To help fellow artists achieve their color goals, I’ve documented how I approached a recent painting in terms of color and composition.
I’ve taken many workshops, read many art books–but at the end of the day (at least for me), practicing the craft by covering miles of canvas is essential. It’s funny too how I’ve not really grasped much of what I was told (or read) until later in my art career. There are many skills I thought I learned years ago, but I find myself now revisiting them, developing a deeper understanding.
An essential book on painting is Charles Hawthorne’s “On Painting“. He wrote,
“Painting, is just getting one spot of color in relation to another spot…. Let color make form, do not make form and Color it.”
Sounds simple, right? If you’re a painter, you know better! I keep coming back to his advice because it’s so powerful. Simple ideas always are. I followed Hawthorne’s advice in this painting.
To get started, the first priority for me is design/composition. A strong design will attract the eye when the viewer is across the room. It will draw people in.
My first step was a simple charcoal drawing on paper, where I could adjust and experiment with ideas easily. Since the subject is architecture, there are design constraints. Unlike a cloud or seaside white water, I don’t have the complete freedom to create shapes that play well together. So for this image, the architecture needed to be solid, but I had to ensure all the components (trees, sky, etc.) supported a coherent design.
In this sketch, I thought about the big shapes and how they related to each other. I considered principles I first learned by reading Edgar Payne’s “Composition of Outdoor Painting“: creating balance among large shapes; balancing organic, loose forms (trees) with architectural elements; ensuring there’s a comfortable amount of space between primary shapes; avoiding repetitive shapes; etc. For example, I shifted the bush in the lower right of the painting leftward, so I could intersect those greens against the garage door’s complementary reds.
Next, color. Given this subject is primarily architecture, it’s a bit easier to find the right color. Flat planes like walls don’t have a lot of variation (like a tree). Even so, I approached mixing color the same way. I mix a pile of color (see pic below) for each of the major areas of the painting on the palette before I touch the canvas, one pile for an object in light, the other for the shade side of the object.
To get accurate color spots, I use a technique I’ve written about before here called “brush in front.” Also, to increase vibrancy, I started with a single color that is key to the scene, and built the rest of the painting around it. For this painting, I started with pure Cadmium Red Light for the garage door in light, and then mixed a completely different color for the door in shadow. I’ll often apply this to other paintings: start with the most exciting color, place it on the canvas, and then make all the surrounding colors relate to it.
Another point about color I’ll make here. In nature, true color in a scene is rarely duplicated across objects–unless of course the objects (tree type, whatever) are the same. Think about the hillsides you’ve seen with various types of trees and vegetation. If you observe closely, none of the colors are the same among disparate objects, so why use the same base pigments to represent them?
To make objects stand out (my goal was a sunlit-colorful design), I use color separation and avoid repeating color formulas for objects of the same hue. So, for example, the greens in the building were mixed using a different set of blues and yellows on my palette than those of the trees, and the grass was yet another combination of pigments. This becomes apparent when you look at the final painting below. See how the character of each green is distinct.
After drawing the design on canvas, I applied spots of paint to key areas where I could judge the adjacency of color. For example, if you look at the garage door and driveway, I placed the three spots together in the drawing so I could ensure they relate before painting the entire area. In the upper left, I placed the sky color right next to the tree, and so on. Placing these spots allows me to further adjust color as needed on the palette, because as Hawthorne wrote, it’s the relationship among colors that’s important. An alternative is to paint directly on canvas and then continually adjust paint there, but I find that that muddies the color. I’d rather get the color right the first time on the palette, and this mixing technique does it for me.
After making some adjustments, I filled in the drawing with paint, keeping things as simple as possible. I believe that simplicity results in a more powerful image. While I did model the tree on the right a bit with some dark and light colors, in general I kept the planes of color flat. If I’ve mixed the correct lit and shadow colors, form will happen.
I’m happy with this one. I was able to recreate the feeling I had when I saw this scene. I hope you see the same, and that you found this demonstration was useful! Feel free to ask questions or provide feedback in comments below. This painting is available for purchase here. Happy painting!