Teaching Color: Who Cares? So What?

I emphasize color theory to my students, and most of them are willing to apply themselves and learn what I present because they discover that it will benefit them.

So how will color theory benefit them? Is it just to save money on tubes of paint by being able to mix your own colors? Or is it to assure color harmony by keeping the colors related? Those are worthwhile enough benefits, but there is another, much more foundational problem that a grasp of color theory can solve.

I bring to my students’ attention that the painter who wants to capture realism (and most middle school students do) is fighting against an inherent problem. The world we see is three-dimensional, but our canvas is two-dimensional. We must, somehow, overcome the two-dimensional constraints of our canvas and create the optical illusion of depth. Certainly good composition and one- or two-point linear perspective can help, but once we start using color whole new possibilities open up to us. Color is not just decorative in a static way. It is organic.

To discover this organic quality of color we compare colors to each other and consider how they differ in terms of their color temperature, their intensity, and their value. Let’s imagine that we are painting grass or leaves. They are all green, but they are not all the same. By creating some warm and cool greens, some bright and dull greens, and some light and dark greens we can create the impression that some of the leaves or blades of grass are further back and some are in front.

Color Temperature: Warm colors come forward and cool colors recede or go back. The warmest spot on the color clock is yellow-orange (11:00 o’clock). The coolest spot on the clock is blue-violet at 5:00 o’clock. Of course red, orange, and yellow are warm colors and green, blue, and violet are cool colors, but as a painter we need to fine tune it a great deal more than that. We need to achieve warm and cool hues of EACH color. This is where our intermediary colors on the odd numbers of our clock will help us a great deal. Let’s start at yellow: If a yellow moves toward yellow-orange it will warm up. If it moves toward yellow-green it will cool down because it is moving away from 11:00 o’clock and toward 5:00 o’clock. If a blue moves toward blue-green it has warmed up. If it moves toward blue-violet it has cooled down. You can continue around the wheel using small amount of the adjacent colors to nudge a color into a warmer or a cooler hue.

Color Intensity: Bright colors come forward and muted colors recede or go back. A color cannot be any brighter than it is in its pure, right out of the tube, state. We must learn how to create the muted colors so that the bright colors stand out. Otherwise, if we paint only with bright colors, they visually compete with each other and nothing stands out. To make a color muted or grayed we add a small amount of its complimentary color or any neutral including white.

Color Value: When painting things at close range such as still lives, portraits, or florals, light colors come forward and cool colors recede or go back. This is called contouring. HOWEVER, when painting a subject with a lot of atmospheric depth such as a landscape, light, muted colors recede and dark colors come forward.

Table to help students remember how colors can help to achieve depth.

Table to help students remember how colors can help to achieve depth.

I teach my students to develop palettes that offer this full range of options and then to use them appropriately when they paint. I look forward to sharing the results with you in upcoming posts.

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