“Art is that which pulls the trigger of a suppressed emotion.”— Oliver Wendell Holmes

Color Defined by Light

The goal here is not to copy nature exactly (although nature is never too base to study) but to discern clues of how the local or “specific” colors (the isolated colors we recognize from a paint manufacturer’s color sample) are changed by a particular condition of light and atmosphere. For example, a landscape is never a series of repetitive, local greens; it is overwhelmed by the prevailing condition of light — sun, clouds, mist, or fog. The overall tone of light affects the landscape first. Then, various individual colors describe different smaller forms within each larger area. To translate and record this in paint, then seek a simplicity of description suggesting the strongest feelings.

Depending upon the strength of the light, the color of the area in shade may be substantially different from that area where the light strikes directly, even on the same local-colored area. Shade and light areas of the same local color can never be lighter or darker versions of the same pigments. They will be different colors that show each separately lit area. When painting, the painter must keep many things in mind. When modifying the color and value of one area, he or she must constantly compare its color and value to the adjacent area and all other areas of the painting. And, as we will see in the section on ‘Working Methods,’ this process of comparing areas of color and value begins with achieving accuracy in the largest areas, or ‘masses,’ before proceeding to smaller areas that provide a more specific definition.

Light vs. Decoration

There is a sharp distinction between paintings displayed as decorations and those treasured for their intrinsic beauty. A decorative painting is often marked by the necessity of having a definite color note as a binding force in its construction. By contrast, a fine arts painting has a range of colors that identifies a particular effect of light, presenting the variety of unrepeated colors visible under a natural condition of light. Decorative work, then, has a general tendency toward closely harmonized relationships of color and value accented by modulations of color intensity. This is often done by either supporting opposing hues with a solid undertone or using variations of the same color to describe all elements within a painting — in effect, running the same color through the entire work.

The above declaration for color does not mean that full color cannot be decorative or that limited color cannot be high art. Color by itself is not the only element required in a good painting. Instead, what we have here is a point of view that much of what we call great art uses color to describe a condition of light. In a decorative work, the figures and objects are often passive and seldom break through the picture plane to engage one emotionally. The viewer remains a spectator rather than a participant.

However, this does not mean that a fine art painting cannot maintain a quiet mood. A painter does not need to indulge in the turbulent storms and dramatic abnormalities of nature to convey a meaningful perception. In decorative painting, as defined by light falling on the scene, color is ignored in favor of repetitive color harmonies often combined with an easily identifiable image. In fact, the subject matter often takes precedence over the harmonizing color pattern. The problem is then compounded. Influenced by contemporary fashion, the painter has disfigured the sheer beauty he or she sought to achieve.

Colored Tonalism

Another form of decorative painting is called “colored tonalism”. This style of painting, practiced much today, relies on gradations of the same color to describe each shape within the scene. For example, a vase in a still life, or face in a portrait, may be rendered in light or dark shades of the same color. The foliage in a landscape, mimicking the Impressionist manner, may be described in different saturations of the same bluish-gray.

Has our increasingly urban culture become accustomed to pictures in which, however, the light falls or the shape recedes, a sameness of color? Or duplications of matching grays? I think not. As we have seen, different colors must be used to show light and recession. It is just that those who paint using a single color scheme for each shape succumb to commercialism and the decorative tastes of living quarters instead of relying on the innumerable colors of nature.

Paint from Life

Painting from life goes beyond derivation and decoration. Painting before nature gives the painter an understanding of how colors relate to one another. Only by being in front of a scene can one see the intensity of a pinkish sky, the earthy color in rocks, the clear reds and purples of the setting sun, and the brilliant silver and golden grays near the horizon. Only by seeing these colors directly can one describe this vitality.

Values: Lightness and Darkness

As there is an almost infinite range of color in what we see and paint, so is there an equal range of light and dark. When the painter first glances at a scene –squinting the eyes to see the largest areas — he or she may perceive an evenness to all the light areas and, separately, the dark areas. However, within the overall light area and the dark, there exist many different distinctions of value. Just as he or she must record these subtleties in their different colors, so should he or she denote their different values — and values lie in color, they are an abstraction of color.

Colors Never Repeat Themselves

In the painter’s field of view, each area is a different color and a different value, neither of which ever repeats in that scene. The truth of this simple fact is easier to grasp in concept than to put into practice. Have not we seen many works, even in museums, where the grassy field rolls off into the distance in the same greenish-yellow? Perhaps it is modified by a lighter value as it recedes, but it is the same color nevertheless. But we sense that this entraps us somehow. We know that when we are standing in front of a similar scene, the color of the near foreground is far more intense and of a more robust character of color than it is in the distance.

We prove to ourselves that colors in nature never repeat themselves. And, of course, the great painters knew this; that is why their work had so much vitality. As we understand from the above discussion, it is also true that different saturations of color — the varying intensity of a single hue — do not repeat in the same scene. Only artificially on a paint manufacturer’s sampling of color chips can a color be the same. Under natural light, even the same “local” colors will be distinguished as different. Each must occupy a unique physical space and hence be seen in a different light. Grasping this subtlety of diverse color is a major confusion in painting.



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