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Art Technique

Eighty-Three Color Notes for Artists
by John Passaro

copyright 2010 John Passaro
and Cabin Creek Studios revised 2013

Dear Friends,

There is very little here that wasn't mentioned to me by my teachers and wasn't mentioned to them by their teachers. To the best of my knowledge, I haven't discovered on my own that which hasn't been discovered by other artists working on their own, or which couldn’t have been known to me by asking my teachers if I had known the question to ask. The wheel of artistic knowledge is endless.

Having said that, once you do enough hands-on experimentation each universal principle will come to mean something to you which it means to none of your teachers and none of the artists who have come before you or are yet to come. The principles are universal; each one of us as and artist is unique.

Finally, this list does not pretend to be exhaustive; it's merely a possible starting point for thought and discussion.

1. For the artist, there is no such thing as color, only color relationships.

2. For the artist, there is no color without value; and there are no values, only value relationships.

3. Black is a color, not necessarily a pigment to darken other colors with. Treat black like any other color on your palette.

4. White is a color, not necessarily a pigment to lighten other colors with. Treat white like any other color on your palette.

5. Black is not black. Black is either a very dark-valued cool blue or a very dark-valued warm brown. The ivory blacks and bone blacks are warm dark browns; mars black, vine black, and lamp blacks are cool dark blues. There is a big however attached to this: the name label on the front of the tube may say one thing and the actual pigment list on the back of the tube may be say another. Also, manufacturers and batches may vary in coolness/warmness or, for instance, in transparency!

6. Learn to read pigment lists. No one I know of makes black out of charred and ground ivory tusks any more. Ivory black is really made of charred animal bones (PBk9, which is pigment black number nine) or carbon (PBk6). You can probably figure that lamp black isn't made from the carbon left behind on the glass flutes of oil lamps in mankind's pre-electricity era. Usually these kinds of information are merely interesting; in some cases it can be critical to whether or not you have control over your mixing of colors.

7. When you need black for your painting, decide whether you need a warm or cool black and then consider mixing it out of the warm or cool dark-valued colors on your palette you are using in that particular painting. This helps achieve color unity.

8. Use black pigment (ivory, bone, mars, lamp, vine) in a painting only if it's included as one of the colors on your palette for that particular painting.

9. White is not white. White is a very light-valued blue. Remember that when you add white to a color you are adding blue, which is why when you are reaching for those intense high notes, say brilliant sunlight, white is usually the last color you want to use.

10. Some say white is the absence of color; I suggest that there is no absence of color except in a theoretical world which has not much to do with how artists attempt to achieve their effects. In the real world, very light-valued colors, even the lightest values which we think of as whites, are colored by reflections and the nature of the light on your subject.

11. A centuries-old trick of artists, taught to be by one of my teachers, is to lightly crumple a sheet of "white" paper and throw it into the light you are working in (indoors or outdoors) and see whether the paper shows cool blue light or warm yellow light. Watch the reflected light, also.

12. In any event, since color is not color, since it is color relationships, the very light-valued blue which we think of as white is cool, but will be perceived as anything from cool to warm depending on the other colors in the painting.

13. Once you begin thinking in terms of color relationships, give color unity a chance in place of color harmony. It may seem like semantics, but give it a try.

14. The most-effective white in any particular painting is usually colored by the palette for that painting and that white's relationship to the other colors in the painting.

15. Brown is not brown; brown is either a dark-valued dull yellow like Naples yellow and yellow ochre or a dark-valued dull red like burnt sienna.

16. When using brown, identify the warmth or coolness of the pigment; for instance, burnt umber is warm (red or orange in undertone) and raw umber is cool (green or blue or grey in undertone).

17. There is no such thing in the world of artists' pigments as primary red, primary yellow, or primary blue.

18. The theoretical color wheel is based on theoretically-possible primary colors which are achieved using pure light and mixtures of light . . .nearly useless to artists because there are no primary colors in artist tubes and we don't paint with light. When all the primary "colors" meaning lights from the theoretical color wheel are mixed together, you get white. No one needs to tell an artist what you get when you mix all three "primary" colors off your palette together, but it sure ain't white.

