>Do you teach shades by adding black or by adding the complement?
>seems to me the toned down, darker colors achieved by using
> complements are nicer. I use sax true tempera by the way.
> mike sacco
I paint outdoors on location professionally with work in a number of
galleries and museums nationwide, known more popularly today as plein air.
I also teach art workshops and see many things artists have struggled with
over their years of developments.
These experiences are things I in turn teach my painting students, starting
young...as I teach K-12.
The problem with many painters is they get into the mode of thinking a
photograph used as a reference is reliable as though representing how the
eyes see. The photo represents what was of interest to the photographer and
how s/he framed it, but it represents more accurately how the camera saw it.
Thru-the-lens metering pushes the darks in order to prioritize and take in
the light. Inadequacies of film chemistries favoring certain colors and
ignoring others together reduces shadows to colorless darks.
We are so accustomed in a media image blitzed culture of seeing photo images
that perhaps psychologically we are inclined to allow such lifeless
colorless darks to represent life. That is...until the artist gets outdoors
to paint. Suddenly pigment seems wholly inadequate, and the artist is
allowed to see into the areas of shadow. There...with the sun prevented
from direct influence atmospheric light from above and nearby adjacent areas
bounce color into the shadow.
Typically...if the light of the atmosphere is cool, the shadows will
feel/look warm. If the light is warm..the shadows by comparison, cool.
These things are missed using photo references.
For near 20 years...I competed as a wildlife artist working primarily
instudio. I would painstakingly gather resources to bring into my studio
from road kill fowl to uprooting plants/stalks to set on the floor. I would
work with as many hands on resources as was possible, and then with photo
references...field sketches and experiences for narrative.
I will invite you to check out my site since we don't really share images
here. Look at my wildlife work first...and specifically the snowy owl image
and then the river otter. My "look" was heavily influenced by the baroque
period work, but such fits naturally with using photo references...where
darks are darker, and lights more dramatic. That stage lighting drama so
much associated with the Baroque..and you'll see that in these two pieces.
My work received much accolade and awards...so for years I just felt it was
the right direction. I didn't know what I didn't know.
Without realizing it...I was painting in a style that was tonalistic.
Color, plus white for tinting...black for shading.
These are visual relationships I believe are VERY valid and important to
teach kids. I do teach where I believe such has commercial illustrative
value...and I will myself use such a palette. I also believe it is
important as the student's knowledge base grows to help them understand
artists choose various palettes for various reasons. Having a sense of
value shading and rendering with white and black...I interject how
complementaries are very good and for many artists ideal.
Many artists believe they are developing an ability to realistically
represent the world around them, armed with their many photo resources.
What amazes me is that I am an outdoors person...hunted and fished for most
my life and I assumed I could rely on this personal understanding to make
best use of photos. AGain...I didn't know what I didn't know.
Well...to make a long story longer...I ran the course of wildlife art.
Perhaps the years of 200 to 300 hours per piece just to maintain reputation
got to me. The straw that broke the proverbial camel's back for me was
seeing Richard Schmid's entree in the Arts for the Parks national
competition out in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I have since spoken with Schmid
about that experience.
If folks do not mind my rambling...will forgive and perhaps just delete my
rant, I'll go on without fear for the sake of the few that might benefit. I
do think this will prove of value for how and what you might tell painting
I was walking around the gallery room looking at the top 100 entrees. I
myself was interested in entering the competition and wanted to get a feel
for what it would take to win. (win win win....that was my stupid mentality
about painting all summed up! Ssheesh).
I saw wonderful paintings and was getting all charged up when I came around
this divider and Schmid's winning entree was hanging. I saw it from just
beyond my shoulder less than 2 feet away. It was a chaotic mess. Struck me
as an insult to all the wonderful work present.
