Drawing V.S. Color: The Great Arm Wrestling Contest

I'm going to be giving a talk next month that will be titled Three Things You Didn't Know About Edward Hopper up at the Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY. There are dozens of things I could touch on. One topic I may talk about is Hopper's talents as a colorist, which in my mind were considerable. Early in his career Hopper did dozens of beautiful etchings like the one above of cows ambling over some railroad tracks. Hopper's strengths with color in part stem from his long practice at mastering traditional drawing issues- creating expressive flat shapes, composing darks and lights, building solid volumes.

Let's look at the cows above. Two of them are partly obscured by a foreground shadow but the third has clambered up into the light. It's pyramid-shaped back is highlighted against the far distant dark forest. You sense there's something about the house that reminds you of what you've seen and felt in that cow. Surely it's the shape of the roof's sharp peaks, similarly highlighted by Hopper. What does a cow have in common with a house? Usually not much, but Hopper is up to the challenge of making us see things differently. Sometimes in his oils he did this magic with color, but here it's accomplished just through drawing. 

Art historians love to recount the old controversy in 19th century art between Delacroix and Ingres as to whether painting was more about color or about drawing. I remember hearing about this in my undergraduate days as an art major at Oberlin College in the 1960's. Given the explosion of the then new color field paintings of artists like Morris Louis or Jules Olitski, the breezes of the day had shifted toward those answering the question with "color." And who can argue- color is the juicy and sensuous icing on the cake. As you enter any gallery in any museum don't your eyes go first to the brightly colored pieces? Mine do.

Looking at my palette last night:

It's lovely isn't it. You want to keep looking to see where each hue is going as the palette knife pulls and stretches the range of color - brighter, softer, darker, and on it goes. Yet that's only when you stare directly into the puddles of color themselves. Pull your eyes back a bit to focus at the shapes of the color and it's all haphazard, random, and monotonous. Imagine if you will going to a restaurant and ordering coffee. The waiter smiles, returns with the steaming pot and carefully pours the coffee but not into your cup but onto your plate. Then he hands you a spoon... Probably you could get some of it in your mouth, but I doubt you'd leave a big tip. 

To get the marvelous "flavors" of color something has to hold the color. Color's energy is too elusive and    fugitive by itself. The ultimate contribution of drawing is its ability to take hold of color and give it solid form. There's a great old story about Matisse. A young artist smitten by Matisse's brilliant hues comes to the master and asks how to learn to use color as he does. Matisse raises an eyebrow and replies to the student "Do as I did. Go to the Louvre and copy the great masters for two years. Use only charcoal."

Here's a vine charcoal I finished just yesterday, Adirondack Forest, 12 x 9". It was done from life on a cove off of Lake Placid in northernmost New York looking at a long row of trees. My first task had to be selecting out of thousands of tree branches the section my eye loved best. Then I went into the drawing back in my Baltimore studio, tuning it by softening a passage here and strengthening an interval between shapes there. 

Like so many artists who've gone before me, I find drawing in black and white simplifies what might otherwise be overwhelming. I think that was what drew Hopper to do his cows and house in black and white- he was smart enough to know the complexity of his nascent idea and didn't want to make a mess of it. 

I will be using this drawing as a basis for a color painting (or maybe several paintings). My confidence that this will work out comes from my excitement about how the drawing gave me a good and solid foundation. I could have worked out the various changes I need to finish the composition in oil, but at very least it would have taken much longer. And at worst the added complexity of colors might have clouded something where I was struggling for simplicity.

Here's Rembrandt doing the same kind of reductive thinking in a sepia wash drawing. Taking Matisse's earlier advice to heart, I spent hundred of hours studying Rembrandt's use of tones to organize his shapes. Look for example at how he creates two big triangles in his middle ground here (the house and tree at the far left and the roof of the central house) by simply washing in a middle tone shadow over the background. My old teacher Rudolf Baranik at the Art Students League of New York used to say of Rembrandt "he was simple, and he was radical." This drawing shows what he meant.

Finally here's a working drawing Lawren Harris (the Canadian Group of Seven) painter used to help him paint one of his masterpieces in oil, Isolation Peak from 1930.


  1. I enjoy your work and your blogs very much. Nancy Griswold

  2. Thanks Nancy. I love painting, and I enjoy writing a little about it. Hopefully some of what I write makes sense to people.

  3. Great analogy - the coffee and cup. There was great wisdom in the old prescription to work for two years in charcoal before touching color. Whenever I've shown monotypes or drawings it's been frustrating to hear comments like, "Oh, these are nice, but I like color."(As in, "something to match my curtains.")

    I always think of that great colorist & draftsman Degas who remarked that if he had his life to live over he would just work in black and white.

  4. Thanks Frank. I had never heard that about Degas. It's a good one! Certainly the old guy knew a thing or two about using shapes and tones.


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