Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Color Of Your Artistic Soul Revealed

Color is elusive, highly personal, mercurial, and the least quantifiable of all the branches of oil painting. It is nearly impossible to teach color, but it is very easy to blab about it--I know. You can be color blind and still be a great colorist. Color is wedded inextricibly to value if form painting of any kind is the goal. Those who want to argue this point with me will find no adversary. Do what you want, and show me what you can do, but don't bug me with half baked color theories, books on color, articles on color, so and so's school of color, workshops on color, trips to Europe looking for color, great thoughts on color and so forth--I have heard and seen them all, and I have a built in crap detector that is highly tuned. I have no patience with non-painter theorists who try to explain to me why blue and yellow don't make green--they sure as hell do on my palette! If you think I am great at color, then you are in agreement with many others. If you think my color is half ass--then you are in agreement with me. It doesn't matter. I have, however, arrived at one certainty regarding the successful use of color in oil painting that fits all men in all places without exception, and which divides the men from the boys in the color game--it is this. The artist's color sense must emerge from his own interior, and the artist must grow in his knowledge that the canvas is a mirror of that interior. This interior or soul or spirit develops in relation to the world over time. It helps if the artist can articulate that development in terms of likes and dislikes--in terms of yes and no. To say, " I like this, and I don't like that" is the beginning of taste--taste that will be expressed on the canvas. Once the rudiments of color mixing is in hand, the journey begins. After a few acres of canvas are covered, the oil painter reveals who he is in color for all the see. Scary isn't it? The good news in our time is that almost nobody cares what oil painters are doing. It takes courage to develop taste--to say I don't like that or I really dig this. It takes time to articulate taste--to hold forth with the whys and wherefores of one's tastes and preferences in color.

I believe that this taste thing is at the core of the use of color--the lack of conviction, of clarity, and taste cause artists to stumble with color--not technology. It is personal conviction that preceeds growth in the painting process. Put another way--inspiration preceeds technology. If I strongly desire to achieve certain color effects, I will find a way to do it--I may have to invent a way--now I am finding answers, now I am creating. Develop your color palett around your own taste and not around anyone else's. Be able to say--I don't like this or I hate that, or I really dig the other, and feel comfortable with your feelings. Trust that voice that is coming to you from a place of your own--it won't lie to you. That's all there is to it. Sounds easy, but it is a life time process. Some people short circuit the process by hiring others to define their color taste for them--they fear not being hip or they don't trust themselves in a matter that is rarely life threatening. Why not develop the ability to talk to yourself (not others) about what appeals to you and why--and act on it--at least on the canvas where it is safe.

If you are an oil painter, you probabley have developed the ability to critique museum paintings as well as Aunt Sophie's weekend darling. Try to articulate to yourself what moves you and why in every piece of art you behold. Those who have struggled in the past with color have left a perfect record in paint of their efforts to be tasteful, and you may learn well from them. If you have purchased thousands of dollars of art monographs, visited nearly every museum at home and abroad, spent months with your nose six inches from every beautiful painting that you can find--you are probably developing color taste, and that taste will find its way onto your canvas. You surely don't have to paint to love color, but painting gives you the opportunity to see if you can put down harmonies that please yourself--you may even create conversations of color that collectors will pay for. Harmonies and conversations--that is what great colorists fill their canvases with. We know from expereience that some things don't seem to harmonize very well and some conversations are really uninteresting.

I am exhorting you to develope, nuture, sustain, discover and project (in paint) great taste--your taste. Taste is not opinion, it does not inhere in somebody's else's mind or spirit, it cannot be purchased--recipes of other people's taste are for sale, however--be sure you don't buy! Your personal taste can only be developed over time and with some conscious effort. We are told that studying from life and copying old masters teaches color. I often study old master paintings and ask myself --now, how did he do that? Staring at and attempting to render nature, however, will not necessarily teach you how to paint with great color. Painting from life is often no better than painting from photographs when it comes to improving color skills. Assuming some familiarity with oil painting fundmentals, the most direct route to improving color skills is to learn how to asses your own work honestly by comparing what you have acheived with your initial goal. If your initial goal was not informed by great taste, then you may be limited temporarily, until your taste develops further. Some sticking points that art instructors feel with certain students are due to simple lack of taste. Chase made a comment to one of his students that is revealing here. The student came with canvas in hand and said, "...if I could see it (nature) , then I could paint it." Chase corrected him, "!..when you can see what you have painted, then you will improve."

