now, looking at the color photograph and using a color wheel, select and lay down the opposite color of the natural one. Be careful to select the correct value, whether a light, medium or dark tone. It’s helpful to use a color wheel to find these complements at first. Find the blue of the sky and lay your finger on the orange as you seek out the right shade.









Once you have placed a single layer of the complementary colors in the proper values all over your paper, put the color photograph out of sight. If you’re looking at a photograph of a blue sky it’s very difficult to discipline yourself to pick up orange, but if you have already chosen the new colors and briefly recorded them in place, it’s easy to look at the black and white copy to paint. Forget the colors in nature now, and begin to expand your painting using the correct values and opposite colors on the color wheel. Think of the purple mountains as yellow. You already have a layer of yellow in place so you no longer need to think about that. What color is a dark yellow? Most yellows tend to shift to a muddy brownish-green as they darken, so choose a dark gold or yellow-green instead. Make it dark enough, sacrificing the exact complement to the correct value if necessary. The important thing here is to get the appropriate darkness or lightness of the color while not relying on the real color to find it. When you lean on the colors of the natural world, you’re dismissing value. Remember the hand and glove effect of value and color.



Complement layer in place.
You might spend some time completing this complement painting. It will almost certainly look like some unfamiliar place or thing, with all the colors shifted out of the world we see. Don't be concerned if you feel that it's unsettling and looks wrong to you. Relax and have fun in this alien place. A glowing pale orange sky, billowing white clouds with yellow shadows, dark reddish-orange hillsides, purplish-red grasses or red and orange trees with pink highlights can encourage you to play with color. Allow this new reality to inspire you. Think of the ways you flavor color when painting the natural world and apply that way of thinking to this complement painting. Analyze how it is that you vary colors. Do you consistently rely on a certain shade of blue to flavor a shadow? What version of orange color does it become now? Is there a way you might use that new orange color, rather than consistently using the same blue, in a future piece? What might happen if you begin to layer it over or put it down next to the favored blue? If it grays the blue too much for your taste, how might you shift it slightly one direction or the other on the color wheel to aid the blue, making it more lyrical and visually stimulating? Experiment with color this way. A series of paintings could be very instructive, freeing you to have fun with color in a way you might not have tried before.

Once you’ve completed your new complement painting, spend some time analyzing what happened. Ask yourself if this has challenged you more than you thought it would. Most of us have become dependent upon a palette of colors that we routinely use, which in itself is not a problem unless it’s become overly dull and boring. This experiment might suggest some new alternatives or additions. At this point you might have a painting that‘s worth keeping as it is. Often the new colors are intriguing and inspiring. If so, set it aside and try another using a different photograph. However, in painting the landscape you must keep in mind that you have a filter for the color blue that’s built into your brain. You know that the bluer and paler a color is, the farther away it is, but when you switch to the complementary colors you create an orange filter. Your brain is not able to process orange as a distant color, so landscapes often seem to lack a sense of air or space. This can be a dissatisfying effect. The solution might be to paint the colors of nature directly on top of your complement painting.(See Mesa Meadow, at the top, the finished painting with the natural colors added over the complementary layer.)

You might choose to spray a layer of workable fixative on your painting to give it more tooth, which will help hold another layer of pastel, but remember that fixative will slightly darken the colors. (If used, I suggest Spectrafix, which is non-toxic and alters colors less.) It’s not necessary to fix your work if the paper you’re using is adequate to the task, such as Wallis paper. After all, if you’re going to match the values using the colors of nature, you should be able to carefully lay them down directly atop the complement and arrive at a color that’s only slightly grayed or dulled. Finger blending is not recommended, as it tends to result in colors that are somewhat dreary and grayed. Now is the time to return to your original color photograph so that you can add the colors of reality. Remember, however, that the photograph is not a goal, but an aid to you. Use it to recall the colors you saw when you recorded the scene, then let this new color take the painting into places the photograph cannot go. As you put down the latest colors beside or on top of the original ones, notice how they optically jump, dazzling your eye. This is the power of complements. When a bit of red shines beneath the green, it adds some sparkle and pizzazz. Orange under blue gives some zing. Purple below yellow makes it snap a little. This is the essence of optically blended color. The artist must choose the degree to which this is successful and pleasing, but should not disregard the potential of such color use. Experiment with this idea, adding colors of the same or similar values to your paintings. Think about how using broken color might make your paintings stronger, so that instead of falling back on the color habits you have developed you become more adventurous. Take a chance with color and see where it takes you.

You might also choose to leave a portion of the complement painting untouched while covering a part with the natural colors. Divide your painting somewhere that logically leaves some of the underpainting showing so that you can see both lower and upper layers. Now make a painting the usual way, using the same photograph, without first layering the complementary colors. Notice the color choices you make and analyze whether the experiment has changed the way you think about and approach color.

Original photograph.
Painting color with value in mind is not a new idea. Most artists seem to intuitively come to understand value as they progress through their careers. However, using this series of exercises can help show you some new ideas about the use of color and challenge you to attempt new, visually exciting combinations. Put your experimental paintings alongside one another and compare results. Include the one that shows the complements below and the colors of nature directly on top, as well as paintings you did in the usual fashion before these experiments and subsequent to them. You may see that you’ve come to understand the values of the colors a bit more thoroughly, and you might also have found a way to utilize new colors of the same or similar values, but shifted toward the complements to enliven your color.