My first reaction was of disillusionment. Why, if the judges picked such a
mess over all these other more capable artists then it wasn't a matter of
how good one's piece had to be to win...but the subjective whims of the
judges. I walked away literally in disgust. After about five paces away, I
decided to give one last disgruntled look over my shoulder, but to my horror
someone had removed Schmids winning entree as fast as that and replaced it
with this living, breathing aesthetically sensory filled awe inspiring
My mouth dropped. I slowly began to walk back to the piece again...and
within a short range it transformed back into that chaotic thick impastoish
mess. What the heck????
For nearly 30-40 minutes I walked back and forth. Ssheesh...I hated that
painting for how it haunted me for six months. Schmid got a pretty good
laugh from that at my expense!
Six months later...I was no longer able to paint as I was...but felt I
needed to move beyond myself. I decided to take it outdoors and purchased
an El Greco Mahogany French easel halfbox, began with my acrylics but
quickly switched to oils. I've been painting primarily outdoors ever since.
With all the awards I had, the arrogance and presumption of
capability...standing there before nature I felt as though I knew very
little about painting.
To sum up...I have discovered as do many that paint outdoors that black
sucks the life right out of a scene. Now...you might go from my wildlife
scenes on my website to look over my plein airs and instudio landscapes.
I do now do a few instudio works...often working from a small pochade (oil
plein air sketch) and a digital photo. I feel my knowledge base is such
that I am able to safely use and interpret what a photo is not going to
I work with a warm and cool split primary palette...and it is what I slowly
teach my painting students. I want as many contrast devices as possible
when painting from life because minerals/pigments are poor substitutes for
light. To have one area of an adjacent mass contrast with another...yes,
there is the principle/element of value...there is also soft versus hard,
suggested detail versus lack, there is the possibility of warm versus cool,
color that is analogous in relationship to a common color or that which is
complementary or opposite.
I paint quite often standing knee deep in snow. What I have found during
the off winter months is that white is a poor representation of light with
exception of the most extreme highlight. White as a temperature is cool.
Many students err (and artists for that matter) in thinking that lighter
makes brighter. White too will suck the life right out of a color.
Color is light outdoors in nature because the intensity of the sun has
washed away darkness, but leaves its influence and presence. For this
reason a green pine tree in the fall can appear pinkish/orange.
Light from the sun is warm. The color/tint white is cool. You cannot
adequately represent the sun's effect with a cool.
What I do now...is use as pure a chroma of the paint as possible with its
inherent value. I have also learned to tint my color with Naples Yellow.
This pigment of course is not good to use with students, as true Naples
Yellow is lead based. I get lovely tints with the Naples, but without it
cooling down as the color would using white.
Another problem with black...let's say to help understand a landscape, is
that color becomes less intense (warm) typically as it goes back into
atmospheric distance. Darks become lighter. Colors become cooler and lose
If you use black to represent darks going back, you are using a dark dark
for an area that ought for the sake of depth perspective convincingly appear
to be going back in space. Complementaries can help values become lighter
without the color going flatter. Flatness happens when the life is sucked
I can look at most painter's work today...and tell right off if a photo was
relied upon. The goal of the painter is to respond to why something so
compelled them to the need to paint. To do that which sucks out life is
like shooting one's self in the foot, for it is going to be 90% of the time
that contrast is what they responded to aesthetically, which assigns
drama...and in natural light black isn't going to cut it, nor white very
I have many of my painting students develop a list of contrasts and
encourage them to keep it near to their painting area. Since 90% of the
time a painting does not work it relates to contrast...the list helps until
it becomes part of them.
light versus dark
warm versus cool
detail versus lack of detail
soft versus hard
texture versus smooth
large versus small
pure versus grayed down
and so forth...
One other side note on color...
many experienced painters are learning the value of peripheral vision. That
is, to judge one mass...look away from it, nearby. Judge the color of the
sky looking at the treeline or even ground and sense it peripherally. Judge
the shadow of a large tree mass looking adjacently to an area lit up.
Squint your eyes and sense the color. It is the secret of the mystery of
hidden beauty in nature that leads to your eventually saying, "ah-HAH! I
well...as I said, hope you'll forgive me...preaching to the choir here I