19. Make your own color wheel out of your own colors which you use in your work.

20. Once you have and understand your own color wheel that reflects your unique personality and your choice of materials, experiment with the theoretical color schemes you learned in school and see what happens.

21. Tilt the traditional color wheel so that the warm colors are on top (above the equator if you will) and the cool colors below (in the southern hemisphere). I owe this particular innovation to a brilliant teacher of mine named Doug Dawson. You could tilt it so the cools are on the right and the warms on the left of the center axis, or vice-a-versa.

22. All our reds are either yellow-red like the cadmiums or blue-red like anthraquinone; our yellows are orange-yellow like cadmium or green-yellow like the arylides, our blues are either red-blue like ultramarine or green-blue cerulean.

23. Here's a daring thought: there is no such thing as color; there is only warm and cool...so if there's no such thing as color, only color relationships, that would mean there's no such thing as warm and cool except in relationship.

24. Here's another daring thought: there is no such thing as a colorful painting, only warm paintings and cool paintings of a particular intensity relationship.

25. You will do yourself an enormous favor if before starting a painting you decide whether the painting is meant to be a cool painting with some warm areas in it or a warm painting with some cool area . . . then stick to it.

26. Yellow is either warm yellow or cool yellow, like cadmium and the various arylides.

27. Red is either warm red or cool red, like cadmium and anthraquinone alizarin PR177.

28. Blue is either green blue or red blue, like cerulean and the French ultramarine.

29. To mix color accurately, decide the basic color, yellow, red, blue, or a sub-category if you like, then get the value right, then warm your mixture up or cool it down. Readjust the value and temperature if necessary.

30. To intensify your cadmium reds, don't add white, which adding blue and therefore giving you a dull pink, add yellow . . . and don't add an arylide yellow, which is green, add another warm yellow like another cadmium.

31. To intensify your yellows, you may not to do anything to the yellow; change the relationships around the yellow. If you are intentionally using a cool yellow you may be effective in adding white in some cases.

32. If you need to add white to yellow to get the relationship you are looking for, maintain the intensity by adding just a little white. White is blue. Blue and yellow make a dull color.

33. You will find that, when mixed with white, the arylides hold their intensity better than cadmium yellow.

34. To intensify ultramarine, lighten the value to bring out the color. White is blue; white is compatible with ultramarine up to a point. At some point the blue in the white will interact with the red in the French ultramarine and that will dull the mixture. Use white through the top value ranges, then use cobalt through the middle ranges where possible, then switch back to white for the lightest values.

35. Intense color usually attracts the eye, and can therefore be used along with other tools in the artist's bag to help direct the viewer's path through a painting.

36. High-intensity-color paintings are garish to some artists, like most of the classical painters.

37. High-intensity-color paintings are expressive to some artists, like the Fauves for instance.

38. I have to admit that after a couple of hours of looking at old sophisticated European paintings I want to scream in frustration for somebody to pile up some serious paint layers and to use some serious color other than brown. And I don't think it's an unsophisticated American reaction; in fact, you get a whole new understanding of the Impressionists after spending a few hours in the understated galleries of the old Europeans.

39. Artists and critics have been debating the proper use of color since at least the Chinese of thousands of years ago, but everyone across times and cultures seems to have agreed that color can be very appealing.

40. Here's an unsettling corollary of the above: only you can decide for yourself when you are expressing yourself in a way nothing but color can accomplish and when you are playing on the appeal of color.

41. Unsettling corollary number two: only you can decide for yourself whether there is anything right, wrong, or otherwise about playing on the appeal of color.

