It’s easy, even trite, to say that if we want to get better at something, we need to practise.
It’s also not enough.
Because it’s far too easy to practise in a way that means it actually takes us longer than it should to master a skill.
The way you practise becomes ingrained in your mental circuitry – it becomes habit, a part of you. That’s true whether you’re practising something well or practising it badly.
- A golfer repeatedly practising with a bad swing will encode the bad swing into their style, and make much slower progress.
- A musician who repeatedly practises with a bad hand position will embed that hand position more with each hour of practice, slowing progress and possibly making some difficult pieces impossible to play.
- A dancer who repeatedly practices with bad posture will ingrain that bad posture and may eventually risk injury.
And it’s just the same for us (albeit with less likelihood of personal injury).
So an important goal of practice should be to make sure that you practise success, not failure. When it comes to colour, that means practising getting colour right.
Of course, in order to know whether you’re getting colour right, you need a feedback mechanism, a way to know if you’re getting it right – or not.
In a sense, painting has feedback built in. If we’re aiming for realism and we’re painting a still life and it doesn’t look real, then we know we haven’t got the colour right. But that alone won’t tell you how close you came, or what you need to change if you’re consistently getting it wrong. You’ll be left in the frustrating position of knowing you got something wrong, but not knowing what it was, or what to do about it.
How to get colour more right
This is where the humble little colour checker comes in. There are different versions of colour checkers, from very simple ones like the one I use to more complex ones, like Mark Carder’s, but the basic principle is the same: isolate a patch of colour from its context in order to make it easier to judge and compare.
The one I use depends for its effectiveness on working sight size, with carefully balanced light on the subject and the canvas. Without those things, it doesn’t work well. With them, it’s a very powerful little tool.
It won’t do the painting for you. You still need to use your eyes, still need to practise to build your skill at judging and matching colour. But it can save you a lot of frustrating hours hunting and pecking and not coming close.
Most importantly, it gives you useful feedback. It can tell you whether your guess at a colour you’re trying to match is close or not. And it can show you what you need to change to get closer.
It really comes into its own when combined with the Munsell approach colour. Thinking about colour in terms of hue, value and chroma greatly simplifies the task of figuring out what you need to change in order to get closer to a target colour. Combining feedback from the colour checker with a clear, practical approach to colour, and using the direct, one-to-one comparison that working sight-size enables means you can make sure you practise getting colour more right more often.
And that will help you make more progress.
Here’s how to do it:
Step 1: Match local colours accurately
First, a quick definition of local colour: It’s the colour something is independent of light or shadow, atmospheric effects or the imagination of an artist. So, a lemon’s local colour is yellow. An orange’s local colour is, well, orange.
Although colour changes across a form as it moves from light to shadow, matching the local of what you’re about to paint really helps you to get better with colour in three ways:
- It puts you in the right ballpark. Too many paintings by beginners have colours which are completely different from the colours of the objects they represent. Most often, the values are out and the chroma is way too high. Learning to matching the local will avoid much of this, getting you much closer before you even start to paint.
- It shows you what you can achieve with your tubed paints and gives you great practice with mixing colours.
- It develops your sensitivity to colour. If you really push yourself to match a local colour as closely as you possibly can, you’ll be developing your ability to compare between a colour you see and a colour you’re mixing.
Say you’re planning a still life of a lemon, First, get hold of a lemon and make a colour checker:
you can isolate the local colour of the lemon like this (it helps to get an average by throwing your eyes out of focus):
Then try to match the colour. Test your results by holding a small swatch of the colour you mixed directly against the lemon, like this:
Here’s a quick video showing one approach to matching locals like this, addressing hue, value and chroma separately in order to get a closer match more quickly. Whilst I’m not using Munsell chips in this example, I’m approaching colour in those three terms, which comes directly from Munsell.
To get the benefit from this, you need to practise it. You don’t develop skills efficiently by reading about them, or by making paintings. The most efficient way to develop a skill is to isolate it and then practise it until your skill develops. Don’t scrimmage, drill.
Drill the skill:
As well as matching the locals of things you’re about to paint, or of random objects around your house and garden, a really effective way to practice this is to get hold of the Munsell student book. It contains pages of colour chips all of the same hue, but varying in chroma and value.
Choose a few of the chips from each page, and try to match them using the method above.
This is a powerful way to practise because checking your mix directly against the local colour using the colour checker gives you instant feedback on how you’re doing. Repeatedly practising getting colours right like this will translate directly into better colour judging and matching in painting.
Step 2: Find out how the colour changes across form, from light to shadow
The local is far from the whole story if we want to paint something that looks real. Here’s a method you can use to get closer to the colours you perceive as the surface of an object moves from light to shadow:
First, paint a cube the same local colour as an object:
Then paint a study of the cube, using the colour checker to help you find the colours.
The advantage of painting the cube the same colour as the object is that it gives you a very simplified version of the object to work with. With a cube, you’ll only have three main colours to identify, one for each plane you can see.
Those three colours will give you a way into the colours of the object. You’ll have a general colour for the shadow plane, one somewhere around the halftone and one for the light plane.
