In small acreage on a hilly clearing,
Sunny morning shines golden on chalky-pink blossoms;
I pause and prolong my hike to watch sunbeams lick away dewdrops
Soaking in shaded greenery of an apple orchard.
Craggy, crabby branches nod jaggedly at a breeze dashing across the way;
Wasps complain from gray papery hives swaying above me;
A hummingbird pauses and peeks inside a blossom—
Perhaps she smells the jellies, pies and cider clearly on my mind.
I head away on journey once more,
Longing to return and sample ripe fruit from the trees.
This is part of a lesson plan I used when I taught my young students how to mix colors on their palettes. If this is new to you, give it a try.
I keep the colors on my palette simple: 4 yellows, 4 Reds, and 4 blues. I have listed these 12 colors in the color triangle below. This simple tool enables me to know which colors to use when I want to darken a color effectively without creating mud. Some artists refer to the process of darkening colors as “cooling,” “shading,” and “graying.” This tool is also useful for lightening the darker colors effectively. “Brightening” and “warming” are other terms artists use for lightening their colors.
My 12 colors consist of 4 yellows, 4 reds, and 4 blues. My 4 yellows are Cadmium Yellow, Lemon Yellow, Yellow Ochre, and Burnt Umber. My 4 reds are Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Red, Indian Red, and Burnt Sienna. My 4 blues are Cerulean Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Prussian Blue, and Payne’s Gray. The outer triangle represents my highest intensity colors based on a split-primary color wheel. Split-primary colors are colors of the highest intensity (brightest) that are warm and cool colors of the same family. Cadmium Red is a warm red; Alizarin Crimson is a cool red. If I want to cool my Cadmium Red, I add Alizarin Crimson, and if I need to warm my Alizarin Crimson, I add Cadmium Red. Ultramarine Blue is a cool blue; Cerulean Blue is warm. Lemon Yellow is warm; Cadmium Yellow is cool.
I mix my own secondary colors: orange, green, and violet (purple). To make a bright, vivid orange, I mix Cadmium Yellow and Cadmium Red. To make a vivid green, I add Lemon Yellow to Cerulean Blue. And to make a vivid violet, I add Alizarin Crimson to Ultramarine Blue. If I need to darken my orange color, I can add a mixture of Lemon Yellow and Alizarin Crimson. To darken green, I add Cadmium Yellow and Ultramarine Blue. And to darken violet, I add Cerulean Blue and Cadmium Red.
Of course, there are other ways I can darken both my primary colors and secondary colors without making muddy mixes.
Think of the colors on the outer part of the triangle as colors with lots of light. The next triangle has colors with less light. These are my middle intensity colors. I use these colors to shade or “gray down” my highest intensity colors. I use Yellow Ochre to lower any of my two highest intensity yellows, Indian Red to lower either of my highest intensity reds, and Prussian Blue to lower my highest intensity blues.
The innermost triangle or third triangle has my lowest intensity colors. These are colors with the least amount of light. They further lower the intensity or brightness of my outer colors.
As I mentioned, I can darken my secondary colors this way, too. To further lower/darken my original orange, I can add either a mixture of Yellow Ochre and Indian Red, or a mixture of Burnt Umber and Burnt Sienna, depending on how dark I want my orange. To lower/darken my original green, I add either a mix of Yellow Ochre and Prussian Blue, or a mix of Burnt Umber and Payne’s Gray. And to lower violet, I add either a mix of Indian Red and Prussian Blue, or a mix of Burnt Sienna and Payne’s Gray. This way, I keep my colors from becoming dull looking and muddy. This happens when artists try to lighten their colors with white, and try to darken their colors with black.
Keep this handy color triangle with you when you’re mixing colors and looking for the right lightness and darkness.
Another old art piece of mine. This article was first published in an art newsletter dated 1998. The photos of my artwork that I’ve shared for this post range from the same year to 2001.
While oil painting this month, I’ve been having fun painting with knives. Frosting the cake is what I call it when I spread thick paints of color on my canvases, and then add flicks and swirls like a jolly decorator in a bakery.
Anyone who hasn’t tried painting with knives should give it a go. All you need is either a painting knife or a palette knife of your choice and several rags to clean your knife. I prefer using one knife to keep my painting area uncluttered. And the knife I prefer most is the painting knife. I enjoy the painting knife’s flexibility over the palette knife’s rigidness.
Just like brushes, knives come in a lot of shapes and sizes that lend themselves to various uses. The Dick Blick Company, where I buy my art supplies, explains the differences between painting knives and palette knives.
Painting knives are blunt with a slightly flexible steel blade and no sharpened cutting edge. They are used in place of a brush for applying paint colors, paste, pigments, and so forth directly onto the canvas or painting surface.
Palette knives are blunt with a very flexible steel blade and no sharpened cutting edge. They are primarily used for mixing paint colors, mediums, additives, paste, pigments, and so forth directly on the palette before applying them to a surface. Palette knives are symmetric, like a kitchen spatula.
