I am known as a colorist. Why? I don't know. But here are a few things I know for sure. Ready? Here goes.
1. The great inhibitor in great color usage is FEAR. Fear of loosing the initial drawing. Fear of creating mud, strident or inappropriate color. Fear of loosing control. Fear of not being able to change an initial color choice. Fear that one cannot achieve what one perceives to be the "correct" color that nature provides to the eye. Fear of the artists working next to you in a workshop--"OMG--look how pretty her painting is and how ugly mine is." Fear that the damn painting won't sell. Fear of so-called muddy color. Fear that my choice of color for a specific passage cannot be changed. Fear that I can never get it "right". On and on.
2. The next inhibitor is lack of understanding of value structure. Most novices have great difficulty in discerning the ABSOLUTE SEPARATION between light and dark passages--at least in set ups that have a strong light source. The developed representational painter looks immediately for the most obvious areas of separation between light and dark. The really good artists immediately group areas of light and dark into unified sections that provide good design. They look instantly for the LOGIC OF THE LIGHT as it passes over the subject at hand--whether still life, figure or landscape. Often this must be done arbitrarily. That is--create a flow of dark and light areas that provide a design, a composition, a logic that is pleasing--whether that logic is present or not. The mantra is--PAINT TRUE, BUT EXAGGERATE THE TRUTH. Find a way to connect areas of light and dark whether it is immediately obvious or not. Squinting helps, looking through a red gel helps, being near sighted also helps--just take off your glasses. When you exaggerate--generally you arrive at what is actually there--we almost always chicken out is this regard. This refusal to create separation in areas of light and dark severely weakens the form-especially in figure and portrait work.
Only after you register the great separation between light and dark can half tone, core, and reflected light come into play. The more extreme the separation you create--the greater the opportunity you have of creating saturated color in the half tone, core, and so on. It is, after all, color saturation that gives the painting the richness many of us adore.
3. Failure to observe and register in paint the logic of the light is the great failure of representational oil painting today. I believe this is the product of fascination with alla prima painting, the premier coup, the all-in-one-go approach that is in vogue. The old timers used to create monochrome under painting to study the value structure--they then added color, making sure their color choices "sat" within a particular value area. Today most paintings turn to confetti because areas in the dark are not separated from areas in the light.
4. The timid application of color in oil painting has always mystified me. Oil paint is infinitely flexible, so why not be bold and careless in the throwing down of color. This is not true in watercolor, acrylic, or pastel--where sensitivity to the ground is primary. A canvas can be scraped. The paint can be removed and the tooth recovered--the oil painting procedure is infinitely flexible. Its like a rubber punching dummy--you can beat the crap out of it and it will always come back for you--if you don't limit yourself by fear, lack of understanding, or laziness.
5. Ah laziness--we want quick fixes, instant results, short cuts, recipes. These are all enemies of great art. As my mother said as I left her on her death bed to rush off to work, "...what's the hurry?" Most of us cannot hang with a work until it is right. The mark of a great artist is how long he or she can hang with a painting and keep improving it--bringing it closer to ones initial vision or inspiration. I painted for years with one eye on the time clock and the other eye on the dollar sign. I would conclude a painting with the thought--hell, this is good enough--it will sell, I am wasting time on this, besides I will not get enough cash for this effort. These thoughts are the parents of half assed children.
A painting is complete when you have exhausted all you know, when you have lived with it for a year or so--that's right--a year or so! This is why it is preferable to have many incomplete paintings hanging around your studio. Blast away on a painting with all your guts and then let the thing sit for awhile and start another one. This is a marvelous way to work--the solutions you arrive at on one work will inform the problems you encounter on previous works. This way you can elevate your works to incredible heights before you throw them onto the market--money or not.
Grunt until you bleed when it comes to finishing a work--then let the thing go.
Show your works to your art friends, but especially to your stupid enemies--the latter will tell you instantly what is wrong with your work. I am not afraid to let novices critique my work--even children--the less experienced critic will tell you the truth faster than the expert who will praise you for what is right in the painting;
Remember--we are ultimately painting for the masses of uninformed humanity who are often poor, worn out, and care less about the machinations or art--but they do respond to images that speak to the depths--right?
Where were we? O yes--value united with color.
8. Here is something I have been trying to teach lately. Provided that your head is screwed on right regarding value and the separation of light and dark--you may try this. When you view a passage of value--whether light or dark or in between (in the half tone)--ask yourself the following question. What COLOR is this passage. The passage may be one eighth inch in size or the whole damn canvas--but ask WHAT COLOR IS IT? Wait a minute now--I want you to limit the answer to the three primaries--not the split primaries, not the secondary or tertiary colors--answers that end in ISH--greenish, blueish, grayish, are not permitted. Answers like sandal wood, mauve, sea blue, sky green--that have two words adjoining--are also not permitted.
