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Old 04-15-2008, 07:04 PM   #1
Clayton J. Beck III Clayton J. Beck III is offline
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A practical guide to color




I have a few words on color that I would like to share if that's alright. I would like to preface this with the fact that these are the theories that I paint by and they are for practical purposes and not attached to color theory as a pure science.

Some understanding of how our eyes work will help a great deal in the understanding of practical color. Over 90% of our light receptors on our retina are sensitive to luminosity or black and white only. The remaining receptors see three colors red, green and blue. This is the familiar RGB from photography. All the other colors that we see our combinations of these three colors. Whole books have been written about the difference between vision and perception. A study of the field of perception will have a profound effect on the way you paint. It is simply not enough to think that our eyes collect information the way the the camera does.

The basic understanding of how light works is also helpful. The differences between transmitted light and reflected light are important. There also described as additive or subtractive light. Most reflected light sources, examples are trees, apples and my child's face, are usually within the capable range of my pigments. Transmitted light sources are often outside of the value range of my pigments and therefore I must paint the defect of the value range instead of a literal translation.

The first thing in understanding practical color is that all color comes from the light source. It is not enough to understand this casually, it must truly be internalized. Different light sources yield different color gamuts. For instance, I realize that when I'm working under a north skylight I have a different color gamut than if I am working under a spotlight. If it doesn't come from the light source, it can't be in your eye.

The second thing I understand is that the color wheel, which I learned about in the study of art fundamentals, was a theoretical idea that has very little use in the practical world of painting. The color wheel is far too simple to be used as anything other than a toy. Mother Nature is far more complex and wonderous than a simple color wheel could possibly explain.

The next thing is the idea that cool colors recede and warm colors come forward. This just isn't true. I am not going to drink the Kool-Aid.

Now that I have angered about 99% of the teaching community out there, which is not my goal by the way, here are some things that I know about practical color working from life.

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Old 04-15-2008, 08:08 PM   #2
Enzie Shahmiri Enzie Shahmiri is offline
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Clayton,

I enjoyed reading this very informative post. Thank you!
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Old 09-08-2009, 10:11 PM   #3
Natalie Hunsaker Natalie Hunsaker is offline
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Clayton,

I have read this post very carefully and tried to absorb what I deem to be years of wisdom talking. I must say, I still have a questions, though.

I know that art can't be "mathematized" into one single set of rules or explanations that are right and all others are wrong, but I was still intrigued by your statement that a plane is either in shadow or in light and nothing in between. Even if others may have reasons for saying otherwise, I am certain you must have a very good reason for saying what you said.

I chose the following photo to illustrate my question because the boy's face is very smooth and the gradation between light and shadow is certainly a slow one.

I was curious how you would treat this face when interpreting through your eye what is light and what is shadow. I've drawn to hypothetical "boundary lines" where I think the light ends and the shadow begins, focusing mainly on the shadow side of the face and changing the cheek width.

But I'm unclear where you might draw these lines. (If neither is what you'd do and you'd like to be able to tweak my file instead of starting over, I'd be happy to email the original Adobe Illustrator file).

Anyway, if your eye interprets something very specific when you make your actual dividing line between shadow and light, please explain a little more why this makes you feel like you paint better than when you think in terms of light, midtone, and shadow.

Thanks for sharing your wisdom.
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Old 09-09-2009, 12:41 AM   #4
Clayton J. Beck III Clayton J. Beck III is offline
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Natalie,
Thank you for considering my post. At the risk of sounding evasive, I would not set this up for a painting. For photography it works much better. The reason I say this is that the color, as far as temperature, is muttled. If you look at the background, my conclusion is more readily understood.

The cast shadow to the right of the boy's head is a relatively warm one. This means that the light source is to the left and a predominantly cool one (most likely the blue sky). If you look closely to the left of the boy's head, you will see a weaker cool shadow. This indicates a less intense, more distant light which is distinctly warm in temperature (likely a lamp light). I also get the impression that the light to the left is also more diffused and the one from the right is more sharp.

Both light sources, opposing in temperature, altering in intensity and edge being allowed to shine on the same area (the cheek on the right) is a nightmare for painting. It of course can be done, but why bother.

Some of the ways one can solve this may be to ignore one of the light sources and just paint the effect of the other (a lot of guesswork). One could also reduce the effect of the color temperature of one of the light sources and thereby make a cleaner color statement. (still the problem of the value change from light to shadow is unaddressed and the shadow-side temperature is weak). Another (more popular) solution is to ignore all decision making and just copy the photo with no regard to color and repeat all the problems from the reference into the painting.

As I started out with, it makes a better photograph than a reference for a painting. This was the long explanation (and correct one for me). All that said, I think your decisions in the first version were better. The exception is that the center of the forehead is in light. I would make the shadow from about the right of center of the eyebrow on the right and moving up and to the right until it meets the hairline. The other areas were well thought out and your work to find them is to be commended.

