Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Why Does My Oil Painting Look Washed Out?

Dark deep and vivid colours often intimidate novice artists causing a diffident approach to painting. The resultant artwork lacks tonal variety, biased towards pales or insipid colour mixes. More often than not, the painting is difficult to discern from a distance. How can the artist get the confidence to use vivid colours in oil painting?

The Causes of Insipid Colour Mixes in Painting

Rich Colours in Oil Painting
Rachel Shirley
The following problem areas are usually at fault when faced with colour mixing with oil paints for the first time.

Working too closely to the painting often leads the artist to believe that small marks have more significant when viewed from afar. Using a fine brush when working over a large painting will also lead to a painting filled with small and insignificant brush marks that cannot be discerned from a distance.

Painting straight onto a white surface will make even the palest colour appear dark and deep by comparison. Working under a bright light will exacerbate the effect as the light bounces off the white surface of primed canvas, for example, making any colour, however pale, seem to have great significance and misleading the artist on its true tonal value.

Painting a white object such as snow, a snowy-haired pet or clouds may often send a subconscious message to the artist that the object is white, getting in the way of viewing the object honestly. The result is the automatic reaction of using lots of white paint.

Tonal Values in Colours

Capturing objects in a painting not only entails observing its colour, but also its tonal value. However, painting bright coloured objects such as tomatoes may lead the artist to forget about tones. Some colours are also presumed to have a darker tone than others, such as blues being darker than yellow. In fact, any colour can be darker or paler than another. Yellow can indeed be darker than blue; purple can be paler than orange.

How to Paint Rich Colours in Oils

To overcome wishy-washy colour mixes, try painting onto a tinted surface rather than white. An imprimatura is a thin wash of paint that kills the whiteness of the painting surface. I use acrylic, although oils will do. Acrylic dries water-soluble and quickly. Grey, neutral or earth colour is ideal for gauging the true tonal value of a particular oil pigment when it is applied on top.

Applying a pale colour onto a tinted surface will look pale rather than dark. Working from dark to light will also force the artist to examine the true value of pale colours. This entails painting onto a black surface. Applying mid-tones before the pales is a good practice for artists learning about tonal values.

You can also make an oil painting shimmer by painting onto an imprimatura of a contrasting colour to the painting itself, such as painting a picture of a green meadow onto a red imprimatura.

Rich Colors of Courbet's Oil Painting The Sleepers

See my Youtube clip showing two women's faces from Gustave Courbet's The Sleepers. The painting was begun with a violet underglaze, which was overlaid with a richer, deeper indigo. Notice the colors on the flesh contain very rich pigments, including pthalo blue, burnt umber and alizarin crimson. This meant the skin tones could stand up to the the deep-colored background. Without using such rich colors, the women's faces would appear pale and washed out.

Rich Colour Mixes in Oil Paintings

The following tips on producing vibrant oil paintings may help the artist take chromatic risks and get out of the trap of mixing insipid colours.
  • Try to include all tonal values in the painting, from white to very dark.
  • Half close the eyes in order to see a colour’s tonal value. Darken it with the colour’s opposing colour rather than black. In the case of blue, this will be orange.
  • Stand back from the painting to gauge the true significance of each brush mark. Using a wider brush than one thinks necessary may force the artist to use bold brush marks and take risks.
  • Produce a small study on a scrap piece of card featuring a bright colour. Neat cadmium red for instance for an apple or yellow for a banana. Use the colour’s complimentary colour for shadows and darks. In the case of the banana, this will be violet
Tonal Keys in Painting

Keys to Painting: Color & Tonal Value
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Pay attention too to the tonal key of the painting and setting. If an object is brightly lit as on a sunny day, it will have high contrast and colours and will appear more dazzling. Even lighting such as overcast will produce a setting with a low key, which will consist of mid tones and neutrals.

External Links on Tones and Colour Mixing

1 comment:

Megahue said...

Thank you so much for these lessons. They are clear and helpful. This is advice that improves my paintings! Thank you again.