When Prince Siddhartha Gautama decided to renounce his privileged position and search for enlightenment, he started by attempting to starve himself to his goal.
When that didn’t work out, He changed tack. He tried the middle way, neither self-indulgence nor self-mortification, and achieved nirvana.
Personally, I know next to nothing about Buddhism, despite being attracted to its spirit. (In fact I just decided to start learning more about it, for about the eightieth time).
But I’m pretty sure that’s an over-simplification! It may even be completely wrong, as far as I know.
But I like the idea nonetheless, because being open to change is a difficult but healthy trait to cultivate.
A change of heart
Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a post here about why I find the concept of warm and cool in representational painting so problematic.
It’s too vague for me. I like things to be clear. And I have a suspicion that it may be one of the many unexamined tropes of representational art that often gets repeated without much critical examination.
Like not painting with black. Or the primaries of red, yellow and blue. Or the golden mean.
I’ve had a lot of email from people, too, who were glad to read that post from a year ago because they, too, didn’t get the concept, and it made them feel somehow deficient.
Been there, felt that.
But just lately, I’ve found myself thinking in terms of warm and cool. In a sense, that’s a change in how I think about colour.
But let me explain, because that’s an over-simplification too.
What hasn’t changed
When you’re trying to mix a colour accurately, or when you’re trying to understand how a colour changes across a form from light to shadow, I still think warm and cool isn’t a particularly helpful way to look at things.
Because I think we have a better, more descriptive and clearer way to talk about it: Change of hue.
If I tell you one colour is warmer than another, it may not mean much to you. But if I tell you that the hue changed slightly from blue towards green, that gives you more information.
But a few things lately have nudged me to reassess my previous blanket dismissal of the concept of warm and cool, and to allow myself to reconsider it in one specific area.
The first is finally reading A Colour Notation by Albert H Munsell. In much of this book, Munsell talks about colour design principles. And he talks a lot about warm and cool colours.
One of my personal painting heroes, Emil Carlsen, also talks about warm and cool when he describes his process. Here’s a short excerpt:
After the shadows have been washed in and the background indicated with a thin wash somewhat richer and warmer than nature, commence to model the lights.
You need to look closely at Carlsen’s late work, particularly the etherial, low chroma pieces to really see what he means here, I think. I’ll get to that shortly.
The last thing that’s begun to change my mind is that I’ve recently embarked on a series of colour design exercises from Arthur Wesley Dow, also based on Munsell. And I’ve been finding the concept of warm or cool hues, in relation to the Munsell hue wheel, a useful way to think about what I’m doing.
So I’m beginning to wonder if, at least as far as picture design goes, the concept of warm and cool may be a useful broad stroke to use to begin thinking about colour combinations.
What has changed
Here’s a quick video of one of my regular “studio drop-in” sessions where I’m explaining more about where this idea is coming from, and how I think it might be useful.
In it, I show a close up of a Carlsen painting that I think clarifies his comments I quoted earlier.
Well, no. I don’t expect to suddenly start achieving wonderful results because I’m choosing the moderate way. Not at all.
But I do think it’s important to examine and re-examine our ideas about what we do.
No, it’s not easy. I certainly don’t like doing it.
And in fact, very, very few people ever do it at all, even if they pay the idea lip service.
In representational painting, I see a lot of people desperately clinging to ideas that ultimately are holding them back, stopping them from making progress – particularly when it comes to colour.
I’d like to change that, and I believe that if I present what I’m doing clearly enough, I can. Not for everyone, perhaps, but at least for people who are open to new ideas and want to make progress.
And of course that means I need to stay open to other possibilities too – at least until I’ve thoroughly tested them for myself.
And there’s the rub. I see a lot of people in art forums and art groups on Facebook clinging to – or even worse, roughly and sometimes rudely dismissing – ideas that they have never tested with a brush in their hands. Ideas that could very well help them develop as artists.
I’ve always tried to make that a central part of my process of self learning – to constantly question, never to accept any concept without thoroughly testing it first.
The results can be surprising. Not least the amount of ire you can engender by simply taking an established idea and saying “this may not be true”!
Change for the better
Ultimately, the only way we can move forward with our work and perhaps find our own voice more completely is by testing things out for ourselves.
That’s the spirit I try to keep to on this blog. When I advocate something, like sight size, Munsell, deliberate practice, Dow’s composition exercises, it’s because I’ve worked with it thoroughly enough and for long enough to see the results in my work – to know whether its useful or not. And that makes me want to share it.
That seems like a worthy goal to me. And at least in this case, the middle way seems to be making the most sense.
Just don’t get me started on modelling form.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
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