Which colors does a painter use most frequently?
When a child draws a landscape, she or he paints the sun bright
yellow, the sky bright blue, the houses roof bright red, the
tree-trunks bright brown and the leaves bright dark green, the
grass bright light green and the flowers bright magenta, bright
violet, etc. The result is a childish picture, because all
the colors are too saturated (see figure #101 as an example).
Figure #102 shows the same drawing, but with less saturated
colors (i.e. colored grays in place of bright colors). The
impression is less childish. But the result is rather dull and
drab: there isnt enough contrast between the different colors
of the picture.
Figures #103 and #104 show what both images
become when photographed with a black and white film. Figure #103
corresponds to figure #101 (the first childish drawing). Figure
#104 corresponds to figure #102 (the dull and drab one). Both
images show clearly that the contrast between lights and darks is
too low, particularly the second one, where the sky has even the
same value as the earth!
Click on each thumbnail for getting a bigger
In figure #105, I have repainted the same drawing taking into
account both issues at the same time: saturation and values.
Ive done it with less saturated colors and with more contrast
between the lights and the darks. The result is decidedly
The proof is figure #106, which represents what would be a black
and white photograph of the last image. However, the general
impression of such a B&W image is too dull, sad and gloomy
because the colored areas are flat. Thats why figure
#107 shows the same monochromatic picture, but treated in a sepia
version, which is much better aesthetically.
This demonstrates that for a good painting the values of
the colors i.e. the contrast between the light and the dark
tones are more important than the colors
Figure #105 could be obtained by mixing pure colors
(= bright pigments), not with neutral grays, but with earth
pigments like yellow ochre, burnt sienna, and burnt umber. The
upshot is rather good because the colors are warmer than the ones
which could be obtained by mixing pure colors with neutral grays
and because the values are good. This last picture # 105 could be
used for a book destinated to children, because however simple it
is aesthetically acceptable.
Untill now, my examples were painted with blocked in areas. In
reality, nobody paints like that. Furthermore, when an area is
painted with several hues of the same color, a sort of
competitiveness between all theses hues makes that they seem much
brighter than they actually are. And the result is yet better
see figure #108. A black and white photograph of this last
image (figure #109) shows that the values (dark and light tones) are correct.
The last image (fig. #110) is the same as fig. #108, but with
much more saturated colors. The upshot is a very sunny
picture, perhaps even too bright. But in a few moments well
see that it is very useful for better understanding the best
possible use of colors in an oil painting.
Lets we digress to just explain briefly
that in any image, the colored impression of a given color on the
human eye closely depends on the other colors that are next to it.
Actually, when you place two not too bright colors next to
eachother, both look brighter than they really
For example, fig #111 shows two red circles. Both are of the
same color (215-12-24), but the left one looks brighter than the
right one, which seems brownish. The green square makes the red
circle look brighter, but the red one shows that the color of the
circle actually is a dull red.
Thats why the most utilized colors for oil paintings
arent the brighter ones, but the attenuated colors like earth
colors, mixed with white, dark blues and dark greens, like phthalo
blue, ultramarine, viridian and phthalo green. Its only for
painting the blue sky, flowers or butterflies or for some
other particuliar intention of the painter
1 that the bright colors become necessary.
- For example, if a painter wants to set off a detail of a
painting, he may use a generally nonsaturated tone, with only one
bright color for this particular detail, as showed in fig #111 bis,
where the bright cyan color (0-255-213) emphazises this rather strange prisoner, who looks almost
Figure #112 shows a comparison between the first figure #101 and
the last one #110, which demonstrates clearly that the colors of
the fist image are oversaturated in a nonnatural manner. Perhaps
you will consider that the right image is too nonsaturated?
Lets thus compare the flat nonsaturated figure #105 (with
blocked in areas) and the last one. Its figure #113. The saturation is approximately identical in both images
maybe this is better seen on the thumbnail than on the
bigger image, particularly for the tree leaves , but the
second one seems to have much brighter colors. This is due to the
fact that no color is a flat one: there are no blocked in areas
left. This is a additional evidence that two closely related hues
of the same color look brighter when they are
The last image (fig. 114) compares the first and the tenth ones,
i.e. the two most saturated drawings. This is a lesson to be
learned: in fact, the last drawing in less saturated than the
first, and yet its colors seem brighter! The general impression is
the one of an image with rather bright colors, but nearly none of
its colors is really bright except the blue sky.
This explains why the Masters of the Middle Ages and the
beginning of the Renaissance could make pictures of which the
colors seem to have remained very bright while most pigments they
used have faded or discolored.
For example they considered the best way of
painting was to begin with a nearly monochrome underpainting,
preferably with earths and white than with neutral grays
something like figure #107, except for the red draperies, of which
the underpainting was made with bright red. (See Methods of the Old Masters.) Correct values were
here the main purpose of the underpainting.
After that, the definitive picture could begin. If you try this
way of working, youll immediatly see that not very bright
colors, put on a brownish underpainting, will look much brighter
than they actually are.
The most frequently used colors for a good oil
painting arent the bright colors, but the earths (ochres and
browns) and white. A dark blue is necessary too for making blacks
and dark colored grays.
For landscapes, a bright yellow (e.g. Cadmium Yellow Light) is
needed for making greens by mixing it with Viridian (or Phthalo
Green), the blues or some black (for Olive Greens); but here too,
the earths will be necessary to avoid making too bright colors.
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