42. Unsettling corollary number three: there may be different answers for different paintings. That's really annoying.

43. I think I've mentioned (ha!) that no color is any color by itself. Color exists for artists only in relationship to the colors around it. Rembrandt could make a cool black look green by building color relationships around it and in other parts of the painting. It seems to me at times when I'm looking at a Rembrandt in person that there is more color in one of his better paintings than all the Impressionists paintings put together. Recently I visited the National Gallery in Washington DC and noticed this and asked myself why the other Dutch painters of the time who used what appeared to be the same formula didn't achieve the same richness of color; the answer was that they didn't have the same sensitivity to and control over the warm and cool relationships within the painting.

44. Intensity of color is a relationship. Place a small square of unadulterated cadmium red in a field of dull Naples yellow and yellow ochre and blue-gray and so on and it will look very intense. Place the same patch in a sea of cobalt and cadmium yellow and you won't notice it.

45. If you are aiming toward an intense effect, one possibility is to save the effect for a very, very small area of the painting and dull everything else around it down. If you are successful, a good artist will compliment you on using "just the right amount" of intense color in that sunset (for instance) and your collector will be amazed at the intensity and impact of the effect.

46. Speaking of sunsets, we cannot hope to compete with nature's colors, only to imitate its effects as best we can.

47. To imitate the vibrations of the sky, for instance, lay down clean mixtures of warm and cool colors in exactly the same value.

48. One famous artist, I don't remember whom, said, You will never be an artist until you stop painting the sky blue. Well, then, that may sound a bit harsh, but the thinking behind it is right on the money.

49. Same-valued colors will vibrate in the eyes of the beholder. If you can control the value, you will begin the imitation of nature.

50. There is no such thing as a flat unvaried patch of color in nature (unless you are considering one spot of your painting as part of nature, but that gets into metaphysical discussions beyond the scope of this little list). It doesn't make a difference what the subject is, still life, figure, landscape, and so on, there are no flat areas. Look very, very closely and you will see many variations.

51. You will imitate this effect in nature by not over-mixing your paint. Let the paint gather on the brush and lay it down without thoroughly mixing it. One brushstroke can contain many variations...like nature.

52. The Impressionists did not invent optical mixtures; that is, placing one color next to the other and letting the eye of the beholder mix the colors . . . they focused on color relationships that are spatially close together more than other artists in other times did, that's all (at least that's one way of looking at it).

53. Your high-profile brushstrokes, if you use them, will affect your colors and values by catching and reflecting the environmental/ambient light in the ridges. Don't underestimate this effect; plan for it.

54. The intense highlights you see in classical work often are not mixed paints . . . they are usually glazes (transparent paint layers) applied over white or some other high value. You will find in these glazes an intensity that can't be matched in any other way, especially by mixing colors together, and almost never by adding white.

55. Glazing over your high-profile brushwork can create some very interesting colors and vibrations.

56. Here's an idea for a color chart: take two colors, say ultramarine and cadmium yellow; start with pure ultramarine on the left and pure cadmium yellow on the left; mix them in five or seven gradations (the middle gradations should be neither blue nor yellow); under the gradation mixtures, add white to achieve five equal values of the mixed colors.

57. Use a palette knife and paper towels when conducting color experimentations…using a brush and mineral spirits makes it nearly impossible to keep your colors clean enough to be of use as an experiment.

58. You might consider limiting your palette to seven colors: white (very light-valued blue), ultramarine (a red-blue), cobalt (a slightly green blue), cadmium red (warm) and alizarin in the form of an athraquinone (cool), cadmium yellow (warm) and arylide yellow (cool/green).

59. Run every combination of these colors through your color charts; don't skip any combinations. Stay open to your responses to each combination.

60. Keep a sketchbook handy and make notes to yourself about combinations which especially resonate with you.

61. Get to know these seven colors like members of your family.

62. Don't add a member to your family without running it through the color charts; be very reluctant to introduce a new member to your family . . . that color may be a bad influence on your children.

63. Try to move quickly through the stage of using thirty or forty absolutely essential colors on your palette; have a sense of humor about it: most artists start out with at least two or three dozen tubes of indispensable color variations.

