Painting and Colour #3

"Light is a thing that cannot be reproduced, but must be represented by something else, by colour." - Cezanne


After Painting and Colour #2 which gave instruction on creating a colour wheel, this post is about using that colour wheel and delving a little bit into some of the critical relationships which exist between colours, which are fairly essential knowledge for the painter.

The two terms I would like to write about are analogous and complementary. First let's look at analogous and rather than explain it now, below are some images showing examples of these groups of colours.



For me these are a pleasure to look at, somehow soothing to the eye, these four groups of colours are analogous. In terms of the colour wheel, colours next to each other on the wheel are called analogous and these have a natural harmony. The wheel exercise in the last blog was composed of only twelve separate colours, now imagine a wheel with hundreds of colours and you would have many harmonic analogous colour combinations.

So apart from pretty colour combinations why is this of any use to the painter?

When you paint or indeed when you observe anything, you are looking at the light, which enables us to perceive the objects around us. The object or our surroundings would not be visible without the light, this sounds obvious, but what I really mean is when the light hits the surface of an object, some of the electromagnetic energy is absorbed and some is reflected, our brains then interpret this as colour and form.

Obviously there is different coloured light, indoor light from an incandescent bulb is very yellow, Northern daylight is cool and blue. These different coloured lights colour the world around us, for example inside a room lit with artificial light everything we visually perceive is tinged yellow, outside in Northern light everything is tinged slightly blue, this gives us nature's analogous colours there is a subtle harmony in all the colours. To paint convincingly even in abstract painting, some knowledge of this phenomenon is essential.

When you are painting you are painting light, nothing else, just light.

Using the wheel you can look left and right to see these analogous colours, and this can inform you to make good decisions about your painting and to achieve some of these subtle harmonies.

The second aspect of the colour wheel and probably the most important is complementary colours. A complementary colour is the colour opposite on the wheel, the complementary of red is green, blue is orange and so on, with many subtleties within this.

So again what is the use of this in painting? Other than creating extremely vibrant contrasts (you can usually spot complementary pairs because they have that vibrating effect on our eyes as seen above), well again if we revert back to the real world around us, the red you see is unlikely to be as rich and vibrant as the red straight out of a tube of cadmium red paint, in technical terms the colours about us have less chroma, basically less colour.

This is because many of the colours in our environment are mixtures of many colours and not pure, they are also affected by the colour of the light and also all the colours around them. More scientifically most of the objects around us are not just reflecting back one wavelength of light and absorbing all the others, it is much less defined than that and in reality all the wavelengths representing different colours are reflected back to some extent and our brains and eyes can perceive these subtle differences. In painting by using complementaries we can reduce the chroma of colours, basically reduce the level of colour we perceive, more in line with the real world.



The above illustration shows this perfectly, as the complementaries are added to each other the mix heads towards a grey in the middle. With paint this is often quite subtle and the levels vary with different colours and pigments so a good deal of experimentation is required, though for me this is one of the pleasures of painting. It is quite possible to create colour charts of greyed colours stepping them down through the different stages of 'greying'.

Please see painting and colour #1 for more information on how to do this, if this was done with all the colours in use on your palette it would be a fantastic reference resource.

Once you start to look for these two qualities in the real world, analogous colours and 'greyed' colours, they will become more and more apparent. Knowing about these effects raises your visual awareness and enables you in an artistic way to see more clearly.

In my opinion although there is craft and skill in painting, the majority of painting is about how we perceive the world around us and how that differs and corresponds with our fellow humans view of the world, the great painters look harder and more precisely.

James Holman
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James Holman

Thank you very much for sharing all your thoughts and efforts! Your blogs are very helpful and I will now begin to utilize them!!!!
With my very best Regards,

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