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April 2013

Using an Old Standby to Increase Your Color Sensitivity

What you think you know about color - without discovering what you don't know - will only keep you working in the same place, repeating the same color mistakes, without understanding why.

My art professors, all coming from a contemporary background - saw and used color in a unique way, and color charts were used to understand value and "push/pull" contrast, not the full range of color.  But as my painting evolved I began to appreciate color differently, and began looking for ways to increase my sensitivity.

It started when I was listening to an artist share the story from his early years, and how that "boring exercise" grew into a true love of color.  His sophisticated color sense is one of the hallmarks of his work today. That reminded me of Richard Schmid's book Alla Prima, which was on my book shelf, which also talked about color charts, which I had promised myself I would get to "some day."  Followed by a magazine article about another artist whose work I admire for his color sense, also showing...color charts. 

Maybe I need to be hit on the head a few times to get the message. 

So I set the goal of doing color charts. And after struggling with what I had on hand to make my charts, I quickly realized I was defeating the purpose. My results were messy. I forgot to leave space to indicate the colors used.  I was totally disorganized. 

 

Then I found custom made chart board blanks from Randal Gordon McClure, on his website ColorFrontier.com.

 

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These are a few of the color charts I've completed in preparation for a painting I have planned. 

 

Repetition in color mixing allowed me to discover that I did not utilize the full value range available. I often perceived colors to be in the "light range" when in fact they were closer to mid-value.  I began to understand which mixtures desaturated quickly, and which pigments could overwhelm every other color.  I discovered some beautiful grays, more options for creating chromatic darks, and learned a cleaner way to mix the color I needed.  If I started with the right two base colors, I could avoid the tendency to keep adding "something else" to get to the right color note.

As artists, we first learn color theory.  Then we use what is learned from books and workshops, even from professors who teach differing viewpoints about the best use of color. And it's just as necessary to find your own understanding, to make color your own, not just a replication of what has been done before.

This is the challenge to the growing artist - to first understand the way you use color, compare that to the way you want to use color, and then find a way to bridge the gap. 

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Below: First stage of the painting on my easel.  After working on a thumbnail, I used dry brush and wash of viridian, alizarin, and ultramarine blue to set up the value pattern.  I wiped out to get some light areas and spent more time on this stage than I habitually do, wanting to be sure I had a strong foundation.  I usally plunge in recklessly at this point (because I love the act of painting) - so I decided to do some color charts first to settle on my final color choices.  I hope I can achieve my goals of creating beautiful color and brushwork - and my intent at this point is to settle first on the colors I will use, so that I do not repeat old habits of overworking and resorting to the palette knife to get cleaner colors. 

 

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Art, Philosophy, and the Curly Willow Tree

We spent the weekend cutting down a curly willow tree that had grown too large for the space in our back yard.  As each branch came down I mourned the loss of this tree I loved and often painted, yet realized that the grass needed sunlight, the foundation of our house needed to be free from evasive roots, and the risk of heavy winds eventually toppling the tree into the neighbor’s yard required the removal.  We stacked the curled green branches in a corner of the yard in preparation for the trip to the landfill – and by the following morning the small sparrows and finches that had wintered over in the neighbor’s evergreens had moved into the thicket, thrilled with their new home. 

Now I will have to worry about the wildlife and clearing it away before they start building nests and laying eggs. 

This is life, though, leaving one phase behind, finding new purpose, moving on.  As an artist, I often feel the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations, and my career aspirations compete heavily with realities of life.  In this way I am like the curly willow serving only one purpose, that of shading the yard and providing still life material – instead of seeing the potential beyond one set path.  Understanding this keeps my spirit alive, my zest for following my own artistic aspirations.

I have been reading the book George Inness: Writings and Reflections on Art and Philosophy.  Among the ideas that motived Inness this one stood out: “Indeed, Inness would, in image and word, become a vocal advocate for creating original works of art that would, as he put it, not ‘instruct’ or ‘edify’ his viewers but ‘awaken an emotion’ – any kind of emotion – in them.”  Regardless of his sometimes unorthodox painting methods, or his connections to Swedenborgian religious theory regarding color and numbers, Inness was able to communicate the emotional experience of the landscape that has stood the test of time. 

For me, the important message from Inness, and from other notable landscape artists through the centuries, is that the art of landscape does not lie solely in the craftsman’s ability to apply paint, or the draftsman’s ability to render an accurate tree, or the plein air painter’s ability to turn out a pleasing painting under time and weather pressure. 

It lies in more difficult territory.  It is the same elusive ability of the poet to articulate beauty.  It, perhaps, has a deeper connection to philosophy than to the rules of composition or color theory.  As a practicing, growing, struggling artist I work constantly to achieve these goals, moving from the fundamentals like color charts, to studying composition, to thinking about “what do I want to say” – just like you, just like nearly every other artist out there striving to reach their own goals. 

And it seems to me that these days it’s harder to do for artists over the age of fifty, where the current attitude can be just as disheartening as those attitudes from years ago.  Where the “women are not successful because they give up their art in return for nurturing their families” has been replaced by “older artists need to ‘do art’ to keep their brains healthy and functioning.”  Where the well-meaning assumptions from the status quo are that we are victims of our personalities and our biology, that art is either something we easily trade off or pick up to solve some other “more important” problem. 

Does that idea make you mad?

Weather we are Sunday Painters, or avid competitors, whether we seek recognition or prefer humble isolation, creating Art for the artist is of no less importance than music for the musician, or a novel for the writer. 

And that is the real message of the curly willow.

No matter what form it takes, your need to create and to share the magic with others, will shelter you, whether the branches are high, waving in the wind, or low, protecting the nests.