Color: A Chest of Treasures or Confusions

Philip Koch, Yellow Song, oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 13", 2013

I can't think of a time when I've entered a gallery or a museum and have failed to glance first at the works that are in color. Maybe it's hardwired into our species? In any case, when savoring the delights afforded by any really well done painting, don't we all linger longest in its worlds of color. The irony is when paintings fail, it's almost always a color problem. Color is the ultimately mysterious ingredient it seems, ready to either delight us or bedevil us. An artist's color box can be a chest holding treasures, or it can more resemble Pandora's Box. 

Here is a new oil painting. I love experimenting with color. Very often I'll take a design I like, as in this vine charcoal drawing below and use it as a starting point for color explorations. The drawing was done this last June near the summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in Maine.

Song, vine charcoal, 7 x 14", 2012

My wife Alice took this photo of me working on this same charcoal drawing. Heck of a great view from up there looking southeast out onto an Atlantic Ocean dotted with a network of rocky islands.

Here below is a color version I did in soft pastel chalks from the vine charcoal. Often times I'll do a pastel to clarify my thinking about how I could use color to evoke the feeling I'm after. Pastel chalks help me find my way forward as I enter the elusive world of hues. If the pastel is successful, then very often I'll use it as a springboard for an oil painting. This method is like inching ones way forward after entering a dark room. It's in one sense cautious, but it allows me to relax and become, if anything, more adventurous with my hues. 

Yellow Song, pastel, 4 x 8", 2013

In both the pastel and the oil painting above, my thinking about color revolved around a few key points. One was that the closest space has to feel profoundly different than the distance, so I've pushed the foreground into registers of blue, while keeping the water and especially the sky all sorts of yellows. 

Another thing is that this color segregation couldn't be total. In the foreground one sees subordinated neutral grays underneath the blues. And I've inserted into the foreground tiny notes of very dark, low intensity yellow using raw umber pigments. In the water there are hints of blue in some of the highlights, and thin blue gray finger-like islands echo the cool hues of the foreground. In the sky at upper right, a blue cloud has been invented to remind the viewer of what the cold color of the close foreground felt like. 

It is enormously important to give the viewer a range of intensities with the colors I've selected. The sky in the oil and the pastel above could easily have been much more intense than the soft cream yellow I've chosen. But against the intense cold blues in the foreground that would have looked overly theatrical and felt inauthentic.

In a way the whole purpose of using color is to provide the viewer with surprises for their eye. Colors I arrive at after hours of mixing  shades and variations on my oversized studio palette are almost always more intriguing than the regular "out of the tube" hues. 

Here below is a second oil version inspired by the pastel at the bottom. Both stem from the same vine charcoal drawing. 

Red Song,  oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 13", 2013

Red Song, pastel,  4 x 8", 2013


  1. Enjoyed your most recent posting and your comments/discussion regarding the use of colour. I've always believed, however, that the use of colour is second to strong drawing skills.
    Going off topic a bit, but staying with colour and sketching, have you ever thought to employ a digital sketching/painting program as a field sketching tool? Although I'm certain that there are many arguments against using a tablet device with a decent digital art programme installed, but after years of lugging a sketch box and easel to a favourable sketching location, I'm beginning to see some positive reasons to embrace technology.

    Ernest Somers

  2. Dear Time Spent,

    There is probably no real reason not to try a digital tablet if one wants to. For myself, having spent over 40 years trying to intimately understand the possibilities of oil pigment and brushes, I think it might prove distracting. It's a precarious balance between the genuine need to try new things and the conflicting need to recognize one's hard-won strength and mastery.

  3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate your efforts and I am waiting for your further post
    thank you once again.


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