About Color Theory

1913-dining-room-pierre-bonnardBonnard the bath paintingpierre bonnard

Color Design turned out to be one of most enjoyable classes I’d ever taken at a university, even though I was apprehensive at the beginning.

We used the old classic The Elements of Color by Johannes Itten as our textbook. Our supplies were a large flat brush, a detail brush, a ruler, a pencil, and seven tubes of acrylic paint: white, black, cadmium yellow, ultramarine blue, thalo blue, alizarin crimson and cadmium red light. We spent many days duplicating the pages of the book with the color block illustrations. First we did a value strip with grays. Then we did blocks of squares with the primaries. Then we mixed colors to do blocks with secondary colors. Eventually after we matched the colors in the book on a particular page, we were to take objects in the room and compose small still lifes and paint them using those same colors. It was fun and challenging.

Our professor encouraged us to think of our growing skills as acquiring tools for our “tool box” that we could use whenever we needed. As with any set of tools, some are used frequently and some are not but still valuable to acquire.

One exercise we had to do was to paint a page half black and half white. We had to use minute shades of gray to form designs on the white and the black of various degrees so that from a distance a veiwer would only see the black and the white and couldn’t see the designs but as he peered at it closer the designs would pop out. We did that with big blocks of solid colors too and used minute color differences. It was engrossing.

I was amazed at what would happen when I painted a dull color, let it dry, and then added a pure jolt of color or white on top of the drab color. It seemed to glow.

Other Things I learned from that class:

About temperatures: Cool and Warm. A painting should be more of one than the other but should have at least one opposing color in it to “push” others: A warm toned painting should have at least one cool element for the warm colors to stand out against and vice versa with cooler paintings.

Ways to lower the Chroma (chroma being the degree of pure color):
1. Tint: tint is a color with various amounts of white added to it.
2. Shade: shade is a color with various amounts of black added.
3. Neutralize: To neutralize a color add gray.
4. Drab down (another way to neutralize) a color: Add the color’s complement. A color’s complement is the color opposite it on the color wheel. Most painters prefer this method over adding gray because it’s more lively, expecially if one varies the combination.

Pierre Bonnard was a good colorist to study.

There’s always more. I will write more about it as it comes to me.

If I was a young artist and could take only a few courses from a university, I’d make sure Color Theory was one of them. I think about lessons learned every time I paint and mix colors.

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