Thursday, April 9, 2009

Observed color and coloring by formula


The crucified Christ, Peter Rubens

The comment board lit up after that last post. Everybody must love the subject of color. I think after this post I will get all sorts of comments, maybe even some villagers with pitchforks. Remember I am more than 32 feet tall and weigh over 1600 pounds.

On the comment section we were way ahead of the subject of the post so I want to review briefly the idea of observed color. I am discussing the act of coloring a painting in these posts, and the different means to achieve that. The science of color is part of that means, but I hope to draw a difference between that and observed color.

By observed color I mean the color one gets in a painting by matching the colors in the landscape
(or still life etc. ) that is before you. It is color taken by notation from nature, rather than invented or arrived at through technical means. Essentially this is impressionist color. For most outdoor painters this is how color is applied to a painting. They look out there, see it and mix a note that looks like it and place that on the canvas.

Until well into the 19th century most painting was done in the studio and not outside. The colors that allowed artists to effectively work in a high key and hit the colors of nature in sunlight didn't exist before then, nor did the collapsible paint tubes that made a painters kit more portable. When painting landscapes or allegorical scenes for that matter, these artists either invented the whole thing, or made careful drawings outside and then made their paintings inside.
They were not before the subject, but in their studio, or else painting something they couldn't pose in front of them, like a satyr. It was necessary to use some means to choose the colors to hang on their drawings. I know I am going to generate negative comments with this, but;


If I were to hold up a black and white reproduction of the Mona Lisa you would all recognize it instantly. If I could hold before you only its colors you wouldn't know it from thousands of other brown and green paintings. This paramount importance of drawing in representational painting is why if you get the values (a part of drawing ) right, you can make something, almost any color and it will "work".


This leads me to the next sort of color one can use in a painting. What my teachers', teachers called, coloring by formula.

The word formula has a negative connotation for us today, that it did not, in the preceding centuries. Formula sounded scientific and orderly, like you knew what you were doing. Today we are accustomed to a negative use of the word formula .

A critic might call formulaic, a made for television movie about a tough, streetwise woman detective with a heart of gold, fighting for the ones she loves, against a ruthless psychotic killer whom she eventually shoots after a struggle involving a dropped handgun, while he totters on the parapet of a tall building.

When I use the word formula here, it is a term of description from our artistic heritage rather than a negative judgment about some method of painting.

Coloring by formula means the use of technical methods to arrive at the colors in a painting, rather than observation . Many of these methods come out of color theory and various ways to choose colors that involve the relationships of colors placed about a wheel. Practitioners of this, form chords , dissonant notes, accents all determined by their locations in relation to one another on a color wheel.

When you see a Poussin or a Tiepelo you are seeing examples of a painting colored by formula. Contemporary illustrators both in traditional mediums and in computer generated art routinely use formal, scientific, rational systems, ( sometimes even mechanized for those computer guys ) to color in their drawings.

I will go into some of these systems when I actually address color on its own in a later "chapter " As you may suspect I am tying this discussion of color to design. Observed color is discovered in nature, it is not designed. As soon as we begin using logic's of various sorts we are designing (or scheming ) our color. Coloring by formula is taking charge of your color and arranging it by a system.

There are other systems besides the color wheel too. There are tonalist methods of which there are several. One is to add a given color to every note on the painting. A sort of drone that runs throughout the color. The other tonalist method is to feature a color by avoiding its opposites. If you want a painting in a yellow tone you stay out of the purple. You might use a tonalist method to represent the look of night. I know, that's way oversimplified, but explaining tonalist theory is not my goal in this post.

Another way of setting a formula for color is to use a prepared palette. There are many contemporary painters who come from the the Art Students League who have elaborate pre prepared palettes that install a sort of color in their work. Often they will have a box mounted above their palette containing dozens of pre mixed "strings" of color. They would probably say it is just a means of capturing the look of nature. I believe that is not so, as I can always recognize a painting made from this palette. If it were limpid and neutral I could not. Either way there are some fine painters using that palette. If you find the masterful work of Frank Mason you can see what I am referring to.

Some of the time I work in a severely reduced palette, containing only earth colors. This amounts to a formula as well. I control how the painting will look by limiting the possible colors I can make. Its mechanical, but works very well for me.

There are also color schemes lifted from nature itself, but not from the thing actually represented, such as a painting the color of rose petals and leaves accented with cream. Or a scheme based on the plumage of a particular bird. There are also color formulas from allied arts. Whistler lifted color schemes from oriental wood block prints. I knew a fine painter years ago whose every painting was the color of 500 dollar suits.

These are all means to the end of designing our color. We are using reason to plan a paintings' color.


*LillaVi* said...

Nice blogg ;)

Stapleton Kearns said...


Thank you. I see you are Swedish. The land of Anders Zorn and Karl Larson. Painters know and admire the artistic heritage of Sweden. Zorn is now particularly admired by painters here.Your profile is in Swedish,which I can't read.Your profile gives your occupation as livsaskadare.I wonder what that is?....Stape.

armandcabrera said...


Another thought provoking post.
I think any formula used without judgement is a recipe for disaster eventually. Painters need to think for themselves, learn as much as they can and build on the past.

My problem with the Hensche, Dumond schools is they don't produce any better painters than the rest of the painters not using those system.

Ultimately a painters ability and the marketplace will decide if their ideas are successful.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I believe a formula should be a tool of judgment, not a substitute for it.

