Gathering Storm 1884 Ivan Shishkin
Read more about Shishkin and the other Russian Itinerant artists.
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The visual artist who works with color has a tall, but very interesting mountain to climb. We start by intuitively playing with colors as children. Our choices are free and somewhat arbitrary. Fun. Our senses are not well-developed to perceive subtleties in shades or values at first, and so we paint that way. As we grow, our innate sensitivity to all things visual grows and our appreciation of the vast world of color begins to develop. The more we look, the more we tend to see. The more paintings made, the greater the proficiency and sensitivity to color. It is a positive feedback loop which is never-ending.
There are two ways to learn about colors and color mixing—trial and error, or the science of color theory. Ann and I both had the good fortune to have taken color theory classes in art school. They provided a solid theoretical foundation for the work of mixing paint that was to come. Color theory provides a framework, based on the color wheel, for understanding color, color temperature, harmonies, complementaries and all the various color relationships and combinations which can be made. It is the starting point for experimenting purposefully with color and using it deliberately to create an effect.
Although color theory is a very valuable way to understand color, one can also learn all about the colors on the palette by methodically cross-mixing each color together in a grid, as Richard Schmid recommends and demonstrates in his iconic book, Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting. By the time one has done this laborious exercise, one will know for certain how to make any color out of any other color on your particular palette. It may seem like a tedious way to go, but it works, and the lesson will never be forgotten.
As a young painter, I didn’t want to do exercises—I wanted to paint. After a while, though, I realized that I was often guessing about color relationships and doing a lot of re-painting. That’s when I started to collect books about painting and color. In addition to the Schmid books, one of my favorites is the late Ted Goerschner’s Oil Painting: The Workshop Experience. Goerschner’s painting style was bright and impressionistic, but based on solid color theory. In this terrific book, Ted showed us how he arranged his special palette of colors and worked through some basic color wheel relationships in easy-to-understand demonstrations. Ted also developed his own colorful grays which he mixed up each time he laid out his palette. He knew by heart how each of his grays combined with his other tube colors to create a wide range of colorful neutrals which made up the largest masses in his paintings. The entire book is a delightful education in advanced color use.
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