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Painting Colorful Lights and Darks

by Lori Woodward on 4/27/2011 9:31:26 AM

Today's post is by Lori Woodward.  Lori earned a bachelor's degree in Art Education from the University of Arizona.  As a freelance writer for various art publications, she has written more than 60 published articles for  American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and International Artist Magazines since 1996. Her paintings, along with instructional articles, have been featured in Watercolor Magazine since 2007, and in American Artist's Highlights Issue, Step by Step 2011, with the article: "Moving into Acrylics".  Woodward has co-authored the book, "Watercolor Step by Step" a Walter Foster Publication, and authored a chapter for Calvin Goodman's "Art Marketing Handbook for the 21st Century".  She has been a member of the Putney Painters since 2004, a small invitational group of painters who are mentored by Richard Schmid and Nancy Guzik.


All images are copyright the artist and are used here by permission of those artists.


Have you ever learned a new vocabulary word - at first, thinking you've never heard that word before - and then after learning its meaning, you hear it all the time? I studied art for decades before I realized that some advanced artists did not paint gray areas... gray.


That's the way it has been with me and subtle color temperature changes. I never noticed these tiny sparks of color in paintings until I learned the term, "confluent color" from artist/teacher Jack Beal. Yes, I previously understood that good color harmony means that colors are repeated throughout the composition, but now I have a higher understanding of how bits of color are repeated in all areas of the painting, but in the correct values.




Above: Details of two paintings by Daniel Keys - both these paintings use Confluent Color... where the white areas contain variety of color from pink to yellow to green to blue, but all with the correct value so that they still read as "white". I'll discuss color temperature and how the color of your light source creates harmony in a future blog post.


For those who are newbies to art... value is another word for the amount of lightness or darkness you see on an object. It's easier to see correct values when you squint at your subject, but values gets more complicated when taking them into consideration at the same time as color because there are many variables involved. For example, the tube color, cadmium red has a darker value than the color cadmium yellow because red is naturally a darker color than yellow. Likewise, ultramarine blue has a darker value than either red or yellow.


To make this concept even more complicated, where light hits an object, it changes the value and color of that object. A red apple looks much lighter where the light source hits the surface. The shadow under the apple is going to have a darker value than the lighted side of the apple. So even within one red object, we can have several values. Each of those values on that same apple will also have color temperature variations. But as I said earlier, I'll get into that at a later date.


Got that so far?  This is getting pretty boring right? I know as an artist that descriptions without pictures don't communicate to me very well. I must see examples of what the writer is saying. So here we go.



Above is a painting and detail of that painting done by Kyle Stuckey when he was 17 years old (2004). At the time, I was his instructor, so while critiquing this painting, I advised him to make his lights and shadows using "identifiable" colors instead of just shades of gray (for his next painting). Shown Below is a painting he completed a few months later. Notice how each value has an identifiable color - not just white, gray or black.




Below are recent paintings of Stuckey's. Even though clothing may actually be white, an artist can enhance the painting by pushing the color he or she sees to a higher saturation point... meaning more colorful. It's OK if hair contains subtle greens and purples. In fact, as long as the value is correct, artists can get away with exaggerating most any color they like.




Color is a complicated subject... one that has taken me years to understand and implement.  Below are a couple of watercolor paintings where I used confluent color. Notice how the lighter/whiter areas contain a variety of exaggerated color. Furthermore, each object of the painting contains colors from other objects in the painting - but using the correct value (lightness or darkness) so I can get away with exaggerating them.




Please don't hesitate to ask me questions. I, by no means, am saying this is the only way to paint. There are many valid approaches to art - some artists are tonalists, others are colorists; some are realists, and others are impressionists or abstract artists, and that's perfectly OK. I am here to present ideas to you - which you may take or leave as you like.




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Topics: FineArtViews | inspiration | Lori Woodward 

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George De Chiara
Great post Lori! I love all of the examples and explanations to go with them.

mimi torchia boothby watercolors
I love the wonderful colors in the paintings you show. I also like your technique of using colors where grey might be. What cracks me up is I just read somewhere else yesterday that most of a good painting should be grey. SOME good paintings. I like colors to brighten up my day and my paintings. Thanks for the nice shift into talking about PAINTING!

roslyn hancock
Super article, Lori!

The big tip is using identifiable colours for the grays. For that mother-of-pearl effect.


Lori Woodward
As I said in the post, there is no "one way" to paint. Some artists use shades of gray beautifully. I admire any painting that executed well... colorful or tonal.