The clean decision of light and shadow in a painting is a valuable key to the reading of the design and therefore strengthens the composition. It also give one a great deal of freedom when painting for effect when one is faced with the inevitable problems, working from life, namely colors which are simply outside of our range of pigments. It is similar to the idea that music can be transposed into different keys and ranges but usually with sacrifice of one sort or another. Paintings must be transposed into different keys and ranges in order to obtain certain effects but usually with some sacrifice. If one understands the role of a strong grasp of light and shadow being opposing forces, then their relationship can be moved around the value and color scales and still maintain a near perfect representation of your subject. A muttled intermediate zone is a fly-in-the-ointment and often destroys an effect.

This zone is usually the darkest part of the light and can be more easily grasped if one casts a shadow onto the subject and moves it around. If movement is seen, then the area is in light. If not, it is shadow. After all a shadow cannot be cast into a shadow.

I hope this is helpful and not more confusing. I know it makes perfect sense to me as I write this but may not to others. If I have created confusion, my apologies and please post again.

Clayton
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Old 09-11-2009, 12:13 AM   #5
Natalie Hunsaker Natalie Hunsaker is offline
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Not evasive at all. I'm constantly amazed at the insight of seasoned professionals when they look at my reference photos. I had to rack my brain to remember where the warm light source would have come from because I was sure that I turned the overhead incandescent off. Then I remembered--there was a second window messing with my shadows, which I had attempted to minimize by shutting the blinds. But the blinds (warm in color) still threw off the photo, apparently! Luckily I don't have to use this for a painting.

I am cursed when it comes to controlling my natural light because every room in my house has more than one floor-to-ceiling window and none of them face north. Alas, I may be best off switching to artificial light (eek) and taking the photos at night when I need to control only ONE light source and the reflected light. Of my options, I think this is going to be best until I can figure out a better way to block the other windows from becoming a second, distracting light source.

Thanks for your extended explanation. It made sense to me, too, although my hunch is that it'll make even more sense in 20 years.
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Old 09-11-2009, 03:15 AM   #6
Debra Norton Debra Norton is offline
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Natalie, an inexpensive way to get rid of unwanted light is to put foam board, card board, poster board, or even a blanket over the unwanted windows while you're taking your photos.
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Old 09-11-2009, 05:55 PM   #7
Clayton J. Beck III Clayton J. Beck III is offline
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Another and more simple solution is to only block the offending light from reaching the head if that is in what you are interested. Example, a coat rack with a coat on it placed near the sitter on a line with the window. This will in effect cast a shadow from the second light source on to the face, minimizing it's influence. I use this technique often. Hope it works for you too.
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Old 09-11-2009, 06:15 PM   #8
Natalie Hunsaker Natalie Hunsaker is offline
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Debra and Clayton,

Funny, I just read both of your posts. I've been trying to do what you have suggested all day--with some minor success. My baby girl has had it with me and the camera so I'll have to work on bouncing some reflected light and not losing my shadow side another day. Mental note number two: BUY A NEW CAMERA!

Anyway, don't feel obligated to comment on these photos, otherwise we'll turn this informative post into something that belongs in "reference photo critique" section. I'm just posting them for fun so you can both see what happens when I tried blocking windows:
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Old 09-11-2009, 07:21 PM   #9
Clayton J. Beck III Clayton J. Beck III is offline
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Hi Natalie,
Beautiful shots but how could you go wrong with such a beautiful subject.

I notice a lot of noise in your shadows. Are you using a hi ISO or under exposing a great deal and pushing? You are right, This might not belong here but it does raise a point about color and working from photography. Your shadows are going to be noisy and how is one supposed to figure out one color when you see so many small spots of color? This is where a good understanding of what 'should' or 'could' be there is helpful. A better camera will only help so much. A better understanding of lighting for digital reference would help and a thorough study of the capabilities of Photoshop and it's noise reduction capacity. There are 3rd party noise reduction products which are better than Photoshop native ones but they are on the expensive side. Good luck, Clayton
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Old 09-12-2009, 12:14 PM   #10
Natalie Hunsaker Natalie Hunsaker is offline
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Clayton,

I think she's beautiful, too, but I'm totally biased!

Once again I'm amazed you can tell exactly what I did with my camera. Yes, I underexposed because it was too dark for any kind of clear shot if I left the shudder open long enough to fully expose. My daughter wiggles way too much and all my shots were blurry at full exposure.

My point-and-shoot doesn't exactly have a large aperture for low light situations--which is why I think a nicer camera and a good f/1.4 lens would help. Although you make a good point that a nicer camera won't fix operators' error even if it does have a decent aperture!

I may use these for some paintings, anyway, because right now it's all I've got. I think I'm going to do a series, all in different brush styles, because I'm still figuring out what my style is. I'm super excited because this is the first set of paintings I will be able to do for myself in a LONG time. It's so nice not have a client to please. The flexibility is such a relief--even if the color is less than stellar. After all, I can always match color from life since my subject is always around, right?

Whatever I decide to do, I will certainly play around with Photoshop's noise reduction capabilities. Thanks for the tip.
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