Getting the Color Right: Can You?

How would you paint this?

To start with, you would need a moment to analyze what’s going on with the color.  Both the red and green look intense—and especially so, considering they are two complements juxtaposed.  It’s hard to look at this jarring image without getting a headache.

But is each color really as intense as it seems?  I’ve pulled samples of each color and put them against a white background.  Apart, they seem a little more neutral.

Most of my readers are already familiar with the idea of simultaneous contrast.  (If you aren’t, check out this article:  Adjacent colors affect each other, and in the case of complements, the contrast can be quite striking.

Now, let’s imagine you’re out in the field, painting a scene that has red rocks and green bushes among those red rocks.  (This is exactly what we paint in Sedona in my Paint The Southwest workshops there.)  Can you paint the scene as you see it?

Maybe, maybe not.  You lay in the color of the red rocks.  Next, you lay in the green of the bushes.  But something’s not quite right…the green looks a little too intense.  Yet you’re pretty sure you painted the green bushes as you saw them.  Hm.  The red looks too intense, too.  You were sure you had it right.

What went wrong?  You were looking at the scene overall, and it was a puzzle of little red shapes and little green shapes.  The reds affected the way you saw the greens; and vice versa.  You saw both reds and greens–when looked at individually and surrounded by their complements–as being more intense than they actually are.

This is where a “color isolator” comes in handy.  The View Catcher, which I described in an earlier post, has one.  Just as I used Photoshop to sample the colors in my illustration and to isolate them, you can do the same with the View Catcher.  This will help you see the true color.  Next, you will find a “color checker” handy.  After mixing your paint, you can put a dab of the mixture on your color checker, hold it against the part of the scene you are trying to paint, and compare the color.  The blade of your painting knife makes a good color checker, if you can hold it without getting a glare on the shiny blade.

This is all well and good, but in my mind, it’s unnecessary work.  It’s good training for you if you are having trouble discerning color relationships (keeping in mind that color is actually a composite of value, temperature, chroma and hue), but it’s good to get past it.   You can teach yourself to look at the overall scene and to make your “best guess” at these relationships.  In your initial block-in, get the value right, get the color close—and then spend the next stage of the painting adjusting the colors until they look like what you see.  It’s a more relaxing way—and a speedier way to paint—than picking out little color spots and trying to mix them exactly.  With practice, you get better at the “best guess” method.—
Michael Chesley Johnson, AIS PSA MPAC PSNM

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