I promise that I'm not going to be one of those teachers who thinks my way is the right way... I enjoy many styles of artwork. Having said that, there are concepts that my mentors combined have all touched on - that seem true, and I intend to share what I've learned here and on my own blog.

A lot of what style, color and approach you choose while painting depends on an artist's personality. If you're not sure what kind of creative personality you have, try going through a stack of art magazines and take note of each painting that you like. Sometimes you'll find that they all have something in common. Identify what they have in common - because those things are likely to find their way into your own work.

For next week, I'll be writing on how to determine the relative temperature of light and shadow... a concept Schmid drilled into me... it has more to do with the science of light than anything else.

jack white
Lori, you took a step up with this post. Super job and clearly stated. The use of gray divides the beginner from the experienced painter. If I were a teacher the first thing on my agenda would be for the students to learn to mix great grays. jack

Sharon Weaver
Taking color to the next step isn't an easy concept to master and takes practice to perfect. Color can be pushed too far and look unnatural (I have painted a few of these when experimenting with color) but when used with finesse it adds depth and interest.

Marsha Hamby Savage
Wonderful post! I have been studying color and temperature for about four years now.

I have talked to my students for years about use of color instead of grey or brown. They are not allowed to use those terms in my classes or workshops. I want them to push those two terms to an "identifiable color" just as you mentioned above. Though I ask them to push the color, I am only wanting them to learn how. As you also stated, there are many ways to paint and make them beautiful pieces!

Thanks for wording it all so well and showing the examples. I can't wait for the next installment! You always write such thought provoking articles and I share them with my students. Thank you again.

Lori Woodward
Sharon, I so agree. If color is intense all over the painting - and worse yet, if the values of these intense colors are close, what you end up with is "fruit salad"... another term from Jack Beal.

For those of you who are yet intimidated by color, be sure to understand relative values first. Getting values correct is of first importance - color is secondary. Even before the importance of values is the ability to draw accurately.

Richard has often said when he critiques work - we artists say, "the color is off", but he usually sees that the drawing is incorrect. Correct color and value don't matter if objects aren't drawn well or the perspective is off.

Lori Woodward
Hey Marsha, I'm thrilled that you share my posts with your students! It's great that you are a fellow teacher.

Jack... thanks so much! I'm sure you already know all these concepts. You're a great teacher. Oh BTW: Jack and Mikki have posted an easy way to mix greens on their website. I think it's

Sandy Askey-Adams, PSA

This is one of the best posts!!! Not boring at all. It is well stated and arranged so beautifully with the painting examples saying even more so what you are explaining about color and value and all the definitive terms.

I too look forward to reading more posts like this.

Thank you Lori so much.

Misty Beauchamp
Awesome color clinic!

People need to learn to mix "greys" with complimentaries, and to allow some of the colors used to remain unmixed so there is a subtle shimmer or vibration of movement and excitement in the grey areas. This is the difference between a painting that "sings" and one that "squawks".I would go so far as to say I would never ever use black and white to make grey because it results in a dull tasteless mass- think oatmeal with no salt, no milk, no butter, and no sugar!

When I paint with Oil or Acrylic, I use absolutely NO black, unless it is to mix with yellow to yield an olive green, and I never use black with watercolors. I also tend to paint light areas white and then glaze them later with a color to eliminate chalkiness- this works especially well in skies, and with the sun itself, and of course in flesh tones. When mixing, I also use colors that are lighter in value to lighten, rather than white, to keep the chalk out. For example I might use yellow to highlight a red before I would reach for the white. I reach for white as a last resort. When I do reach for the white, especially when dealing with warm colors, I try to apply it and then glaze it rather than mix it into the color I want to lighten. So I might paint a passage of orange, and then reach for yellow to lighten, and then I would apply pure white, let it dry, and then go back in and glaze with more orange to avoid the chalky coldness of creamsicle orange made with a mixed orange/white blend.

I did a post to my own blog a couple years ago about the color white and how mixing in too much white results in "chalky", unrealistic paintings- you see it a lot in acrylic work especially. People forget that white is the "coldest" color and it can cause a painting to look washed out, too cold, and just plain unnatural.

Of course, everybody paints differently, and there are people who can use black and white judiciously, even to make grey, so you can never say never. However, most of us are still learning and we need to take a tip where we can find one.

Thanks for the important reminder and also for the fabulous pictures to illustrate for us exactly to what you are referring! Awesome post!!

Lorrie Beck
I love this post, Lori. I find color to be a fascinating and never ending experience. I've been drawing and painting all of my life and though I know a lot, I find that the more I learn, the more I realize that I DON'T know! I look forward to hearing more from you about color. Thanks!