I prefer using a large painting knife simply because it allows me to be freer when I apply paint to my canvas, leaving a variety of edges in the finished work, giving the artwork life and engaging the viewer with the painting.
Although I prefer painting on canvas, there are various kinds of surfaces to paint on. Stretched canvas allows me to dance the knife across the surface and create a variety of irregular shapes. This is why I use the less flexible painting knives because I prefer some control when I paint. Canvas board and Masonite let me control both knives better, but my pictures sometimes look motionless when I use a painting knife on them. I recommend using the more flexible palette knives on hard surfaces.
Whichever knife you choose, painting with knives gives your pictures abrupt color changes, making edges in the paint appear razor-sharp, which is nice when contrasting areas of your major focal points. But when an unimportant edge looks too sharp, a zigzag of the tip of the knife through the paint breaks any edge and puts it in its proper place.
Edges can be hard, soft, and lost. Using a variety of edges engages the viewer’s attention by preventing the picture from looking monotonous. I like to alter the edges in my paintings to enhance the rhythm and composition.
When hard edges are placed horizontally, they accelerate the movement of the viewer’s eye. When placed vertically, the eye of the viewer comes to a sudden stop.
Soft edges slow down horizontal lines and allow passage through vertical ones. Creating soft edges with a brush is easy; with a knife, not so much. That’s where the flicks and swirls I mentioned earlier come in play.
A mixture of hard and soft edges creates a type of movement like a driver operating a car with both the accelerator and brake at the same time. These stop and go edges are called broken edges and are sometimes described as a Morse Code type of painting.
Lost edges are almost invisible edges and help keep the viewer’s attention focused on where the hard edges are. Lost edges play a major role of supporting hard edges, which, as I mentioned earlier, are often found in the main subject. You can see lost edges in the shadow areas of my paintings as well as in the main subjects. Using lost edges with hard edges lets the main subject look as though it is truly part of the scene, and not like it was cut out and pasted on. And equally important, lost edges keep the viewer’s eye flowing evenly from one area to another.
When painting lost edges, I find it’s important to use colors equal to or close to one another in value to keep contrasting values from creating hard value edges. Plus, to avoid hard chromatic edges, I use colors in the same temperature range. This unifies the elements of a painting and creates pathways, like light flowing from one room into another.
I recommend that every artist try doing an entire painting strictly with palette knives. Go ahead and give it a go. And most of all, have fun.
Many years ago, I taught wildlife and landscape painting classes. This is a lesson plan from those classes.
Understanding and controlling values should be one of your first goals as a painter. When I began painting landscapes from life, I realized that the objects in my finished paintings lacked convincing form. When I understood how light reveals form and began looking at the world with this in mind, my work began to improve. So will yours when you learn to see light and understand what it does to show an object’s form.
Recognize value in color. An object’s form is made of valued tones of color. It’s imperative while painting to be able to see a color in your subject and translate its value into paint.
Think about the picture and its center of interest. Think in terms of composition first. Plan where the center of interest will be located and how you will emphasize that area. Make your center of interest stand out with color and value contrasts and an interesting shape.
When painting a center of interest, keep your eyes on that area of landscape (or model or still life) and nowhere else. Use your peripheral vision for the rest of the subject, but keep your eyes on the focal point as you finish the rest of the painting. This will help you make the rest of your painting harmonious with the focal point.
What can you cut? Are you saying too much and cluttering the picture space with too many details? Is there anything extraneous that you can remove from the picture? Can you cut detracting background by moving in closer or by cropping the subject with a viewfinder?
The overall design. When composing your painting, do not think “up and down” or “side to side.” Rather, consider the depth you can create within the “cube” I’ve talked about in class—that three dimensional rectangular space that will be your painting. Then work with the overlapping forms within your vision’s periphery as part of the overall design.
Put it on and leave it alone. This rule is often mentioned to oil painters, but I’m suggesting it to painters using acrylics, too. Fussing with passages of acrylic paint can be more damaging than reworking the slower-drying oil paints.
When putting in the lights mix up thick, opaque color and put it down with simple strokes. The amount of paint on the brush and proper brush pressure is vital when applying your paint. Putting thick paint down boldly forces you to make definite decisions. Believe your first impression. Paint quickly; if you look too long, your perception may change. Be decisive. A boldly applied stroke looks right because the artist made a decision and stuck with it. Putting down a stroke and then restating it once or twice pushes the paint into the underlayer, making the color muddy. If the underpainting is too thick, scrape it off. You can lay paint over a thick area by painting the next layer even thicker.
Criticize your work from afar. Step away a good distance from the canvas and decide whether some shapes and edges need more emphasis. Judge artfully from a distance, not critically with your nose against the canvas. From Leonardo da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting we learn that from a distance “…the work appears smaller, and more of it is taken in at a glance, and [any] lack of harmony or proportion in the various parts … is more readily seen.” Remember to emphasize major areas—do not stray far from your painting’s focal point. Add detail, or sharp edges at the end of the process.
Impressionist Claude Monet described painting alla prima as this: “When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have in front of you, a tree, a field. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your own naïve impression of the scene.”