Have you ever had a conversation with Siri or Alexa about color? If you haven’t, you can ask the question, “What is the color green?”
The other day that’s what I did. Her answer was matter-of-fact Wikipedia perfect. The answer coming out of our kitchen’s “smart speaker” inspired me to share some thoughts on the many hues of color, like green, that the human eye sees, which is especially noticeable when viewing nature.
I find it fascinating how different people can look at the same object and see two entirely different colors. Vision scientists can offer explanations on why their eyes filter light differently. It’s known that one person might see red, yet another blue. Color theory and science is far too complex for me to explain so I’ll leave that to the experts.
If you are interested here is a good resource on how people see color.
Green in Hanale’i Versus Green in Seattle
We are now living in the wonderful Pacific Northwest, or PNW for short. The rich evergreen forests and the dim, most often blue-grey skies offer an entirely different palette of greens than what I experienced when living in the vibrant Garden Island of Kaua’i, Hawaii. The landscapes in both regions can be stunning due to the varied typography.
Think about your art as having different regions. The foreground colors have greater intensity than the middle-ground or background colors. Middle-ground is more intense than the background. So the pigments in foreground colors are richer. They actually contain more pigment. Getting the eye to flow through these three spaces is more complex than just adding white to dilute the colors, or watering the down colors.
When viewing artists’ works from different regions, color intensity can be quite noticeable. There are general guidelines for creating a pleasing palette no matter what region the art depicts. The art should convey depth and vibrancy, a resonance that draws the viewer right into the art.
The changes in the depth of an image from foreground to background could be called Atmospheric Perspective. An unsuspecting artist might try lowering the intensity of color in an attempt to achieve this, but the same colors are not meant to be used in all regions.
(Of course there are exceptions. A stylized painting might focus more on brush strokes and may not care about depth. Their intention is for the eye to be captured by their unique style.)
Is it time for Windsor Blue or Ultramarine Blue?
If you are in a Seattle and painting the sky, the blues will appear more gray (most of the time). But if you are living on Kaua’i where the sun shines brightly most days, your blues will be truer to sky blue.
If you are painting a close up of a flower in Seattle the sky’s reflection may make the flower appear less vibrant than if you were seeing the same flower in Hawaii. The intensity may be different but what remains the same is the formula for painting foreground, middleground, and background.
When viewing a captivating image you’ll begin to notice not all blues are meant for all places. The same for reds, yellows, and greens! If you want your art to unconsciously draw the viewer in, it’s important to understand how to set up your palette.
A Guy From Montana
One day on a fluke I met a very nice guy named Dave Ewart who is an artist from Montana. I was displaying some of my hand-painted silk scarves at a mall and he was setting up to teach watercolor classes. We chatted for a bit then I viewed some of his artwork. Whoa, I thought, his work was very impressive. His technique exhibited a lot of skill but it wasn’t just that. Something was different…it was the light.
His paintings were so natural–like magic I was drawn right into each piece of art. It seemed like I walked right in while I imagined what it would be like to head down the road and into the forest. I noticed it didn’t matter what the subject was or if the piece was a closeup portrait or a landscape. All had the same effect.
In all my years of art education I was never taught what I could tell he knew. I signed up right on the spot. I wanted to know what he knew.
The magic Dave shared in his classes started with a basic formula: How to use 13 colors (and black and white)! His unique palette actually consists of 7 bright colors and 6dull colors plus Ivory Black as defined by their pigment and intensity. His approach makes an artist’s job of creating a pleasing-to-the-eye masterpiece much easier. Foreground, middle ground, and background areas will vibrate just like they do in nature.
Dave’s approach was so much different than the “candy store” approach. You don’t need to purchase every color under the sun. If you view a watercolor palette at an art store, most contain 30+ colors. There is no need to be overwhelmed by a whole wall of tubes of oil or acrylic paint colors.
Until an artist develops an eye to distinguish between a bright color and a dull color and the various ranges in between, buying a wide range of premixed colors is not the best idea. I wish someone would have taught me what I learned with Dave when I started dabbling in art. I would have saved a lot of money and my art would have excelled much faster.
By working with these 13 colors you will train your eye to actually see. You’ll begin to notice the amount of intensity in a color. It will become natural to know how to build depth. Your art will begin to appear lifelike even if you are just painting a simple piece, working digitally or in any medium.
So Dave wasn’t a magician after all. He was very well trained in color magic. In my next post, I’ll go over Dave’s 13-color palette and how to set yours up. Upcoming posts will include other formulas he shared that are keys to Atmospheric Perspective in the 3 regions of your artwork.
While I prepare the next article in this series, I’ll leave you with this one tip: Always include red, yellow, and blue in every color you mix and apply.
NOTE: Click to view more of Dave Ewart Paintings