Australian Fine Artist

Still Life Workshop 2

This is the second of five workshops that I will be attending for the first half of 2014 with esteemed artist David Chen.

Learning More About Colour

Why do we mix paint when there are so many colours already made up in tubes at the art store? A fair question when you are learning to colour mix. One answer is that we as humans can se millions of colours. Some people see more of the colour spectrum than others, and it has been said that women can see more colours than men do. After that, we all probably see the same colour in nature differently. We all don’t see a blue sky as the same blue, or a lovely red dress as the exact same red. This is why in the graphics and arts professions people who colour match are so unique, as they are relied on to be able to match a colour sample exactly for reproduction.

As we paint plein air or from a model, or still life in the studio, the colour of the lighting around us changes the colours in the subject. As the day moves on colour changes, which is why still life and life painting and drawing is done best with the lighting set up to be consistent and in the right temperature range for ability to see the closest to the true colours. In most cases this is around the 5000 to 5500 Kelvin range (daylight). Many globes and fluros have a colour bias so if you have a studio space it is a good idea to check your lighting to make sure you don’t have warm white or cool white.

Getting back to the mixing, we use colour and mix it to not only match what we observe, but also to create a colour bias. By that I mean using complimentary colours for effect such as blue and yellow for vibrancy or purple and orange.  What sort of effect you get will depend on what colours you use. To get “clean colours” you need to understand that certain colours should not be mixed together to get a new one.

If you look at yellow for example, just as one colour, there are many variations. They fall generally into two camps. Warm or reddish yellows and cool or greenish yellows. Blues is the same, you can get a reddish blue or a greenish blue. Examples of this are Ultramarine Blue which is reddish in undertone and Prussian Blue which has a greenish undertone.

After you have a nice clean colour mixed you can always grey them off for colour perspective by using an earth or tertiary colour (see colour wheel).

David gave us a list of ten colours we can begin with for colour mixing and their undertones, so that we can easily see which will work with which by seeing their colour undertone. Just select matching undertones and see the results!

Palette Set Up – ten basic colours to use

  1. Lemon Yellow – Undertone Green
  2. Cadmium Yellow – Undertone Red
  3. Cadmium Red – Undertone Yellow
  4. Permanent Crimson/Rose – Undertone Blue
  5. Ultramarine Blue – Undertone Red
  6. Thalo Blue/Prussian Blue – Undertone Green
  7. Viridian – Undertone Blue
  8. Thalo Green – Undertone Yellow

Undertones in Shadows

By selecting colours with the same undertone you get lovely clean colours. These can then be greyed off or knocked back with the use of a tertiary colour such as Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna, Yellow Ochre etc.

Five Methods of Laying in Colour

The difference between formal art training and trying to pick up painting on your own, is for one thing the various methods of using and laying in colour. Apart from understanding the temperature of the undertones of colours, is how you decide to apply them to the surface.

Here are five methods used by artists over the years and through a variety of periods that we know of such as the Impressionists and Post or Neo Impressionists of the mid 19th Century through to the early 20th Century to today’s Realist, Tonal and Contemporary artists.

  1. Complimentary Colours used side by side for a vibrant effect. This can include colours that have been knocked back or mixed with secondary colours.
  2. Optical Mixing, often used by the Impressionists which includes lots of small strokes of varying complimentary colours to give an effect of a new colour when viewed from a distance. The object was for the eye of the viewer to mix or blend the colours automatically. (blue and yellow next to each other giving the look of green from a distance)
  3. Broken Colour (also used by the Impressionists, Post Impressionsists and Pointellists such as Pissarro) uses the method of many small dots of colour to create a vibrancy. Only two colours were used against each other for this unlike Optical Mixing which could include several.
  4. Modified Colour are colours that have been locked back or toned down with tertiary colours. They include an earth colour. A painting that uses mostly these types of colours with only a couple of high key colours in the focal points can create a dramatic effect that doesn’t look took “busy”. A tip from David is not to be afraid of using Ivory Black (not any other) to tone down with. It has a nice blue undertone and works well with blues in particular. It is also a more transparent colour for glazing.
  5. Glazing (commonly used by realist artists) is a method of laying wet paint over dry. You need to only use transparent colours (check the back of your tube, many manufactures will have on them if the colour is transparent, semi-transparent or opaque). This is a slower way of painting, because each layer needs to be dry before the next glaze is applied so that the colour stays clean and does not affect the one underneath. Beautiful tonal effects can be done this way and colours built up by, for example, laying a blue down first and then laying a red glaze over the top. You can also deepen the tonal range of a painting with the use of a dark glaze and by the use of a warm or cool colour, change the temperature of the painting as well.