The Hensche, Dumond, and my own Gammell tradition all have provided platforms for the training of fine painters. These fine painters have all taken what they found useful from their "school" of painting and become their own artist.Each of these teachers were a gateway into painting for hundreds of young artists who otherwise would have been fed into the maw of art school conformity or the sort of Bob Ross production painting so perplexingly adored by public or what we used to call educational television.It is easy to forget how few alternatives there were for a young painter when these guys were teaching.
I incidentally knew several Dumond students. One of whom is still alive.

jeff said...

Hensche and DuMond are very different and their palettes show that.

I studied with Frank Mason who is a wonderful painter. The palette he had his students use, the one you all are eluding too came from DuMond and is based on using strings of values that are tied to the values of cadmium's for the most part. It's not a formula for making a painting, it's way of organizing a palette.

It's a tool and nothing more. I think when a person is starting to learn to paint it's good for them to learn to mix value strings. This helps with understanding how to pitch a painting. That was the point of DuMonds and Reilly's palette. They are controlled palettes as opposed to open.

I should also add John Osborne as he also uses DuMond's palette. What the DuMond landscape palette of strings does do is help to see how violet, blue and gray play into creating the illusion of how light creates an atmospheric effect.

I think the main problem with using this kind of palette is that often most people don't get off of second base.

That is they get pretty good paintings but the violet control aspect can become a little heavy.
Shadows can tend towards to much blue/violet and so on. I know as I have had these problems.

Personally I still use this palette some times and I mostly use 9 or 12 colors at most. I still use a gray scale all the time as I find the grays are the best control for most painting situations.

The thing is I think all who are writing here are pretty close in more ways then they think. The DuMond palette is a good way to learn about value and color relationships. How to mass forms and so on. I think one can arrive at the same conclusions with using a simple palette with high and low chroma colors and by mixing and checking using the palette knife and squinting. As one would do in measuring when drawing.

I also use Munsell to help me mix strings. I like this idea, it helps me plan the main notes, and I don't have spend a lot of time mixing all the time. Which is good when your painting a still life with fruit or flowers and time is off the essence.

"My problem with the Hensche, Dumond schools is they don't produce any better painters than the rest of the painters not using those system."

I can say the same thing about any landscape school, that they don't produce paintings any better than say any other. Not sure how this validates one idea over another.
It says more about the individual painters than the idea. Mason is one hell of painter and so was Robert Maione to name a few. John Osborne is no slouch. Edgar Payne used a totally different set of ideas, although similar in some ways
and he produced fine work as well.
Clyde Aspervig is another wonderful painter who comes to mind.

I think the problem to overcome is when systems become crutches and not a means to an end.

Also using the market place as a way of judging anything is kind of a red herring. Frans Hals died in the poor house. Thomas Kinkade as well as Bob Ross were and are more successful than most in their lifetimes. The work is awful however the market has rewarded them very handsomely.

Stapleton Kearns said...


I have deliberately avoided dissing the Dumond or the Hensche palettes.I referred in my blog to Frank Mason as masterful.I have in an early post described seeing Hensche do a demo and being awe struck by it.I knew Paul Strisik and Rudy Colao, both Dumond students and I have done a two man show with John Osborne. If I were to stop and think, I probably have known another dozen folks on the Dumond palette. For me all of these things are part of the environment. They were here when I got here.I have known fine painters using both of these palettes.I avoid talking down other painters as best I can. I probably should not have taken a shot at Bob Ross,but he is dead and I can't hurt him. My intent with this blog is that it be a tutorial. If I go whacking great segments of the painting population I will offend rather than teach.
The market tends to sort things out somewhat, in the sense that I have to make a living to continue painting hard enough to develop my skills rather than working at the carwash.I can't imagine how I could do this as a part time gig.I would rather be sorted by the market than the Boston Globe,the faculty of RISD or an organ of the state. Either way I have spent 30 years in the art market and it feels like home.The market is not as good a yardstick of success as the RESPECT OF YOUR PEERS.There are folks with enough money to paint with out financial success. My own teacher Ives Gammell was one of them. The respect of your peers is hard to buy....Stape

jeff said...

I hear you, and I agree with your statement "formula should be a tool of judgment, not a substitute for it".

I was responding to Armand's post. I agree with him in that I think if one becomes a slave to a particular method and that can be a crutch which is what I think he was hinting at. Using a method to solve problems is not always going to work. With landscape painting nature is always throwing curve balls and sliders.

DuMond was trying to figure out a way to deal with prismatic effect of light passing through the atmosphere. Payne was trying to do the same thing only using what he was taught and from reading his book it seems to me these two have very similar ideas about how to approach landscape painting.

I see a connection to all of these ideas and methods. Although Hensche is moving a little to far away from nature for me.

I make my living teaching, and some sales of my work. It's very hard though. I admire people like yourself who have somehow found a way to keep going doing your work.

I have know a fair amount who have had some success as young painters and now they can't give them away.
I think the market is fickle. Having a good business sense is not a bad thing that's for sure.

Getting back to the topic, what do you think of the idea that most of what we see in nature is low to very low in chroma.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Jeff: I must be brief as I am trying to get tomorrows post out and I am exhausted. I think of nature a being grave as compared with my palette. The pigments are so concentrated. I often drop the key of my paintings to bring their color down to a range where I can use my colors without adding a lot of white....Stape

armandcabrera said...

Jeff and Stapleton,

In my attempt to be brief I was not very clear. I apologize if I came off sounding pompous. My idea was not to denigrate these schools but to point out there are many roads to success.
I've sidetracked the conversation from what was an excellent post on observed color, so again my apologies.


Stapleton Kearns said...

You are apologizing to someone named Stapleton for being pompous?

I am glad you are all out there. This would be an absurd waste of time for me if no one was reading it.