Early Spring Flowers – Oil on Panel, 5 x 7 inches.
You’ve probably often heard people say that you should paint what you see, not what you know.
Well I don’t think that’s the whole story.
Let me explain:
What you know can trip you up, yes. But it depends what type of knowledge we’re talking about.
There’s a kind of knowledge that actually helps us see better, paint better.
Take this colour for example, would you call this a yellow or a green?
I think I’d call it a green.
How about the colour of the primroses in the painting above? Yellow or green?
I think I’d call it a yellow.
But they’re actually the same colour.
I mean exactly the same.
Here they are together.
The point here is that unaided, our brains will often make assumptions about colour that can take us away from the visual impression.
Because seeing isn’t just about our eyes. In fact, our eyes are really just the receiving equipment.
The act of seeing happens in our brains.
We take an impression from the outside world and construct a perception from it. And that perception is complicated.
I think what’s probably happening here is that I know that primroses are yellow. So I tend to assume that they’re more yellow and less green. In fact they’re way more green that I would have imagined.
That’s not to say that using what we know is always a bad thing. It doesn’t always get in the way. In fact what we know can really help us get colour more right – if it’s knowledge that we’ve trained specifically for painting.
For example, I know that the colour of a thing in shadow will be very similar in hue to the colour it is in the light.
So once I’d correctly found the actual local colour of these primroses, I knew with some certainty what the shadow colour would be. And I was right.
Here are the colours I mixed to paint the primroses, from light to shadow. The first four chips are all the same hue. The last, darkest chip is slightly more yellow, less green (you might say a little warmer).
The darker colours there look very green. I certainly wouldn’t describe them as yellow.
The difference between this kind of knowledge and the knowledge that gets in the way of perceiving colour accurately is that this knowledge has come from deliberately finding out what colour things really appear in light and shadow – using Munsell chips to make sure I get it right.
It’s knowledge that I’ve earned from deliberate practice. It’s specific to painting.
The knowledge that would have tripped me up (primroses = yellow) comes from somewhere else, from generic information I’ve learned about the world. It’s not useful. At least, not when I’m painting.
It may also be that the greenish-blue background was setting up a simultaneous contrast effect that made the primroses seem more yellow than green.
Here’s another bit of knowledge I’ve trained for though: If I hit the colours right, then that same effect will be present in my painting. I don’t need to allow for it.
But still, if I’d gone with my assumption about that colour, I would have made it much too yellow and my painting would have looked wrong.
Train what you know
This is why I think we need to practice colour, and practice getting it right. Because very often, our previous knowledge will make us get it wrong.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
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