It’s spring in the Cotswolds and that means colour is back.
Specifically, yellows. Specifically, daffodils.
Now I know that a lot of people struggle with high chroma yellows, and the problem seems to be mostly in getting the shadows right.
It is tricky to get the shadow colours right, because you need to keep the chroma very high.
You can’t simply take cad yellow and mix some black in (on no, that will not work).
Brown might. Because what we call brown is actually a low value orange, and shadows on yellow things move hue slightly toward orange.
But that doesn’t mean you can use any old brown.
You see, I think there’s a common misconception that in order to paint light and shadow, you grab a tube of paint that’s somewhere near the colour of the thing you’re painting, then lighten it with white (or something) for the lights, and darken it with black (or brown, or something else) for the shadows.
If you want to create a feeling of light and form, that simply will not work.
What will work is finding out what the colours you’re perceiving really are, in the light and the shadow, and then using whatever tube paints you need to mix them.
Of course, there’s a bit more to actually getting that right.
Don’t miss the subtleties
One of the most useful things I’ve learned about colour is that the finer subtleties are very important.
Our perceptual systems (mostly our brains, since most of seeing happens there) are extremely sensitive to changes. Unfortunately, those changes are difficult to isolate and get right in paint, because our perceptual systems have evolved to help us understand what’s solid in our immediate environment and where it is in relation to us.
We didn’t evolve to paint well. So we have to train it.
We have to train our perception of colour for painting so that we can paint better.
Understanding is better than seeing
I’ve found that a very effective way to do that is to isolate the colours we perceive and then mix them accurately.
The big advantage of doing it this way is that you can start to glean a deeper understanding about how colours change from light to shadow, no matter what colour the local is.
That’s invaluable knowledge, and can make the difference between an ok painting and one that lives. Even if it’s just a simple study.
Here’s a recording of a live stream I did on facebook yesterday explaining how I approached those tricky, high chroma, yellow shadows.
How many yellows?
To paint this daffodil study I mixed four yellows:
- One light and one shadow for the radial petals
- One light and one shadow for the trumpet
And that’s almost all I needed to paint the daffodil.
But to mix those yellows (and the slight modulations I made along the way) I used 8 tube paints. Here they are;
Left to right, thats:
- Ivory black – used to make the shadows of the radial petals slightly more green-yellow
- Burnt umber – a dark orange, used with cad yellow in the darkest shadows of the trumpet
- Raw umber – basically a dark yellow-orange, used with yellow and some black in the shadows of the radial petals
- Burnt sienna – used with cad yellow for the main colour of the shadows in the trumpet
- Yellow ochre – used throughout in the shadows but especially on the radial petals to keep the chroma from being dropped too far by the raw umber
- Cad yellow – used with lead white for the lights in the trumpet, and with other tube colours for the shadows
- Yellow lake PY74 – used with lead white for the lights in the radial petals, and with other tube colours for the shadows
Why lead white?
I used lead white because it’s slightly yellow and also transparent, in comparison to titanium white, so helps me raise the value of yellows without losing too much chroma (chroma loss in the lights is what people really mean when they say “chalky”).
If I was painting something more towards a green/blue/magenta local or if high chroma wasn’t an issue, I could have used titanium.
But I also like the gloopy, gooey stringy-ness of lead white. I like that you can pile it on thick and make raised edges and it sits where you put it. The edges of the radial petals were done with it, titanium wouldn’t have worked as well.
Did the colour work?
I’ll let you judge that for yourself.
This morning my eldest boy (he’s 9) came into the studio when I was making a few adjustments and I asked him what he thought of the daffodil.
“It looks like a fish,” he said.
Ah well, I tried.
If you have any questions about any of this, pop them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
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