Color on my mind… I have been teaching my color-mixing workshop remotely for the Woodstock School of Art and next will move onto another live-streamed class that starts with color-mixing that will be the immediate basis for paintings. In any style or genre, the artists will create three paintings in the color compositions covered: monochromatic, analogous, or complementary.
Surprisingly, I have never written a blog post about this information. So, to share with more artists than I can reach with my classes, I will analyze here seven paintings, discussing color composition as well as hue, value, saturation, and layering.
I have chosen works from some favorite painters, presenting them in order of less saturated, more tonal color, to brighter, more saturated color.
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Twachtman was a master of tonal color. In this piece, he is working in a very subtle complementary green-red palette. The greens come in more strongly and have black embedded within them for the deepest value and then move through a whole range of mid and light tones all of the way to the white of the clouds. The reflection in the water has both reds and greens in it in a lovely, soft color segue from left to right. Another way to look at the color composition would be that this is mostly a study in many colors of grey, which tend to harmonize with each other. Note the date on this very modern feeling, tonal landscape painting.
This Milton Avery figure painting uses a stunning, simplified palette in blues and browns, a combination that I have always found deeply satisfying. Blues tend to be be a kind of beacon color in the human psyche, partly having to do with the history of color—coveted, romantic, even sweet at times. The earthy browns ground them effectively. There are several value and hue shifts with both blues and browns, the lighter blue in particular is cool while the deeper blue moves to a warmer, slightly more purple hue.The deep greys and an off-black in the hair, while cool, look to be middle hues between the blues and the browns, linking the flattened shapes together into a well-knit composition..
In the Turner painting, below, a warm, desaturated monochromatic palette is used to very dramatic effect. There is not a full range of value contrast, the warm tones starting with a medium naples yellow and moving through deep, desaturated reds to to the deepest black, which is essential to the drama. The feel is of fairly bright golden colors, but in fact this is a tonal painting, relying on exquisite drawing and well-blended edges for the overall feel.
I selected this dynamic Frankenthaler in particular for it’s primary/secondary-color palette, red/blue/green. The three large shapes are equally desaturated, reminding me of slightly faded vintage cars that have been in the sun for decades. They are also of similar value and not quite flat, with canvas just barely showing through in some areas and breaking up entirely in the red. Also key to the success of the painting is the small shape of desaturated red on the right, presenting as a tint of medium value, somewhere between a pink and mauve in hue. (And of course, the graphic of that deep orange line!)
A still life by Soviet era painter Vladimir Yukin, this painting is interesting as a well-integrated color study. In a complementary warm/green palette, it does have a full range of value, from white to deep greens and reds to black, but most of the painting is in mid-value, rich but desaturated. I love this painter’s work, often distinguished by the similar treatment of fore- and background, both in terms of hue/value/saturation and paint handling. This makes the delightfully off-center composition and dark outlines key attributes, as the positive and negative shapes embed with each other within a uniform surface. Splashes of more saturated color with the red/orange flowers add drama.
I couldn’t possibly discuss color, or my comfort-art, or art of the 20th century, without including Rothko, my single most ever-present lifelong influence. He loved red, and used it oh-so well, and was the master of subtle layering. This is an almost monochromatic palette, but that top line of warm yellow-green throws that meaningfully off. The layering creates many shifts in hue and value, like the whiter color on top of the background red that goes to pink, leaving an uneven gutter of the deeper red around the orange rectangles to create a beautiful vibration. And while the narrow top rectangle has the most going on, the flattest area of the bottom orange one counter-intuitively draws my eye, enhancing that well-known Rothko mesmerizing effect. This is a perfect example of when less-is-more, the emptiest area drawing the eye more than the busiest (if you can even use the latter word in describing a Rothko!).
Kandinsky was my first true love, and immediately upon discovering his body of work at age 14, I was drawn most to his expressionist pieces over the early landscapes and the later constructivist painting. In the below piece we see seemingly all-over-the-place color, and yet it harmonizes. Several factors are at work here to create this effect of lively, dense painting that hangs together. One is that most of the surface area is actually in a neutral cream to naples yellow color, light on the value scale. This is often a factor in work that appears very bright at first glance—the brights are popped and prevented from fighting by the neutrals, which here include the black lines, as well. Two other factors are a composition anchored by those black lines that keeps the eye circulating within the painting; and that he pretty much left out purple—omitting one of the six primary/secondary colors or one section of the color wheel can be very helpful in organizing a cohesive palette.
Well, this is the most fun I have had all week. I hope you enjoy reading it half as much, and please feel free to comment—agree, disagree, elaborate!
