Keeping Neutral


No. This is not a political post. It is about color and it's relative intensity to other colors in a painting.

It fascinates me when someone comments on how colorful my work seems to them. In fact, my paintings rarely have any really strong color in them at all.

As artists, we have the opportunity to share our personal color perceptions with viewers of our work. We can also choose to push color to a more chromatic intensity, neutralize colors to suggest certain moods, even change colors altogether. That's the best part. However, the language of color that each of us speaks is one-of-a-kind. No one else speaks it exactly the same way. Understanding a little of the science behind how others may experience our choices unleashes millions of variables (and challenges). So if you're into science, here are some wonderful articles on the subject.

Here are some examples of works that I perceive as fairly colorful. The intensity of chroma grabs me and makes me want to paint with pure strokes right from the tube. Yet when I use a photo editing software such as Photoshop to take a "sampling" of color, I can see that no pure, intense color is actually present.

In Edgar A. Payne's painting, Desert Skies, I have sampled colors from the apparent, most-intense color usage in the painting: the red shirt and hat in example one, and the blue sky in example two. By looking at the location on the color picker at the right of each image, we see that in no way did this artist use color straight from the tube. If so, the tiny circle indicating the color would be at the very top, most right-hand point. Instead, in example one, it is neutralized toward gray about 10-15% and darkened (more neutralization) about 20%.

In example two, we see that the sky has been neutralized toward gray more than 50% and darkened about 15%.

In Joaquin Sorolla's work, Fisher Woman from Valencia, I have performed the same experiment, first on the woman's right forearm and second on the violet shadow under her scarf. The tiny circle in the right hand portion of each image gives us the results. Both samples are neutralized much more when actually measured than our eyes and brains want to believe.

Violet under scarf

How then, is it, that we convince viewers that these colors are more intense without the use of pure color, straight from the tube? One of the best ways, is by using color that is even more neutralized throughout the rest of the painting.

In my painting, Glowing Response, I wanted to get lots of color in those back mountains. They look so intense and rich when you are standing there in person. I know, however, that just piling on Cad Orange and Quin Violet will look hideous. So here's what I try.

Variations of neutralized colors made with brown pink, radiant turquoise, napthol red, and chromatic black

First, I mix several variations of violets, pinks, and oranges. Each pile is neutralized quite a lot, but as you can see they still look very intense.

Radiant turquoise on the left, brown pink on the right, and a series of grays between
Oranges and violets layered onto the painting in broken color passages

Using these colors, I lay strokes of paint, blending some for more neutralizing, leaving others purer in tiny passages. For the foreground portion of the painting, I use extremely neutral colors to increase the perceived intensity of colors on the mountain at sunset.

Next, I mix my sky color using only chromatic black and titanium zinc white. I have placed a gray palette here for you for comparison. When used against the other colors in the mountain, they sky appears bluish green. Why? Some of it has to do with the neighborhood in which the black and white mixture lives.

Its neighbors are orange and violet. The remaining secondary, green, becomes the perceived color in the sky. Since white is essentially a blue, the sky becomes bluish green.

Sky appears bluish green

If I had used a blue or violet for the sky, it would have competed with the surrounding colors, making them appear less intense.

The next time you are painting a sunset, garden flowers, or the gorgeous leaves of fall, I hope you will try these experiments on your own. Mixing and exploring color, comparing intense colors and a variety of neutrals, and finding ways to create the illusion of color is loads of fun.  Keep neutral and let your color sing.