What color is it? Start with one of the three answers--red, yellow, or blue. Throw, and I do mean throw in red, yellow, or blue into your passage as close as you can to the right value, and then let your instinct guide you to the right adjustments. If it doesn't sit right--then make it sit right. Knock the color down or make it richer, make it lighter or darker and so on. Dan Greene suggests mixing black and white to the desired value, sticking it up there, and letting the results tell you which way to go.
Altering the chroma, the saturation, the value of a color takes experience--but not very much experience. Mainly it takes a relaxation from all the rules. For example: If your stoke it is too red initially, or too light, or too dark then change the red by adding green, or black or burn sienna, or mud, or white or anything until it looks right--steal some paint from your neighbor's palette--do something--anything--call your friends, take a smoke break, or eat some cookies--keep looking and trying until some satisfaction occurs--then move on to what is directly next to your most recent success. Move from one adjacent passage in the painting to another--don't jump around too much--we make more accurate comparisons by adjusting adjacent areas for the most part. Its OK to jump around if it helps--many experienced artist do so. You see--all advice I give is relative. That is why my students leave--I can't give a definitive answer---only suggestions.
My approach has been called the "zip, boom, bah" approach, the anything goes approach, instinctive , intuitive, confused, agitating--all of these descriptions I consider complimentary. I love to make drastic changes in my paintings at the last minute--ignoring everything I have done previously--I like to keep everything floating until the last minute. This drives many of my students crazy, but they love the results--O well....
My approach is not for everybody. But it will apply sometime, somewhere, and at some moment--at some critical moment--at the make-or-break juncture--then I will be your hero. Until then, I am what I am--just another voice in the hood--like John the Baptist.
When you throw in your initial color (red, yellow or blue) you can adjust it by mixing the correction on the canvas or on your palette. Most beginners will never put enough paint up there in order to mix correcting color or value. They usually mix in to much medium on their palette thereby limiting the necessary mixing properties to make a difference--again--fear of the paint. Sargent squeezed out 50 dollar batches of color on his palette--we squeeze out 10 cent batches--no go. He also advised that the background be painted with thick paint--not with puny washes or screwball, fluffy, swats of thin paint to achieve affect.
Something else I observe--the refusal to cross artificial boundaries with broad sweeps of color. Try this next time you paint a head that is lit strongly from one side. Start in the background surrounding the head on the shadow side (if there is one) and pull paint clear through the hair, cheek, ear and nose until you hit where there is a distinct value change--usually where the shadow meets the light. Also try this from the other direction working from the background through the light side of the model to where the light meets the shadow. Use a straight primary if need be, then make adjustments. This will give you the opportunity to create a great CONVERSATION OF COLOR between THE FIGURE AND ITS SURROUNDINGS--the mark of all great representational paintings. Then you can recover your drawing by re-calligraphy or separating the shadow side of the head from the background as you observe it. Treat the background as integral to the head. Here is a great secret--there is no background! For Sargent, the background, those elements that surrounded the head or figure WAS the painting. It was not something added--some little thin crap added to create a nifty vignette. Sargent's figures always swam in the background with great atmospheric affect--like great movies swim in the musical score--all one big unified thing.
9. I want to qualify everything I have said thus far. It is possible, even desirable, in some instances to start in the traditional representational format and then move to greater and greater abstract treatment in the life of a specific painting. As you move from the traditional stuff I am spouting--you travel into the realm of ANYTHING GOES. If you want to put a blue line around everything--then put a damn blue line around everything. This is when real art occurs. You start with all of your fine attire on--you run down the long plank as fast as you can, strip off your clothes as you go--and finally dive naked into the freezing water, and swim for your life. Now we are having fun, now we are doing art. Just observe for one minute all of the "real TV " crap that is ruling the viewing ratings. Its all about danger, risk, exploration, pushing the limits, accomplishing the impossible escape, surviving the big hits, winning confidence out of fear, escape from death, hell, and the grave. This timid, paint another pretty picture stuff makes me puke. I am so sick of my own stuff that I have stopped painting altogether--except for some commissions to keep the utilities on and the car running--and green fees. My wife is pissed at me now for this, but I will win her over--I now have a lock on my tiny studio door--she thinks I am working--I am really playing endless computer chess and distributing pictures of my grand kids over the web.
10. I am out of gas on this one, but you get the point. Who loves ya--Don