Laurie Finkelstein
Perfect intro to those starting out and a great refresher for those that know the principles and are still mastering the skills. I have made the mistake of using white to lighten for years before I understood the use of color and value to create bright lights and deep, dark shadows.

Debra LePage
Agree with Misty re. mixing compliments-works well with watercolor anyway and the resulting grays make the color pop as well as unifying the work.
Another good article. Thank you!

Carol Schmauder
What a wonderful post, Lori. Thank you for sharing your expertise.

Marian Fortunati
Lori... Thanks..

This is one of those posts that you print out and save so you can refer back to it time and time again.

It's not that I hadn't heard or didn't know much of this but you've explained and illustrated it so clearly it will really be useful ....

The more we learn... the more we practice.... the more it seems we need to learn and practice. -- Thanks so much!

Nicole Hyde
Good post, Lori! I just scrapped a "fruit salad" painting, so your post was timely. :-)

Joanne Benson
Thanks Lori, I enjoyed this post and all of your fine examples. I will file it with my "keepers" for future reference!

agnesdale black
Thank you for the this,its indeed a very educational information.Iam striving to be a "realist' artist,but at the end of the day after long hours of painting,I do "harmonize'the colors.Its either on the BG,or some splashes here and there,this is easy to do when using watercolour,a medium Iam mostly using,but in oil,I'am still trying to practice it.
When I read your article,I said to myself,oh wow,so Iam right in what Iam doing,althoung I just call it "Harmonize" your term is "confluent color".
God Blessed from out here in the middle east!

Jeanie Gebhart
Lori congratulations on all..that is wonderful for you! I have to say, I love and enjoy view your work so much..thank you for sharing it! You are great at what you do! Thank you

Lori, I love this article! Thanks so much I for one love to learn anything and everything you may wish to tell us about!

Donna Robillard
I loved reading this post and your explanation of using values of color to make the 'grays'. Really helped me a lot.

Candace Doub
Lori, your article comes at a time when I have been wanting to hone my color skills. I look forward to reading your future installments. Thanks for useful insights to punch up the color in my paintings, while keeping the right values in mind.

J Riley Stewart
As a fine art photographer, I learn so much from you, Lori, and other writers. This article prompted me to write an article on my own blog. It describes how I use this concept in my photography to creative effect. Thanks! Jim

Susan Vaughn
Wonderful post Lori! After almost 2 decades, I find that I am a perpetual student of art. I never stop learning. Funny thing is, I have been using confluent color in my paintings for years because I love the effect that color of the correct value brings to a painting, especially the areas touched by light. I use photographs for reference and enjoy using artistic expression to take the colors I see to the next level. Still, it took me years to learn this and feel confident in myself to freely express myself on canvas using colorful choices.

Purple dash lights
It is truly a nice and useful piece of information. I am satisfied that you simply shared this useful info with us. Please keep us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

alan dawson
hi lori ref to breaking a scene into light and dark masses where do you put mid tones that are neither light or dark ref to the whole scene not a single object thank you alan

Lori Woodward
Alan, I guess I'd have to see the area you are talking about with mid-tones. Mid tones/values are still either in the dark or the light. When working from a still life or portrait from life, I hold up a brush handle over the area that is "midtone" if a shadow is cast on the surface firm the brush handle, it's in the shadow.

Many times the half tone... The first area to turn away from the light has the most saturated color. The half tone is the darkest part of the light.

alan dawson
dear lori I kind of get the mid tone thing on asingle object being on the light side before the shadow its when at the very beginning when arranging the big light and dark masses that I wonder where the mid values go lets say that in a scene somebody was wearing mid tone blue jeans with a dark form shadow on them and next to them there was somebody reading awhite newspaper with a light form shadow also adark tree with ablackish form shadow to break the scene into light and dark ifeel that the dark treein light would be darker than the shadow on the newspaper so how would you break this into a light dark arrangement I hope you sort of get what im trying to get across if you don't I understand and please ignore this as it does sound a bit confusing thank you for your time

Lori Woodward
Alan, thanks for understanding. I've got a lot of deadlines right now - painting commissions and such and need to be at the studio most every day.

I have ordered the new "Alla Prima Book" by Richard Schmid. It really is the greatest art education volume ever (in my opinion). The first printing has sold out, but they're printing more as I type. The paperback version costs a bit less. Both hard cover and paperback are expensive, but well worth the cost. You can go to Richard's website to find out more: He has his own publishing company, so it's not available on Amazon (that I know of).


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