Balancing a painting can often be non-intuitive, difficult to spot if you’re going wrong and even difficult to see once the painting is complete. All you’ll notice is that the painting doesn’t look quite right, the perspectives are correct and the colours cool and fade into the distance, yet the relative contrast or ‘value’ between objects or even across an object is letting the painting down. Help is at hand and there are a few things you can do to get it right.
What is a balanced painting?
As I’ve mentioned, balancing a painting is not specifically an impressionist thing, it is an art thing and it is important to understand it so you can use it to your advantage. At first you should concentrate on balancing (contrast) a painting correctly. Then once you’ve got control of it you can exaggerate certain aspects of contrast to help play illusionary tricks or purely emphasise certain aspects of the painting.
There is one phrase a good friend of mine, Chawey Frenn, once told me that may help you understand the concept of balance.
‘The darks in the light can be lighter than the lights in the dark’.
This is a short sentence but has a lot of consequence. If you’ve ever looked at optical illusions, especially the ‘checker-shadow illusion’ (Google it), you’ll understand why it’s important to get it right and why it’s so easy to get it wrong. In the context of painting, look at a face lit from one side. The shadows on the lit side of the face are generally lighter than the highlights on the shaded side of the face. This might be obvious in such a straight forward example, but it comes into its own when considering how to paint within say the shadow of a tree or under a cafe umbrella in Paris while making sure it matches and connects with the rest of the painting.
Seeing less is more
To help you solve this problem and move forward, try to squint at what you’re painting. Squint until almost all the light is shut out and you will immediately see where the lightest parts of your subject are. As you relax your squint and let more light in more of the scene will come into view. With the portrait example, the important thing to notice is whether the highlights on the shaded side of the face come into view before or after the shadows on the lit side of the face. You’ll also notice whether that highlight on the nose is as bright as the one on the forehead and so on.
As you paint more complex scenes the same squinting technique applies. You’re looking to see which parts of your scene come into view at the same time and then choosing the same colour value (not actual colour hue necessarily) that is required. At first, mark out your painting with bold regions of colour concentrating on their value in order to get the balance right. Painting in monochrome is a good training technique. At any point in your squint, paint all the areas that came into view. Then darken your colour, relax your squint and paint another round. Later you can go ahead and blend the colour regions and add detail or do whatever you had in mind.
Your armoury of colour
Since you’re an impressionist painter, you don’t always want to use white (and don’t even have black) in order to control the value of your colours, but instead may prefer to use a different colour in isolation or as a mixer to achieve a more interesting result. Turquoise or cadmium green can be useful for the lights in the shadows while indigo, violet and prussian blue can be used for the darks within the shadows. For the shadows in the light, I like burnt sienna, purple and artisan crimson while for the highlights in then light I may use cadmium yellow, lemon yellow or cadmium orange. I do use white, either zinc or titanium but try to use a colour either mixed with white or alone where I can. Areas where this can be just too difficult is in the sky for example, where using yellow for highlights would result in green streaks, a colour you may not want to see unless in the distance.
Getting a grip of balance is particularly important with impressionist artwork. Although you should be flamboyant with your choice of colours, maintaining balance becomes more important so your painting remains understandable and makes sense to look at. Once you are in control of the balance thing, as with anything in art, you can play tunes with it as much as you like to create the artwork you want. And remember to have fun experimenting – you never know what you’ll come up with.
Marcus Krackowizer is a self taught painter whose style over the years has often been associated with the modern impressionist movement. As a professional painter he grapples with the sometime conflicting interests of making a living versus avoiding commercializing his artwork. As a successful contemporary impressionist artist, he felt it might be of interest as to how he creates the paintings, which you can see at http://www.modern-impressionist.com. Feel free to contact him with any questions.
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Where can I find info on origins of colors? i.e. bugs were source of purple, royalty wore it?
I am a high school art teacher and just finished teaching about the symbolism of colors, such as yellow being for cheerful, brown for earthy, black for gloomy or dignified, blue for cool, calm, etc. But several students had questions that were more in depth. Like on the source of the dyes and the history of the color, such as why white for weddings, black for funerals, red for a matador’s cape. I asked them to research it on the internet, but I am following my own advice and asking for help ! I tried to think of what I already know and saffron might be a source of yellow, cadmiums, as in red and orange, seem to be highly toxic. I want to know MORE ! And about the dyes/color sources too. I bet it would make a fascinating geography lesson. Thanks in advance.
One thing you may want to consider in you teaching is the cultural differences that relate to color. For instance, in the Asian cultures, white is used at funerals., not black.
In the western cultures, white symbolizes purity. Hence the color associated with a virgin bride.
As far as the red in a matador’s cape. It’s interesting to note that bulls are color blind. The red cape is only for the crowd. The bull is attracted to the movement and attacks that.
So, a very interesting discussion could be developed in how the different cultures interpret the meaning of colors.
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