64. Learn to read the labels and ignore the names. I fell in love with the romance of Old Holland Royal Delft Blue Deep and bought the tube in a very romantically-quaint paint shop for many guilders when I was in Amsterdam, the home of Rembrandt and Vermeer, whom I could feel at my elbow, and cherished the beautiful tube for years. When I learned to read labels I discovered I had paid many guilders for pthalo blue and titanium white.

65. A sense of humor is worth more than many, many guilders.

66. Except for the occasional alizarin crimson, artist-grade colors do not come in impermanent colors these days. I don't know whom we need to thank for getting paint manufacturers to use permanent pigments and listing actual ingredients (probably Ralph Mayer, manufacturers like Robert Gamblin, and the Australian Michael Wilcox to name three), but strike permanence off the list of things you need to consider about tubes of color.

67. Actual alizarin crimson is PR-83, that's pigment red number number 83. Avoid it; it fades quickly.

68. Permanent alizarin crimsons are almost always either quinacridone red or athraquinone red . . . except for Robert Gamblin's permanent alizarin crimson, which is a dead ringer for the original and a complicated mixture that you may not want to waste your time re-creating.

69. Speaking of Gamblin's alizarin crimson and time, you can mix it yourself in several hours if you haven't done your color charts or in a minute or two if you have. . . or you could buy it pre-made in the tube and consider it a convenience (short-cut) color.

70. Convenience colors are colors like yellow ochre, sap green, some alizarins, various violets (not dioxazine; you can't mix that): you can mix them yourself if you know what you're doing, but only you can decide if it's a waste of your time. There's certainly something to be said for mixing, for instance, your yellow ochre out of the other pigments on the pallette you're using for that particular painting.

71. Don't make a convenience color a member of your family until you've run it by the rest of the family members.

72. As far as the theoretical primary colors go, the truest blue out of the tube is probably cobalt blue.

73. As far as the theoretical primary colors go, the truest red out of the tube is probably a napthol or perylene maybe.

74. There probably aren't any yellows out of a tube that are close to a true theoretical yellow. Oh, well. If you know of one, write me.

75. Try several paintings using just one warm color and one cool color, then bring a third color in as an accent at the very end of the painting.

76. Try several paintings thinking of nothing but warmer and cooler.

77. Don't fall for it when artists tell you they are simply duplicating the colors of the subject in front of them. That's the worst thing a teach can tell you about color and you can lose a lot of time on earth working under that assumption and not understanding why if it works for so-and-so it doesn't work for me. Well, it doesn't work for so-and-so. We can't duplicate nature's colors. If so-and-so is successful in the painting it will be because so-and-so is seeing the relationship of one color to another and adjusting accordingly to imitate the sense and feel of the colors in nature.

78. Don't fall for color formulas: for instance, the prevailing formula is that colors get cooler (bluer) as objects recede into the distance, yet a touch of pink warmth in that snow on the distant mountain peaks will create the illusion of distance far better than a cooler treatment.

79. Don't fall for color theories: analogous color schemes, complementary color schemes, split complementary, complementary pairs, triads, and so on are meaningless (and sometimes harmful) unless you know the members of your family very well.

80. On the other hand, if you've taken the time and care to know your family members well, you won't much need color formulas and theories; in fact, they may seem limiting after all.

81. Borrow a particularly-attractive color combination from another artist, either warm or cool, and use it in a few of your paintings. This may seem limiting, but you will find that it isn't.

82. Remember that what you find so powerfully attractive about the color in a particular painting has everything to do with the value, warmth, intensity, and proportions of various colors in the painting in relationship to each and one another...imitate those proportions/relationships.

83. You will do yourself an enormous favor if before starting a painting you decide whether the painting is meant to be a cool painting with some warm areas in it or a warm painting with some cool areas…then stick to it. I guess I already mentioned that, so it must be time to end this list!