Understanding the qualities of colour

©Stuart Bush, The Kingdom (2009) oil on canvas 150 x85 cm
It is amusing to me to remember how naive I was when I finished art school. I expected to be a finished article, ready to be able to take on the world. However, I slowly realised I had a lot to learn to be a successful artist. All I really had in place at this point were a couple of foundations. I had learned to resolve problems through experimenting and by researching.
 
I can remember trying to make a particular grass coloured green that would work well with other colours on a painting. It was very frustrating working on a painting and being pleased with the results and then completely spoiling the painting with the wrong colour; in this case, green.  I mixed cobalt blue with cadmium lemon.  Instead of arriving at the right mix, I had a dullish green mix on my palette, once applied, it destroyed my painting.
 
I was already aware that complementary colours such as red, purple, blue, green, yellow and orange, create the colours around the colour wheel, these complementary colours can bring out the inherent characteristics of each other.  But when it came to improving the colour harmony in my paintings I need to build on my knowledge. 
 
I researched and read about the differences between student and artist quality oil paints and their depth of colour. I realised to lift my paintings to be true, vibrant and durable I needed to spend more on my materials. The outcome of this was that I stopped using student quality paints.  I researched the classic palettes that artists have used for centuries and filled in the gaps in my selection of paints. I acquired the classic palette with artist quality paints. Titanium white, cadmium yellow, cadmium red, ultramarine blue, yellow ochre, raw umber, burnt umber, burnt sienna, venetian red, indian red and ivory black.
 
I realised I needed to experiment with colours to see their real characteristics and this can’t be carried out while the paint is still in the tube.  Not only do I need to be able to see the colours; I need to know what proportions to mix them in to give the shade, tone and hue I require.  
 
Colour swatch – blue and white
 
To resolve the problem, I spent a few hours creating colour swatches for my studio wall.  My first task was to make a value scale of cobalt blue with titanium white.  By varying the saturation of colour, I created a tonal value of one to seven.  One being the lightest and seven being the darkest.  I extended this with other blues to see their tones and shades.
 
Through this simple task, I was able to understand the attributes and the properties of the colour.  I completed this for all my colours.  It enabled me to make a better selection and create a more harmonious colour scheme in my paintings; well almost…
 
I soon realised that I was now able to choose the right colour in a tube but what if I needed to mix paint to get make a particular colour.  After all, there are millions of colours and in my classic palette there are only nine colours, plus black and white. I set about making colour swatches with all my blues individually mixed with all my yellows in value scales, so at least I could start with an understanding of green. 
Blue and green coloured swatch
I expanded this further with other colours. With this simple guide of colour swatches, I resolved many of the problems I had been facing.  I realised the only way to make some colours, like a deep violet, I would need to purchase that colour separately. By carrying out the task of creating colour tests swatches, it has helped me to remember colours a lot better.  
 
I had solved the problem through research and experimenting to get a better understanding and knowledge of my palette and the colours that were possible.  This has made the process of choosing the right colours to mix together a lot easier.  It certainly helps to make me feel more confident and decisive when using colour to invoke the physical, physiological and psychological responses I am looking for in my paintings.

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