In the postscript to Umberto Eco’s dense and philosophical historical novel, The Name of the Rose, he observes: “…I would define the poetic effect as the capacity that a text displays for continuing to generate different readings, without ever being completely consumed.”
Such interesting language, and of course relevant to all art forms. I have often mused on the first part of this observation, knowing that the art that moves me the most and that I am intent upon creating invites interpretation and projection on the part of the viewer. But the second part is so delicious—“without ever being completely consumed.”
So which pieces from my formative years, my “comfort” art, can I point to that continue to nourish with new information, new sensation, never being finished?
The four paintings below send me into an almost conditioned swoon. So, pulling myself out of my art-induced trance, I will take a close, fresh look at them.
Rothko said, “If you are only moved by color relationships, then you miss the point. I’m interested in expressing the big emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom.”
I enter into a Rothko like looking at the ocean. This phase can last for quite some time. Eventually, as the eye wanders toward the edges, my consciousness is popped back out again and onto the surface of the painting, the blues anchoring me to the here-and-now. The gorgeous uneven edges of the main shapes going into the brighter blue…they make me feel stirred up and moored at the same time, as does the color. On the whole, I would say, deeper than tragedy, ecstasy, or doom… way down deep, sub-verbal.
“I have always been concerned with painting that simultaneously insists on a flat surface and then denies it,” Frankenthaler has said. The flat surface at work here is quite evident—and beautifully so. The mauve shape has the illusion of sheen that brings silk to mind. The most complex shape in the piece is without paint at all, bringing the eye firmly to the surface of the raw canvas. The small dark shape in the upper left looks like a piece of tape or paper placed on top, emphasizing flatness.
What is denying the flat in this piece? I see a subtle vibration in the mauve field that is full of movement, as if rippling in the wind, inviting the viewer to float into it.
What delights my eye the most is the interaction of shapes. The edges are softly stained and jagged with lovely variation. Each shape is a statement in its own right, but all are nudging the eye toward the unpainted angular form as it moves across the canvas. The dark corner at the top left presses the eye down and into that shape. The spot on the lower right where it almost but not quite goes off the canvas also leads the eye back into the piece, and both of these elements create a needed tautness to the otherwise open surface.
It is nowhere clearer than in minimalist non-geometric abstraction how much a play of edge and composition can directly reach the viewer’s heart. Without the descriptive content of a representational image, it is much easier to see how these shapes interact. There are good (dynamic, interesting, disconcerting, playful, assertive, and/or pensive) shapes and not-so-good (boring, overly regular, static, needlessly complex, and/or repetitive) shapes. Even more importantly, their interaction and directionality define the feel of the painting.
“With color one obtains an energy that seems to stem from witchcraft. “
Clearly, I love color-field painting. This iconic Matisse painting was already there back in 1911. It does as beautifully as any painting I’ve ever seen what a non-realist representational painting should do: both describe the space and flatten to the front of the picture plane. This is much like Frankenthaler’s observation above, made more complex by the descriptive aspect of the subject matter.
I have always delighted in the way that the white lines, created from negative space underneath the red, are the drawing element. (The grandfather clock is brilliant!) I am now noticing for the first time that it is the perspective, I think quite accurate, that really describes the room for us.
Whites and pinks punctuating the space and a handful of curved shapes keep the eye circulating and create clusters of compositional interest.
All of this is embedded in one, flat plane of red; a red so rich you can almost breathe it in.
“Art cannot be modern. Art is primordially eternal.”
Shapes, stunning shapes. This painting has a complex composition that still leaves the piece feeling open, mostly due to the reduced palette. The whites and almost whites along with the Chinese Lantern snaking up behind create the most startlingly interesting element of the piece, to my eye—the small white shape sitting on top of the shoulder of the figure.
There is narrative here both in the painterly treatment of the figure and in its placement and expression. Schiele depicts himself with his signature angular shapes and dramatic cropping. The harsh texture on the face projects a view of self while the subtler texture of the black shirt brings movement to the largest single shape in the painting. One is pretty and the other is not.
The head is cocked and the gaze quizzical but challenging.
Knowing that Schiele died at the age 28 of the flu, and viewing this piece from my current age and perspective, I can’t help but feel that along with its pictoral brilliance, the painting projects a young man’s working-it-out doubts and hubris, all very raw.
Some of these emotions I remember feeling at 17 or 25, and other observations are fresh. Looking at these pieces today, I find the sensations that they provoke, familiar or new, are more exciting and moving than ever.
So it is a conversation that never ends.