David’s favourite Methods

David has perfected a couple of methods of arranging colour on his paintings. they are as follows:

  1. The majority of the painting is down with muted or neutral colours. The main subjects are painted in higher key colours so that you drawn them immediately.
  2. Colour Interrelation. When a strong colour is put in one area of a painting an equally strong colour is placed elsewhere to balance out the look and invite the eye to wander around the painting rather than going to one spot and getting visually stuck there. This helps create a rhythm to the painting, a bit like that heard in a good musical score.

David explained that the job of the artists is to create colour that makes an illusion on the canvas, given that most of us see colours differently and have more or less a good perception of colour, that gives drama, life, flow, movement or pulls on emotions.

Shadows and How They Vary

Shadows are more complicated than you think and an important part of learning colour and its relationships, is knowing how to create natural looking shadows for objects. The shadows help to give form and depth so are very important. A strong sharp shadow implies a strong light, a soft shadow, a soft light. The colour of the shadow will also tell you things, if it is reflecting the colour of the object, or the object is transparent the colour of the shadow will reflect that. This will also depend on the surface that the object is standing on. For the exercise at this workshop we had a glass of coloured liquid which was semi-transparent, some oranges and an apple and a bottle of coke. All on white, pale blue and varying temperature and values of green drapery in the background.

In the example of my work below we see on example of shadows. David gave us two methods.  They are as follows:

  1. Analagous (within 5-7 steps of a colour on the colour wheel in either direction)
    Use a colour in the shadow that is the same temperature or similar to the object. EI: The liquid in the glass is red, the shadow is a reddish purple. The bananas are yellow and green, the shadow is a greenish purple.
  2. Complimentery (the opposite colour on the colour wheel)
    The colour of the shadow will be of a colour that is in the opposite position on the colour wheel, such as under an orange/reddish brown object, a purple shade shadow.

Remember when dong shadows the lesson from workshop 1 in this series. Shadows have multiple points and in the reflected shadow area will be some of the colour of the shadow, especially if the object has a shiny surface. Remember when putting in your darks (shadows) to ask your self if the area needs a warm or cool colour, just like your greys in other areas.

Keep your stroke simple and don’t overwork where one object or area touches another. Try for less strokes for clean colour.

The colours we are talking about in this workshop are to help create relationships with each other in a painting. Each colour must relate to the ones around it. Just plonking a colour somewhere because it looks nice or you like that colour, doesn’t mean it is going to work in the painting. Do they look “right” with each other?

Afternoon exercise – Paint a small still life arrangement.

Below are the exercises that we worked on during the workshop. Keep in mind that the object of a day like this is NOT a completed painting, it is working through the principles and the issues raised for making colour work. We can look at our workshop paintings in the future as references, if you will, to see why one method is working over another, and to help us to create better paintings in our own studios.

Exercises to Try

Practice mixing the ten colours listed above and see how many variations you can get from just these colours. With the addition of white, you will be amazed at how many variations you get.

As you do your next painting, be aware of the colours you use and their relationship with each other.

Be aware of the cast shadows in your paintings. Look at trying to give them more relationship with the object casting them by looking at the colour you are using.


This was a very involved session, reflected by the length of the story. I hope other artists will take the time to work their way through it. David has a huge depth of knowledge and many years of training to back up what he is teaching. This sort of information is not part of arts education as far as I am aware, in this country or a lot of others. It is important to know your materials and understand your profession. The masters of the past spent decades learning from those that went before them to become the artists that we so admire. I don’t see why it is any less important that we put in the same effort if we want to become the best artists that we can be today.

workshop-2 workshop-2b

Next Month: Learn More About Colour. Contrast in Colour.

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