There is a joke that constantly circulates among many old-school painters leading workshops, and it goes something like this: “All you need to do to become one of the greatest painters in the world is to put down the right color, in the right shape, in the right place, at the right time”. And underlying that joke is some serious truth. Here is a brief list of five things all painters should be concern with, if they wish to produce strong and dynamic work. (And yes, I’m still busy working on these myself . . .)
While not being strictly limited to this list, I give you the “Big Five”, in what I feel is the proper order of importance:
3. Chroma (or Saturation or Intensity, if you prefer)
Discounting the need for the painter to simplify, compose, and edit what they see, my short list holds true. It goes beyond the idea of overtly developing a style, or mannerism–two things I personally abhor. The list bridges almost every genre of painting, excluding the Primitive, the Naive, and Outsider Art.
But what do these five things do in a painting? And why are they so important for us artists to remember as we work?
Let’s start with this painting of mine: “Lavender and Persimmons”. It’s a small painting, 12 x 9 inches, but there is a lot going on anyway.
Value is largely responsible for creating the sense of form we see in a painting. Value distinctions create the solidarity, the weight in a painting. Correctly assigned values push the planes of a subject forward or backward into their proper place within the picture plane. Value is also responsible for dividing what part of a subject falls into the light mass and what part falls off into the dark mass, and when any transitional value isn’t correctly associated with its adjacent neighbors–meaning, a value appears out of context–the anomaly disrupts the form. That rogue value destroys the illusion. In addition, misinterpreting a group of values will also disrupt the form if the painter takes that range of values too dark, or too light, and leaves out enough transitional values between the two extremes. In other words, the two groups remain disconnected.
Hue may seem easy to get a grip on at first, but often a novice painter will assign the wrong temperature to a hue. Yellow and Blue inarguably have a pronounced difference in their warm and cool temperature, but both contain a range of cool and warm within their respective hue. It’s important to keep in mind that there will always be warmer and cooler version expressed within a single hue. For example, in the detail to the right, the darker yellow hue leans towards the orange (warm), and, as it goes up in value the hue shifts towards the green (cool). So, one temperature will always be more correct to use within a particular circumstance than is the other. But wait. There’s more: the same holds true for any Hue in the color wheel. Or, to get a tad more complicated with this explanation, if a warm version of a hue–say, our warm yellow–is carelessly placed into passage containing only cool versions of other Hues, the same separation or disconnect will result. The warm yellow will visually float or project off the surface you wanted it to sit on. Nothing you try next will link the two patches of color together. You have to adjust the temperature to fix it.
Chroma (or, again, Saturation or Intensity) also comes into play. If a (mixed) hue is too intense for the area it is being placed into, that hue will not associate with its neighboring color. It will disconnect from the surface of the painting much like an ill-considered value does. To the right I show a detail of the green pot as it turns into the shadow. Its saturation has been matched to the dark-reddish shadow of the cloth emerging into the light. (and creating a low chroma, red/green complementary hue contrast, BTW.) If either dark passage was more intense than the other then neither dark would connect or link.
But what about the last two, Shape and Edges?
Shape is simply a matter of accurate drawing. Or, to be more precise, of being able to recreating the undulating planes which follow the surface of your subject. Accurate drawing is a hard-won, learned skill. It is not an innate talent and cultivating it takes time, effort, and perseverance. You must sweat yourself through it. You don’t learn how to draw from knowing everything there is to know about graphite, ink, charcoal, and paper. You learn to draw from drawing and this means looking. Preferably from life and not from a photograph. (I will offer some advice on how the novice draftsperson may improve their skills in a later post, but let’s not forget: drawing requires time spent drawing, and not talking about drawing. So don’t wait. Start drawing now!) The top of the persimmon bends, folds, and curls because I reduced all of that into simpler shapes that blend together giving the illusion that the top bends, folds, and curls. It isn’t any more complicated than that.
Edges are often the least considered part of a painting. If they are considered at all. Unfortunately, I see many paintings where the artist has made little or no effort to vary the edge quality in their painting and an inchoate lumpiness is a result. This is not to say that all edges should be crisply defined. No, no, no. It is to say there should be a variety of hard and soft edges offered up to the viewer all within the painting. Because lost and found edges are more visually interesting than having everything equally defined by the artist. A painter should vary their edgework with intent and not happenstance, and make it all part of the story they are trying to tell. Good edgework can become one of the most interesting and involving aspects of a painting, and it can used to lead the viewer’s eye to the artist’s intended compositional climax. Edgework can be used soften the brittleness of over-rendering. Also, a contrast of loose and hard edges can literally convey a sense of motion or the passage of time. How a painter deals with their edges reveals the presence of their hand and thus it become an identifiable signature as much as the name you find down in the lower corner. And finally–and perhaps the most important thing to consider–accomplished edgework is what still separates a painting from a photographic image, a distinction I find increasingly compelling as digital technology continues to march on.
So, the next time you look at a grand painting, spend a little time looking at how the artist handled the Big Five. Or, spend some time looking at these paintings below. Compare what the artists did, or didn’t do with their Value, Hue, Chroma, Shapes, and Edgework. You may be surprised at what the differences are, and what they all have in common . . .