Mixing up paints to match those colours will put you in the right ballpark for the colours you’d need to paint the actual object. You can learn a huge amount about how colour changes across form and what tube paints you can use to match those colours. The cube and the colour checker will help you get closer. You’ve simplified the colours in order to help you practise getting them right.
Drill the skill:
Paint some cubes different locals and do small, sight size still life studies of them.
Get hold of a bunch of pieces of fruit, match the locals (as in step one) and then paint cubes to match.
Set up the cubes in a shadow box lined with a mid-value neutral grey, one at a time, and use the colour checker to help you judge the colour of each face of the cube in isolation.
Mix the colours you’ve found, and use them to paint studies of the cubes.
Another great way to practice this is to get hold of the Munsell student book and paint cubes at a variety of locals from the little tags in the book. Use the colour checker in conjunction with the tags in the Munsell student book to see how the colour changes across the form.
Having done some fairly extensive experiments with this approach, I’ve found that usually, barring the influence of coloured reflected or direct light, the hue will remain constant across the form and only the chroma and value will change significantly.
Step 3: Use the colours of the cube to paint the object
Paint a cube the same local as an object – a piece of fruit. Use the colour checker to isolate the colours of the planes of the cube. Use those colours as a starting point to paint the object itself.
Working sight size will help you proceed through direct comparison of the subject and your painting.
Now I don’t personally go in for mixing very long, detailed strings of paint. I find that having a general shadow, mid-tone and light colour is sufficient to get you close enough that you can see what adjustments need to be made, and a cube study will give you that. You can more easily mix any colours you need in between, because you’re already in the right general area.
Drill the skill:
Get a selection of fruit and paint cubes to match the local colours of them. Paint studies of the cubes as above, then paint small still life studies of the actual objects next to them.
An even more effective way to do this is to get hold of styrofoam spheres (art shops often have them) and paint one of those the same local as the object too. Then paint a study of all three together.
A quick note on the set up: It’s very important to make sure of two things before you start checking and painting:
- Make sure the light on your canvas and the light on your subject are balanced. In practice, this means that you need to make sure you can reach the lightest lights in your subject with your paint. A good way to do this is to use the colour checker and a tag with some white painted on it. Find the lightest values in your subject, and hold the colour checker with the white tag up against them, making sure that your swatch of white paint is at least as light as the lightest lights in the subject (with the exception of direct reflected light from specular reflection). Now move your colour checker with the swatch over your canvas. You’ll need to have a white swatch painted on the canvas, or be working on a white ground. Check with the colour checker that the white swatch on your canvas is as light as the swatch that you’re holding with the colour checker. It’s best if you’re a little back from your subject and canvas when you do this, to allow for drop-off in light from the subject to the canvas.
- Make sure you always hold the colour checker at the same angle to the light as the surface of your painting. This should be obvious, but if you angle it towards or away from the light, the colour you’ve placed on your little swatch will appear darker or lighter accordingly, and you’ll judge the colour wrong.
There’s one more thing to watch out for with this method, especially if you’re painting in artificial light.
There will be a drop off in the amount of light falling on your colour checker compared to the amount of light on your subject. That means that your little swatches of colour tests that you hold up against the colour checker to compare will appear slightly lighter, if they’re closer to the light source than the subject is. This is most pronounced when working under artificial light, since the light drop off is greater than with natural daylight.
This is why it’s so important to use the direct comparison that sight size allows to see how much you might need to adjust the colours once you put them on the canvas. You may need to compensate a little – probably painting a little lighter in value and maybe with more chroma than the colour checker shows you.
As I said before, this method of using the colour checker gets you in the ballpark, helping you to get your colours more right, but the final judgement still needs to be made by eye, after the colour has gone down on the canvas. This final check and adjustment will in itself help to develop your ability to judge colour. The colour checker gets you closer, you need to get the last few yards yourself.
A quick note on painting the cubes and spheres:
Painting the cubes and spheres is as simple as giving them a coat or two of acrylic gesso, and then painting them with the same paints you use to paint your pictures. I use oils. I make the cubes myself from lengths of 2 inch by 2 inch wood from a timber merchants, and buy the styrofoam spheres from my local art shop.
Why these steps will help you
To people more used to just sitting down and doing paintings every time they’re at the easel, this kind of practice may seem unusually focused. But that’s the whole point.
By simplifying the job of judging colour and combining these three approaches – sight size, colour checking and Munsell (Hue Value and Chroma) you can learn a huge amount about how colour and light really work in the real world.
And most importantly, you can learn this for yourself. You don’t need to take anybody else’s word about colour. You don’t need convoluted colour theories, ideas about warm and cool, or special recipes for light and shadow. You can get your brushes out and find the answers yourself, from direct experience.
I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.
Of course you still need to do the work to develop your sensitivity to colour. You still need to practise to learn the qualities of your tube paints, and how colour changes across a form. The only shortcut this method promises is that you’ll develop the skills more quickly by practising success instead of failure. But that’s a significant advantage.
Practise getting colour right more often and before long, light, form and depth will start to come into your pictures.
It’s hard to describe the detail of these steps, especially the second two, in words.
I demonstrated these three steps live in a webinar on the 4th of February, 2016. Here’s a replay of the webinar. It’e quite long, but I paint a small still life life study to demonstrate how you can apply these ideas to colour studies:
Best wishes and thanks for reading,