November 2011 Newsletter/The color of air

The President’s Palette

THE COLOR OF AIR

There are many areas of painting that are still a little fuzzy to me, but as I continue to study and paint, they are becoming less so.  One fuzzy has been what is meant when I hear or read “The color of the air has an impact upon everything in the painting.”  I considered this statement as being basically related to color harmony, but its understanding and usage has a profound impact upon the illusion of form and space in the painting.

I recently had the pleasure of reading a post by Daniel Gerhartz on a painting titled “Adoration of the Christ Child” by Carl Marr.  Here is what Daniel said about this stunning painting:

Adoration of the Christ Child by Carl Marr

by danielgerhartz


“The story goes that this magnificent work by Carl Marr was deteriorating in damp storage at the University of Berkeley, California before it was recently given the light of day and beautifully restored.  Now on permanent display at the Wisconsin Museum of Art, this painting (just guessing, roughly 8′ x 14′), is an excellent example of Mr. Marr’s incredible ability to capture light.  The artist’s lyrical arrangement of the heads of the numerous angels has also captivated me as I have studied the work.  The positive and negative interplay of shapes is exquisite, as well as the warm and cool dance that was employed to turn the forms.  Notice the cooling of tone at the top and back of the heads, which creates greater dimension by rounding the head with temperature.  This is truly a great work of Carl’s and will always be a favorite of mine.  However, his magnum opus, ” The Flagellants”, is an even greater achievement of design and scale, which I hope to share with you when I can photograph it upon re-installation in the new museum… until then, I am glad you are enjoying his work as much as I have.”  Daniel Gerhartz

It is important to note that the color used for rounding the forms was blue, a relatively cool color when compared to the warmer colors used in the lit sides of the robes and lit faces of the figures.  A basic principal of representational painting is that warm colors come forward and cool colors recede.  When both cool and warm colors are used on a form together, the illusion created will be one of volume, especially in conjunction with very soft edges.  The illusion of volume in turn creates the impression of space.  Looking again at the painting, it was not arbitrary of Mr. Marr to select blue for the turning of the figures.  He could have used other cool colors, but chose the blue from the background sky, which has a harmonizing effect.  Do you also see the dark blue on the backs and tops of the heads in the partial enlargement?  The value of blue used must match the value of the area in which used.  There is a light blue on the white of the robes where the forms turn, and a very dark blue on the heads in the dark turning areas.  How much more colorful this is than to just use a blackened color to show turning.  Since cool colors recede, it is much better in the turning planes to use a cool color with the correct value to create the illusion of volume and form.  The effect is more beautiful and visually stronger.

Looking at the advice given by David Leffel in his book “Oil Painting Secrets From a Master,” he says that when starting a painting, one should immediately put some colors on the foreground objects, and then mix up a color for the background.  His advice is to mix up the background color from the foreground colors, being careful to give it a cool bias so that it recedes and does not compete with the foreground.  He then always uses some of his background color on the turning planes of the foreground objects, just like Carl Marr has demonstrated.  David Leffel states that some background color on the turning planes immediately creates a sense of air and space in the painting.  Following this advice also ensures color harmony between the background and foreground objects.

Since painting is an applied art, all that I need to do is to put this into practice to really learn this principal and make it automatic in my paintings.  Understanding how to paint only comes with study and being willing to take risks while painting.  Always painting the same way will ensure that no learning takes place.  Risk everything to create better paintings!  As we do that, we gain understanding and begin to see like an artist.

November 2011

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