Archive for category Subject: Colour Theory

Hazel Soan’s Art of the Limited Palette

Most watercolour books will have a section on working with a limited palette and there have been previous volumes on the subject. Those, however, have tended to base themselves on the author’s specific and unvaried selection. Yes, you could probably buy a set of them – how convenient.

I have never seen a Hazel Soan branded product and I doubt I ever will. This is not a book about what you should do half so much as what you can do. The difference is both subtle and vast and anyone who’s familiar with Hazel’s work will understand immediately. She’s an artist and writer who leads by example, inspires and gently guides and this is what has won her so many fans.

The paintings here are mostly done with between three and five colours, but they’re not prescriptive and Hazel varies them depending on the subject, so you might get the unsurprising Ultramarine Blue, Yellow Ochre and Permanent Rose where a blue shirt is the key hue in a simple composition. Then, a few pages later, you’re working on a summer landscape with Aureolin, Ultramarine Blue and Alizarin Crimson. The point being eloquently made is that it’s the subject that guides you, not the paintbox. These are pictures, not technical exercises.

Even more interesting are the sections where we’re down to just two colours. These are not clever tricks, but rather a way of achieving a particular result in a particular part of the work. You’ll be aware, for example, of how good Hazel is with shadows and reflections. So you’ll find yourself making a pre-mix of two greys, one red- and the other blue-shifted. Yes, there are five colours involved here, but they come down to two and depict those shadows and reflections in a rain-soaked street scene perfectly.

As much as anything else, this is a book about thinking about colour. The limited palette forces you to avoid the tendency to reach for yet another shade from the dozens you have in your box (yes you do). Hazel begins with some studies that look at how different combinations enhance and set each other off – blues and yellows (obviously), but also yellows and reds, reds and blues. She also explains, with well-chosen examples that make the message abundantly clear, how to make secondary colours quickly and easily. There’s a look at the earth colours as well as the use of both related and opposing shades.

There’s so much here that this becomes one of the most comprehensive studies of and guides to colour there is.

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Colour Demystified || Julie Collins

Julie has previously been the author of fairly conventional colour mixing guides, but this is something else altogether.

There’s a hint of what’s to come in the list of acknowledgements, which includes several artists and art writers, the Tate Gallery and many art brands which will be familiar to the reader. Julie has not just done her research, but done it in depth.

It’s no exaggeration to say that, if this were alchemy, it would be the philosopher’s stone, the catalyst that turns the base metal of simple pigments into the gold of a successful painting. It’s not magic or witchcraft and has nothing to do with the creative side of painting (you’re on your own there). What it is, though, is a completely reliable guide to how your materials behave on paper (we’re working with watercolours here).

Watercolour has many properties and they’re all based in chemistry. Guides to this have appeared before, most notably Ralph Meyer’s Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques, an exhaustive and exhausting tome that has its roots firmly in research chemistry. For the faint-hearted it is not.

This is shorter, illustrated and altogether more manageable. Or, let’s just say, manageable. Colours can be transparent or opaque. Some are staining, some will granulate. Some are perfect for glazing, others decidedly not. You need to know all these things, you need to know which pigments play nicely together and which should never be invited to each other’s birthday parties. It’s all in the chemistry, but you’re not a chemist, you’re an artist. You want the magic (OK, it is magic really) to happen on the palette, not in the library.

This is what Julie gives you – a practical artist’s guide to how colours work for the artist. It’s full of colour swatches, examples and demonstrations and you can see what’s happening at every stage, even try it out for yourself. It’s a book you’ll want to keep handy for reference, although there’s also a very good chance that you find you’ve remembered most of it. It’s convincing, comprehensive and joyously concise. Above all, it’s a key that opens just about every door.

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Colour Harmony & Contrast For The Artist || Michael Wilcox

This is probably the most comprehensive analysis of how colour works, both in theory and in practice, that you’re ever going to see. Typically from Michael Wilcox, it’s thorough, exhaustive and not a little exhausting. I’ve written elsewhere about guides that speak to you as an artist and, although this is written from an artistic perspective and is full of historical examples, it couldn’t be classed as a light read.

However, if you really want to understand the properties of colour and light, Michael Wilcox is the man and this is the book. It’s based around his colour-wheel palette and forms part of his colour system, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be read as a stand-alone. By using a consistent format throughout, and considering a wide range of colour pairings all individually, Michael has kept a complex subject as simple as it’s possible to make it. His knowledge of both physics and art history are impressive and he relates science and creativity well together to produce an impressive analysis.

I can’t say that this is essential reading, but it’s certainly illuminating.

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Color Harmony In Your Paintings || Margaret Kessler

Colour theory is one of those subjects that artists tend to shy away from. It’s all a bit technical, gets all scientific and takes away from the creative element and, well, it’s difficult, isn’t it?

All this is true but it’s something that, like perspective, you can’t ignore. Unlike perspective, however, it’s possible to explain it by doing it and it doesn’t require a lot of diagrams. Well, maybe the odd colour wheel, but we’re OK with those, aren’t we?

Tucked away on the copyright page is the information that this was originally published in 2004, and I’d have to say that it has a cover that makes it look older than that. This is a pity, as the message is timeless and there’s nothing dated about the contents.

This is a nicely-done guide to using colour to balance a picture, show recession, convey light and atmosphere, and as an aid to design. It’s all done by a series of analysed paintings or, sometimes, short demonstrations – though this isn’t so much about the actual mechanics as how it all fits together. There’s also a good progression from simple outlines to more complex work and, if you really want to get to grips with how to use your stock in trade, the contents of your palette, this book should do it for you.

One small thing to note is that all the illustrations are in oil. This shouldn’t matter, as the medium is not the message here, but you might want to know.

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Basic Colour || Jane de Sausmarez

At first sight, this looks more like a scientific textbook than a book on painting, but there have been many attempts over the years to explain colour theory for artists and what they’ve proved, above all, is that there’s really no better method than with charts and diagrams.

The problem is that colour is all about physics and, to understand what primaries and complementaries are, why tones and hues appear as they do and how colour mixing actually works, you need to know a reasonable amount about the properties of light. Once you get into it, it’s not actually that complicated but the problem is that arts and science are now so far divided (this isn’t the eighteenth century you know), that the two are generally regarded as almost diametrically opposed.

This is a shame. Actually, it’s more than a shame, it’s a tragedy because just a little basic science could save a great many aspiring painters from a great struggle with colour mixing which itself stems from a failure to understand that it’s not an additive, but a subtractive process. Put simply, more is less. And if you want to know why, then buy this book, which is the distillation of many years’ teaching experience and is, despite its perhaps rather forbidding initial impression, actually a very straightforward explanation of what colour is, how it works and why this matters.

Every painter should read this book. The absolute, real tragedy, is that very few of you will.

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