By Charles Sovek
The Artist's Magazine - August, 2002
Explore the full range of colors and values in your painting by getting to know your subjects most basic qualities.
What are your subject's home properties? Commonly called "local" color and value, a home color is the color you see regardless of the color of the light - yellowish sunlight or bluish moonlight, for instance - and a home value is the natural value without shadows or highlights. ("Local" color and value mean different things to different people, so I use the term "home" to refer to these qualities.) Understanding your object's home properties and being able to see and paint the effects light has on them is a major building block in creating a successful picture.
Start With the Basics
Take a look at the painting Still Life With Apples (at right). Then look at the diagrams in Paring It Down (below). At their most basic, the apples are red, yellow and green. The knife is gray, the stool is tan and the grassy background is green (diagram A). Those are your home colors. Now look at the value study of the same items and see their home values: the light gray (yellow) apple beside the middle gray (green) apple alongside the two darker gray (red) apples, resting on the light gray (tan) stool (diagram B).Now, study diagram C. Here you can see the effect the sunlight has on the home values. Where the light strikes each apple, the value remains the same, but where the apple turns away from the light, the value of the apple changes.
In Still Life With Apples, the noon sun, a glaring white with a tinge of yellow, alters the home colors of the apples very little in the lightstruck passages. The shadows, however, tell another story. Notice how the green apple, in particular, displays yellow-orange light bouncing into the shadows from the warm light of the stool. The same phenomenon occurs to a lesser extent with the reflected lights of the red and yellow apples. But while the reflected light alters the home colors to a degree, it doesn't obliterate the fact that the apples are red, yellow and green.
And here we have the real crux of the matter: How far can you stretch the lighting effects, and how far can you stray from an object's home color? Claude Monet, in his later works, often traded the recognition home colors provided for a shimmering miasma of spectral effects. Camille Corot, on the other hand, usually ignored the glitz of shimmer and sparkle in favor of easily identified home color values. What's right for you will be revealed as your skills mature and priorities solidify.
Color Your World
The easiest way to adapt home colors to a particular source of illumination is to start with a mixture of paint that matches the color of the object before the influence of a colored light. Let's say cadmium red light is the color of the apple you're painting. Since sunlight has yellow in it, you'd then mix a bit of cadmium yellow light into the red for the light-struck side of the apple. The shadows, by contrast, get no direct light and usually display a hint of color complementary to the light. In this case, the red would now take on a hint of blue. This means either replacing cadmium red light with alizarin crimson, which leans toward blue, or adding a touch of ultramarine blue to the cadmium red light.
You can now begin tackling subjects with both candor and insight. A good exercise is to take one of your own paintings and make some color swatches on a separate canvas, pinpointing the home value and color variations of the light and shadow passages as influenced by a colored light source. Still better, paint the same subject a house across the street, a plant in a window or even a self-portrait under various lighting conditions. This builds up your visual vocabulary and can open doors to all sorts of visual possibilities. So the next time you hear, Roses are red, Violets are blue, youll know thats only part of the story.