Friday, 13 August 2010

Colour theory blah, blah

I have just received the September issue of The Artist magazine which contains my latest article on all things artistic, my thoughts on colour mixing, Picasso and other paint related matters goes something like this...


On the bookshelf in my studio, sandwiched between Turners Watercolours in the Tate and Banksys Wall and Piece, I have a copy of ‘A Manual of Oil Painting’, by John Collier, published in 1890.
Within the books pages I am given clear advice, “Economy should be studiously avoided in the setting of the palette; there is nothing more likely to give a bad style in oil painting than insufficiency of colours.”
No offence to John Collier, but in my experience nothing is further from the truth.

Colour mixing is such a subjective process. What works for one artist fails for another, and of course each artists approach is unique when choosing a palette of colours.
However, there are a couple of basic fundamentals that can, and do make all the difference when faced with a sweetie shop of paints to choose from.
These fundamentals are: a limited palette always works best and a limited palette always works best.

I always think of painting and colour mixing in a similar way to cooking; as great fun as it might be to create a dish using twenty ingredients, unless you are Gordon Ramsay, it is pretty difficult to pull off anything worth eating.
However, if you concentrate on just a few quality ingredients the task becomes infinitely easier.
The same process applies to colour mixing - fewer colours equals great results.
A palette full of sweetie shop madness equals a disappointing canvas of mud.

As Picasso said in 1966, "They'll sell you thousands of greens. Veronese green and emerald green and cadmium green and any sort of green you like; but that particular green, never."

Well, what colours do you use? I hear you ask.
Very few, usually only Ultramarine, Cadmium Red, Cadmium Yellow and Burnt Umber plus of course good old Mr Cobalt and his lovely wife Mrs Titanium White.
With these few basic essentials I can mix pretty much any colour I need.
You might have noticed that I don’t use black.
This is simply because, for me, black from a tube is pretty full on and demanding, a bit like having a naughty child who has a head full of E numbers.

Instead I like to mix my own black, using a delicious combination of Burnt Umber and Ultramarine.
Of course the mix isn’t a true black, but it is dark.
Furthermore it is rich, deep and satisfying.

You will also notice that I don’t use greens, instead I find it far more interesting to mix my own.

My palette of colours certainly shouldn’t be taken as the definitive list, some artists love green from a tube…as a fellow artist who shall remain nameless says, “admitting that you use Hookers Green from the tube is a bit like admitting that you are an alcoholic, but I use it because its great”.

And of course everyone’s view on colour is unique and personal, “How lovely yellow is! It stands for the sun” – Vincent van Gogh, “What a horrible thing yellow is.” – Edgar Degas or even “They call me mellow yellow...” - Donovan.

After experimenting with colour and refining your palette you become best friends with certain colours, you get to know each other, you get to know what makes the other tick, what you can do with Ultramarine and his friends and also what doesn’t work.
This is priceless practice time, you simply can’t skip the ‘get the palette right’ stage, you’re choice of colours is your bedrock upon which you can build your paintings.

“Colour and I are one. I am a painter." - Paul Klee, 1914.

Mr Klee nailed it with that quote, he knew how colour behaved, how it worked and how it enjoyed mingling with other colours.

When you are as great a painter as Paul Klee, you can of course use as many sweetie shop colours as you like, because purely down to experience, practice and intuition you can control the whole orchestra.

But for us mere mortals, think limited palette.

My own adventures in paint have gone through many stages, from tight oils, using twenty different colours to my current work using only five.
Of course that isn’t to say that I never add or work with other colours.
Sometimes a tiny dash of orange or a blast of pink can revitalise a painting, often the tiniest stroke will lift the painting to another level.
Also, it’s a great idea to change your palette now and again. Introduce new colours and discard others. You will gain much more knowledge of colour mixing and your work will develop along the way.

Recently I have been using a lot of collage, trashy magazine cut outs mainly.
These often abstracted shapes and garish colours give me exactly the unexpected juxtaposition of colour that I crave.
By using this random technique the work almost paints itself and creates it’s own life, it’s own magic.

It is this collage technique that led me to my current blue and pink obsession, as seen in ‘Small Busy Harbour.’
The magic of blue and pink, like the magic of any colour combinations lies in the composition and placement of colour.
Angela A’Court sums up colour placement best…
“Sometimes when I'm having a colour moment I think to myself, okay what would be the most disgusting colour to add here? Sometimes that 'disgusting' can turn out to be 'surprising' and 'completely gorgeous'.”
That statement is so true and works almost every time, just try it, you will be amazed.

I personally have no idea why one colour can transform another, but when it does, it’s like hitting the jackpot.
Even Picasso was puzzled “Why do two colors, put one next to the other, sing? Can one really explain this? No.”

When it comes down to the actual mixing of paint, it pays to remember that it is easy to tone down a bright colour but very difficult to brighten a dull colour, therefore start bright and you can’t go too far wrong.
It is also easy to get bogged down by the whole Hue, Tone, Chroma malarkey.
I’ll tell you about these three muskateers and how they work, but then feel free to forget it all and simply concentrate on experimenting with the three primary colours and their three complimentary colours, as that is all you really need to know.
The colour mix triangle shows the three primaries, yellow, red and blue and also shows when mixed, their complimentary colours green, orange and purple.
When mixing three of the above you can create a myriad of tertiary colours.

But for all you colour theory geeks out there here is my run down:
HUE is basically another name for the actual colour of a pigment.
You might well have noticed the word ‘hue’ used on paint tubes. This is because the term ‘hue’ is also used to show that a colour is not made from the pigments that were originally used for that paint, but equivalents that are either less expensive, safer or more lightfast.
TONE can also be called value and basically measures how light or dark a colour is, just like a black and white photograph.
TONE pays no attention to HUE.
Where Mr Tone comes unstuck is when he is placed against other colours or tones, so for instance, a mid Cadmium red will look darker placed against a pale colour than it will when placed against a dark colour.
Finally, CHROMA which can also be called saturation. Chroma measures how intense the colour is. Chroma is pure, bright colour as opposed to colours that have been lightened with white or darkened.

Colour, colour mixing, colour theory…

At the end of the day colour comes down to one thing, “When I haven't any blue I use red.” – Pablo Picasso.

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