Making Sense of Color

Above is a new oil painting, Monhegan Dawn: Emerald I just completed. It's 6 1/2 x 13", fairly modest in scale.  I chose that because I wanted the freedom to experiment with colors that aren't the ones I routinely pull out of my toolbag. 

On a smaller scale I'm much more likely to adopt a playful attitude. Working goes quickly so you tend to fall into a "what the heck, let's see what happens if I..." frame of mind. Specifically I wanted to try cool greens for the water's surface and contrast that with cooler violets for the rocks. While neither of these hues was present the day I worked plein air from the location, they evoke a powerful feeling I have about the place. 

Color after all is about the chords of two or three hues sounding together. Artists have to paint for years before they do their best work. It takes this long to learn to see chords of color rather than individual colors apprehended one at a time.

Below is the vine charcoal drawing from 2006 that served as my guide for the painting. We'd been eyeing each other for several years. I had the feeling I could use it for some new painting but it took until just a couple weeks ago before a vision for it started to become clear in my mind.

The charcoal was done from life on Mohegan Island in Maine looking out across the island's tiny harbor toward the sheltering rock known as Manana Island. Rockwell Kent, one of my heroes, did some of his finest oil paintings ever looking at that rock so it's something of a touchstone for me (no pun intended). It's very early morning and the rising light is just picking out a couple of smaller slices of the great mass to highlight. Sometimes nature will suggest to you a way of organizing the details into a simpler, better pattern for you and so it was here.

Some years ago I stopped painting in oil out on location. Wanting to avoid following too closely the colors I actually saw before me (the "local colors"), I chose instead to work in vine charcoal to focus on the essential shapes and patterns of darks and lights. Then back in the studio I pick out my favorites from among many charcoal drawings and use them as a foundation for an oil painting.

I like working this way because it pushes the question of shapes and tonalities (darks and lights) right up to the front row. Ironically it helps me to start by excluding color altogether. Color enters only later as a Second Act to the play.

Below is a second oil done from this same drawing.  Titled Monhegan Dawn: Ochre, 6 1/2 x 13", it mixes up yellow ochres for the sky and water with some green ochres as one comes into the foreground. Here the rocks are pushed towards a complemntary blue to blue grey. In pondering color choices for the rocks what stood out was the water and land felt very different from each other. So ochres contrasted againts blues seemed a fitting choice. So too in the first painting above with the pink violets contrasted against cool greens. 

In the end, painting is about making concrete what begins as a psychological and emotional. Accuracy in color really means color that comes closest to the painters internal experience. Some artists must sail close to the  local colors to do their best work. Color-wise I need to sail around the island the other way.


  1. There's a problem with Blogger that's keeping the most recent Blog post, May 11, from displaying. Sorry for the inconvenience- Philip


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

A Candid Shot In My Studio Even Before My Morning Coffee

Charles Burchfield Exhibition at Montclair Art Museum

23 Years Later: Allen Memorial Art Museum