The answers, then, are on the canvas, not in nature. There is a difference. Nature is only a starting point. The finishing point, the most important point, the point that determines the final disposition of the canvas--is in your head, in your heart, in your soul, in your spirit, or maybe even in your toe--it's someplace in you--not out there! Your painting is finished when you can say."..I left nothing of myself out of this project--I put everything I had into it today." "I painted it the way I saw it, not the way Joe Blow saw it." It is possible, maybe preferable, to piddle around with your piles of color on your pallett with your knife and experiment by putting some of it up there on the canvas in ways never before imagined--as Dan McCaw once said,"..if you want to put a blue line around it...then, put a blue line around it." Who knows? Yes we observe live models, still life, and landscapes to build our skill sets. You have to learn how to open the car door, set your big fanny in the seat, put on the safety belt, shut the door, put it in neutral, turn the key and get the car going--but these steps are only part of the story. The trip, the journey, the destination is the important story. Your taste--what you like and don't like, who you are--will determine your color journey in every painting. When you know who you are and what you like, it becomes easier to communicte that to others--in paint, print, or on stage. If you are confused about your direction or are creating from someplace outside of your own values, how can others make sense of your song, your dance, your canvas? Don Hatfield


  1. Wait Bill--I am in the midst of a re-write!

  2. It also takes courage to avoid the use of paragraphs. :)

    In all seriousness, wonderful post. I used to be overly concerned with other artist's palates, but I eventually realized, as your post points out, that what other people are doing doesn't matter as much as what I can do/express with what is in front of me.

  3. Thanks Jeremy--I know it runs together and is hard to read--but so am I--Don

  4. Don, you're tough and I really appreciate your straight forward ideas and advice.

  5. Nora: I'm not tough-I'm just getting over the flu and I am grouchy.

  6. In most areas of my life I find that having opinions is a big waste of time. Most of what comes my way, by way of gossip or the television or the internet or even something out of someone's mouth really doesn't mean much to me and so I never spend effort forming an opinion about it. Having opinions is just one way of starting an unintended argument - another waste of time. But now you are talking about something here that I have honestly never even considered. I know that when I get too much pthalo green in the mix, for example, and if I don't really clean the brush out, it will end up all over the place, contaminating other colors and torquing me off to no end. Often the color makes my stomach queazy. But if I find it tucked away (hidden in plain sight, as it were) in really great great painting, just even one little dash of the stuff, placed in the just the right spot, can really thrill me.

    I with give thought to the notion that having a knowing opinion of my own sense of color is valuable and not a waste of time. It could be a real tool in the tool chest. In fact, a strong and healthy opinion of one's own loved colors may be a real TIME SAVER and no waste at all.

    This, a very diggable blog, senor.

  7. Much better! The first time I tried to read it I lost my place for like 2 minutes. :)

  8. Grammar or paragraph breaks aside, I focused on your message and I must admit, though I never thought of it in quite this way, I agree with you. I love purple and can't paint without it. Brown on the other hand makes me want to vomit, so I never use it. It doesn't make sense to a lot of people, but it makes sense to me. I tell my students, I'll help you with colors, but if at any time you're inclined to put something else, don't hesitate to do it!

    Good message. Thanks.

  9. Thanks for your patience with the grammar--spelling too. Thanks for your attention and comment. Blessings in your work--Don

  10. I'm in total agreement Don, and relieved to know I am not the only person who feels this way about color. It's true no matter what media you paint in.

  11. Don... Good post ... you write like you talk.....

    Call me... I want to finish our conversation on the " something to say " topic...


  12. Hi Don! I know you rewrote, but your message is
    the same.
    And this ain't english class..
    This post is helpful to me, I like color like a Dagwood samitch.
    Just hold the anchovies.. ok, but just a few!

  13. What a fantastic post! I like your no-nonsense approach in your attitude towards colour, and the idea of stuff what everyone else thinks. I have always known those colours I love and those that I hate. I've been upbraided by tutors for using my favourite colours, but I refuse to eliminate them. I had a go at using colours I hate, and guess what? I hated the painting. It wasn't me. It went against every fibre of my being, but I thought I would get outside my comfort zone, even if only to confirm what I already knew. The colours I use reflect everything about me - my love of music, film, books. I like everything dark - dark is uplifting to me and many people can't understand it, but I can no more change my colour preferences than I can change my personality (well I can, but I'm not going to). I just can't leave blue out of my palette. It's at the core of my work. That's not to say I won't try new colours...I will, but they have to fit in with my existing palette. I will use hints of pink but it has to be dark, and it can't reduce my painting to something light and fairy/girly like, because it just wouldn't be me. I could probably write on this subject for ages, because I'm passionate about my own taste in colour, but I don't want to take up all your space. Thank you again for a very thought-provoking post!

  14. Heather: Your great attachment to color is your gift. Glad to be on the art road with you. Blessings, Don