About true colours


November 15, 2013


Dear Rodney,


There are colourists and there are colourists. There are those among us whose colours are clunky and crude--and there are those whose colours are deadly, tasty, and "right on." There are even some, like Paul Gauguin, who believe colour ought to be arbitrary--that is, it's a good idea if the sky is green and the grass is red.


While we're at it, there are those who think tone values are more important than hue--which is similar to saying colour is arbitrary. But even newly baptized novices know that if you manage to get the right colour your painting can look "true." God may work in light, but we mortals work in pigment. Getting the colour of the light through haze in front of a distant range of hills is, for many, the Holy Grail. It's not in the magic of some new pigment, it's a matter of looking, seeing, mixing, testing and adjusting.


Looking is opening your mind to your impressions.

Seeing is replacing what you know with what you see.

Mixing is the knowledgeable confluence of pigments.

Testing is comparing your preparations with the truth.

Adjusting is the will to fix your flagrant wrongs.


Guidelines for mixing: I know it's basic, but where you mix your colours (your palette) won't show how a chosen hue will react with others on the work itself. You must apply and consider. Also, many successful mixtures contain a mother colour, plus white and black. Don't be afraid of black. Having said that, garishness, when it occurs, is best neutralized with its opposite on the colour wheel. Get a colour wheel. And when you come to mixing, testing and adjusting, it's nice to know that practically everybody must silently and diligently struggle to get it right. There's no easy way. In the words of Chromophobia author David Batchelor, "Colour reveals the limits of language and evades our best attempts to impose a rational order on it. To work with colour is to become aware of the insufficiency of language and theory--which is both disturbing and pleasurable."


For those who paint outdoors, colour work can seem devilishly programmed to perplex and confuse. On the other hand, film photography, with its errant chemicals, can also get things wrong. Digital reference material, because of its eternal tweakyness, has been sent by the Great Goddess to help us look more virtuous than we are.


Best regards,




PS: "Colourists are epic poets." (Charles Baudelaire) "Colour is the fruit of life." (Guillaume Apollinaire) "Colour is an act of reason." (Pierre Bonnard)


Esoterica: After those three Frenchmen, try the sunny-side / shadow-side exercise. Make up little blocks of varying colours, set them on coloured grounds, place in bright sunlight, and try to grab and render those relationships in paint. For those in the northern hemisphere where it's now wintertime--you can try it over there under a colour-corrected bulb. An hour over there will not be wasted. Generally speaking the sunny side will be warmer and higher up the colour wheel, the shadow side will be cooler and lower down. As it says in the small print--"some exceptions apply." The cast shadow will be something else again.


This is a favourite Robert Genn Twice-Weekly Letter previously published on December 1, 2006.