On Color Development in Painting

By Thom Wright   August 2020

To many people having a sense of color seems natural, that as we mature we gain this just by seeing a lot of images. As described by Johannes Itten in his outstanding teaching book (The Elements of Color, Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1970), he noticed that his students showed subjective preferences for different shades of color according to sex, body type, personality, culture and century.  But very few had an intuitive understanding in how to use and control color to enhance their art. His book opens the door to learning color theory and harmony, whatever your preferences and purposes. This book was the basis of my art class taken at Cal State University Long Beach in 2002, and I highly recommend it for study to all art students and artists.

This blog presents some of my examples in use of color through my education and subsequent practice of art.  The following aspects of color relate to its basic dimensions across the color wheel, the seven kinds of contrast of color, and a few more considerations:

  • Light vs. dark
  • Analogous vs. complementary
  • Bright vs. dull
  • Warm vs cool
  • Contrast of chroma (color saturation)
  • Tints vs. tones (adding white or black or both
  • Equal values vs. Limited values vs. wide range values
  • Hue vs hue
  • Simultaneous contrast of hues
  • Transparent vs. opaque
  • Texture and density vs. flatness
  • Contrast of material
  • Contrasts of color extension

Then to make a painting or work of art, add to these elements the size, format, media, types of line, shape, background, and lighting color, degree of representation or abstraction, etc., making art can be almost too complex to explain.  Rather, adding more understanding of what happens when mixing color may benefit each artist’s direction.

“Stripes”, Gouache on watercolor paper, 5” x 7”, Thom Wright 2002

One way to begin to study color is with stripe paintings, such as the exercise shown above.  Asking which of the previous list of color constrasts are applicable to this piece is the beginning of understanding its sequence.  From the white and black beginning, it moves through cool colors using a cool green-gray ground.  Then after a light grey band begins the warm color sequence on the right.  A dark blue is first introduced to heighten the warmth of the yellow ochre, then moving into the yellows.  These yellows gain strength from the cool and warm reds, and a dark brown-black.  The last band closes with another light grey.

“Windows”, 5” x 7”, Gouache on watercolor paper, Thom Wright 2002

This piece shown above is a variation on the vertical stripes design, but has a chocolate brown window frame to intensify the color contrasts. Yellows and oranges darken to cool browns, but with the yellow on the left side really pumps up the luminosity and glow of the yellow.  A pale brown acts as another analogous brown, but in lighter value that still intensifies the yellow.  A light red stripe next to the yellow becomes cool.  Beginning in the large window on the right side, a yellow-green is a complement to the red stripe and  it has a slightly cooler yellow vertical to emphasize the warm glow of yellow-green.  Next, a sequence of light blues begin a much cooler sequence of orange, yellow-green, mint-green, cool red-orange (which in its pure mixture is the hottest color), and then two more cooler greens.  The greens are neutral, but next to the light blues have a greater glow.  So the sequence has a hot-to-cool sequence, and all of them stand out more against the chocolate brown frame.

“Blue-Yellow Architecture”, 5” x 7”, Gouache on watercolor paper, Thom Wright 2002

This third color composition shown above uses dominant blues against yellows and black, with a light-brown mounting mat. The simplicity of its design suggests a three-dimensional scene, while the strong color tends to push the two-dimensional aspect.  The few diagonals are key to suggesting the 3-D space, as well as the variation in blue values next to each other.  Usually, white advances next to most darker colors, but the human understanding of architecture pushes the white rectangle back the farthest.  In most primitive and ancient cultures, blue/yellow is a perfect complement, whereas on our modern color wheel it is blue/orange.  And notice that the black is viewed as a cool color versus a neutral color in this construction.

“Village”, 5” x 7”, Collage with colored papers, Thom Wright  2002

This last piece shown above works with a wide range of color papers, with the yellows setting the color of light.  The blue and blue-violet at the top appear as shifted sky colors, because they both are recessive with the other colors advancing to the foreground.  Even the black advances by its high degree of value difference, compared to the yellows around it.  But the red-orange triangle next to the black advances even more than the yellows and the black.  Similarly, the three-color rectangle in the lower left also advances more than the light yellow. Thus, each subgrouping of color shapes have a relative warm/cool contrast, a light/dark contrast, and some show a progression of analogous colors as a grouping.  The whole reads as suggestive of a building architecture.  Their adjacent color contrasts and their group-to-group contrasts create the movement of the shapes and their energy.

Exploring color is a continuing effort for most artists, even after all this “education”.  I may have used heightened color examples, but the “eye” learns to see what is happening, and it is still exciting to discover new paint colors and how they work. 

Published by Thom Wright Art

Thom Wright has combined his passions for art, music and engineering, and all of his practices have benefited each other. In 1986, he had an epiphany, one of those moments when he realized that he had to be a better artist. His subject matter moved toward contemporary issues, including geopolitics, global environment, technology, cultural and natural processes of change, and jazz. His abstracts also migrated towards mixed media and printmaking. These interests and processes continue in his art work. Desiring to improve his skills, theory and knowledge in art, he took early retirement from the Boeing Corp. in 1999 and entered art school full time. In May, 2006, he completed the MFA program in Drawing and Painting at California State University, Long Beach.

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