Wednesday, April 14, 2010


I tried to explain earlier my understanding of creating a unified painting.  I came up with the phrase.."put a little of everything into everything else."  This sounds simplistic and needs a little clarification--so here goes.  Paintings should be unified in color, value, design, line, light source, idea and several other things I can't think of now.  If they are not unified then they fall apart.  The painting becomes a conglomeration of confusing shapes, colors, and values that lead nowhere.  It becomes difficult to look at.  The eye--the great organ that determines the look-ability of a painting (duh!)-- becomes frustrated and quickly fatigues.  If the eye can't make sense of a representational work then it goes elsewhere.

I have had the experience of unveiling my work to collectors (potential or otherwise) that took a quick glance at my work and then began yapping about the weather or the bad wine or Suzie Smith--BAD SIGN!  The painting could not hold their attention.  Its dis-jointed character, whether in color, design, value, etc--made it impossible for the buyer to "keep with it".  This kind of painting usually won't sell--not immediately anyway.  It's a mystery why so many of our bad paintings sell isn't it?--but I have noticed that the best paintings I present amost always sell quickly, and they are the ones that have the unity I am talking about.

If you see someone staring quietly at your painting, hanging around it for a long time, returning to it again and again at the show,  bringing their friend to see it, opening their purse or wallet, then your collector is on the hook--GOOD SIGN!  Your painting has captured them.  It probably has the unity we are seeking.   Often an over anxious sales person will come along at this point and blow the sale--so keep them away from those enjoying your work for as long as possible!

As far as color unity--something absent in almost all representational paintings today--find a way to spread a touch of every color into its neighboring color.  Color spots can become too separated if they are allowed to stand alone in the painting.  Put some of that green into the neighboring red, put some of that muted blue into the neighboring yellow, put some of that pathetic purple of yours into the black next to it and so on--in other words--PUT A LITTLE OF EVEREYTHING INTO EVERYTHING ELSE.

There are many elaborate theories as to how to create color unity using families of colors, limited pallets, magic brushes, lost edges and your grand mother's old nighty--but it is far easier and quicker to create unity the way I am suggesting.   I know for a fact that the "big boys" did it this way.

Yes I know how hard it is to do this, but it can be learned.  I learned color with pastels. The grey Strathmore pastel paper I used provided instant unity if I let a little of the grey paper show throughout the work--the grey, or tan or whatever paper color, when allowed to show through everywhere, gave the work automatic color unity.  It created the instant "getting a little of everything......"  This is why my current technique is to work from grey to rich--from grey color to rich color.  I instinctively create a grey ground, and then add richer color.  The rich color sets down nicely having found a home in grey surroundings. This rich to grey dialectic drives my work always.  Some work with bright color, then grey it down as they go.  Either way can create unity.  This process can occur in a tiny area or in a large area, but it is essential in the color unifying process.

 I want to mention here that color unity--not rendering--is the main reason why paintings are attractive to the discerning eye.   It is unified color that carries the greatest emotional content, the most "snap", the most authority, the most sympathetic contract between viewer and artist.  Do you think the Nabis are considered the greatest colorists because of they rendered in detail?  Do Potthast's beach scenes bring millions because of their anatomical correctness?  Potthast's painting are meticulously rendered--but with color unity in mind.

Yes there are works that sell because of subject matter alone or because everything is rendered to the nat's ass, but I am not talking about these kinds of paintings--I AM TALKING ABOUT REAL ART DAMMIT!--paintings that weave a color tapastry,  that consider every stroke, that move the viewer with magic, that have no strident color, no eye-catchers, no isolated spots.  In strong work--everything holds together and provides that mystical, now-you-see-it-now-you-don't quality that characterizes the inflamed imagination of the beholder--an imagination that is given room to wander, to invent, to discover,  because the artist's very soul was actively creating that opportunity, knowingly.  If you can paint as I am suggesting, then you are blessed.  This is what we all strive for--right?  You bet!

I often hear the following..."well so and so is making big bucks..."--as if "big bucks" means that their work is art.  Well, if big bucks is your goal then open a brothel next to a military base and enjoy your riches--and leave honest painting to the poor bastard who is honestly sweating out a creative act with nothing but his guts, his soul, his materials, and his nagging wife. 

O--before I forget--if the nagging wife, or girl friend,  suddenly becomes your greatest advocate when you bring in the big money--then you know what to do--buy her some chocolate and roses, and then introduce her to your true support system and tell her to shut the hell up--then heartily repent to the God whose character is to forgive great sin.  I am getting off the subject--or maybe not!  Who loves ya?--now don't judge me--I'm just spiff balling here!

In summary:  The color spots you see in great paintings--Sargents, Sorollas, Potthasts, et al. are unified--they are held together color wise by bringing otherwise separated areas together--by relating them with knocked down color or by adding richer color over grey.  I will find other ways  to clarify this in future essays.  I will discuss the unity created by light, design, value and rendering in the near future.  Gotta go finish a commission.  Your pal, Don


  1. what a fabulous post, Don! Unity! It IS the thing - isn't it? I think alot about the color of light, and hope to use that as the unifying agent, but I think you're right's more than that - Sheesh.. this painting thing ain't easy!

  2. Thank you for the introduction to E. H. Pottast. Wow. He was prefect to at look after reading this entry. Just perfect. Thanks again for taking the time to educate so cleanly and thoroughly. You are one in ten-million.

  3. Pathetic purple? Did you read my recent post on purple??? Where's that older post where you tell us to paint with our favorite colors rather than try to adopt someone else's palette?

    Oh Don, you just crushed me!

    Unity in color. I teach that and have to agree. Its primo! Don't always achieve it, but strive for it... (a little purple everywhere, that should do it!)

  4. Susan: Nothing wrong with purple in the right amount, in the right place--I love it to--it's just got to fit--right?

  5. Don,
    I just saw this post this morning . . . and WOW! I don't usually print out an "essay" but this is the second one of yours I've printed. If I had seen this yesterday, the painting I was working then might not have gotten finished so I'm glad to have it today with time to digest it all. I NEED THIS INSTRUCTION! Many thanks,

  6. Brilliant - this has been a most eye opening post. I used to naturally get unity because I wan't careful enough to keep colors separate. Now that I am getting clean color, it looks like I need to grey it up again to achieve unity. Sigh...

  7. Another great post! This is something I have been learning about in college. I recently created a painting, and although I loved the composition and the colours I was using, the image felt disjointed. The one thing my tutor pointed out to me was that I should always try to bring colour into other areas of colour in order to unify it. I used a very limited palette to achieve the desired results and I ended up with a painting that was unified and one that I'm very proud of. Thank you for the great advice on using grey to rich. So simple when you think about it or have it pointed out to you!

  8. What a hoot you are! But what you say has such substance and tooth that I am thoroughly
    "aha!''-d by it. Thank you. This should be THE first lesson in painting for novice painters such as myself. Color has damned me all these paintings have always left me less than satisfied and I never knew the reason for it. Now, it's so clear!

    Thanks Again,
    Sonya in Hawaii