Also, from looks of my social network feeds, just about all of you are at IMC and will be working through the wee hours of the night having a wonderful time. I am jealous of the inspiration and fun all the IMC'ers are having, but it brings back great memories too!
The reality was that I had no clue how to put a palette together for a painting. I knew that a complimentary palette could be good. Maybe red and green, or orange and blue… but what orange, and what blue? You only have to spend 2 minutes in an art store (or in Photoshop!) to realize that there are a LOT of different hues of blue and orange or any of the basic colors of the spectrum. It can be a bit overwhelming at first.
I do feel I have come a long way in my understanding of color, but I also know that it is something that will provide a deep and satisfying challenge for the rest of my life. Having said that, I will share my approach. I think when people ask me how I choose the colors in my paintings, what they are really asking is, “How do you create a harmonious palette?”
|Cymon and Iphigenia by Lord Frederick Leighton|
Let’s start with a color wheel. It can be any color wheel, as long as it contains the spectrum of colors in their full saturation. For this lesson, I have created a fairly large color wheel that has not only a broad selection of colors fully saturated, but also a couple different levels of saturation. In the center of the wheel is a white circle. This represents the color or temperature of the color of light that the color wheel exists in. – see fig. 1
Look at how the red light has limited the colors. The greens have lost their kick, the yellows are pushed towards orange and the blues towards grey and purple. You could no longer paint with a bright ultramarine blue in this scene and have it feel natural. The color would not feel as if it belonged in the scene. In other words it would no longer be harmonious.
Below is a more extreme version, with the red light at 90%. – see fig. 2a
Now for closer comparison, here is the color wheel with white light next to the palette with red light at 90%. – see fig. 3
Experimenting with temperature
Next, let’s take a look at a painting and see how the painting changes with the temperature of the light.
It is the same in the natural world. If we are wearing a white shirt and we step outside into a beautiful Arizona sunset, we don’t wonder why our shirt just turned peach, we know that the temperature of the light changed and so the whole spectrum shifted with it. If we had a shirt that could somehow retain it’s brilliant white under different colors of light, it would stand out as unnatural. It is the same with our skin. Throughout the average day outside, our skin changes color significantly, as the color of light changes from dawn, noon and dusk. What does this tell us? Perceived color is highly relative.
I had a teacher once tell me that color doesn’t matter. It is a bit dramatic, but the point was this, there isn’t a specific flesh tone or color for spring grass that we can mix once and be done with it. Additionally, you can paint grass just about any color you want as long as it is consistent with the light and environment in your scene and it will be believable. All colors will change with the temperature of the light they are in. This is exciting to understand because even though the palette narrows, it frees us as artists to use the temperature of the light as a powerful brush. Let’s push Seignac’s painting a little further and see what happens.
Look at the skin sampled from the painting – see fig. 6a. The skin has turned from a soft tan to a strong lavender color. That tube of “flesh” colored paint won’t help much at this point.
So how does all this help you choose a palette? The very first decision that I make when determining the color in a painting is to determine the temperature of the light in the scene. Warm or cool light? Will there be a strong color to the light? Now you need to shift the entire palette based on the light in your scene. This will simplify your palette. I find this to be rather beneficial. Every painting isn’t meant to have every single color. Part of the art and craft of painting is choosing which colors to use and manipulate to create your vision. By culling your palette at the beginning this way you are simplifying the range of colors available, sometimes by a significant factor. This is a good thing!
Knowing the mood you want to convey, or maybe there are natural factors like an overcast sky or sunset, will help you determine the temperature of your light in your painting. At first, it might be useful to take a color wheel into Photoshop and shift the color wheel based on the temperature of light you have chosen. The “Photo Filter” tool found under Image>Adjustments is an easy way to experiment.
Let me shift gears for a moment. Pixar does a wonderful job of painting with color. One of my favorite things about their art books is they typically include images of the entire movie in what is called a “color script”. These are like storyboards, but their purpose is to define the color through the entire movie.
It may be helpful at this point to see a range of colors applied to a selection of color spectrums. I am switching from the color wheel to a grid so that we can easily see how the colors change under different light. Fig. 8
This has to do with the physics of light and how atoms are able to absorb or reflect incoming wavelengths of light. Electrons will either absorb incoming energy causing them to vibrate and heat up (which is why black stays black and gets hotter) or they will absorb a the energy temporarily, jumping to a different orbit with the new energy, a quantum leap, and then jump back to their original position. When this happens the remainder of the energy absorbed is reflected as a new wavelength of light, or color. A pure red object under white light is absorbing most of the spectrum and turning it into heat, while casting off the remainder of the energy in a red wavelength. Enough of that!
Back to the color grid. I also find it useful to see the colors less saturated. See fig. 8a
Let’s also take a look at another painting, this time Le Dejeuner Du Matin by William Bougereau. – see fig. 9
This image shows what happens if the rules are broken. The image on the left is the original scan. The image on the right has been shifted with a 50% blue light. While I prefer the original, the image on the right is still successful with its color relationships and the skin is still beautiful and full of subtleties. The image in the middle takes the head from the original and superimposes it on the image from the right. We get what might be called the “Snookie Effect”. It is clear, not just because the head doesn’t match the feet and arms, but the color of the skin is much too warm, and it contains colors that aren’t believable, or possible in the natural world with such a strong blue light illuminating the scene.
As with most rules in art, you can break this rule, and to good effect. Movies will do this all the time to make a character stand out, or draw focus to a part of the screen. Color contrast, specifically color temperature contrast is powerful stuff. Having cool blue light illuminate a magic object in a room lit by warm candles, or a figure glow with warm light in a cool winter scene instantly tells the viewer that something other worldly or unnatural is taking place.
Really all of the above is a long-winded way of stating something fairly simple; so let me try to do so as I conclude.
- Determine the temperature of the light before choosing your palette
- Choose your color palette from the new limited color wheel
- Don’t go outside of the range of colors except for an intended effect
Thanks for giving this post a read,