When I teach colour, I teach it through a combination of modelling factors and showing people how to match the colours they see as closely as they possibly can.
This image below shows what I mean by modelling factors, in case you haven’t come across the term before. It’s a way of breaking down form into broad areas in which the light behaves in specific ways:
You can rough these areas out on a study before you actually paint it. They’re a useful guide to painting form and getting the colour broadly right:
Learning colour this way can be pretty hard work. Ask anyone who’s learning with me!
Sometimes it’s not fun. Sometimes it’s frustrating.
But when you’ve nailed the basics of colour, you’re free to be more creative with how you paint.
Here’s an example of a recent study done by someone I’ve been teaching online for a little while now. I think it’s a lovely piece.
I want to share it because I think it’s such a good example of the freedom that a good understanding of colour gives you.
What strikes you about it is the variation of the edges. The softness in the shadows, the soft edge of the light side of the apple, the way the form bleeds off creating almost a halo of light.
And then against that softness, the hardness of the stalk, giving a physical, sculptural quality, almost as if you could reach out and pick the apple up by the stalk.
The reason this works so well, though, is not just because of the paint handling in those areas. It’s because overall, the colour is really strong. The values are sound. The local hue has been held really well from light to shadow. The form is modelled well.
It would be a mistake to look at a study like this and try to copy the effect without doing the groundwork first. But I do see people doing that a lot. Unless you already had a really strong understanding of colour, the elements of this study that you really notice – the paint handling – won’t add anything.
This study could have been painted with all hard edges, or all soft, it could be painted thickly or thinly.
If you can handle colour well and use it to describe form, you have the freedom to paint in any way you choose – and it will still work.
This knowledge of colour doesn’t come without some effort, it’s true.
But that effort is rewarded many times over not just by being able to use colour well, but by being able to take your work in the direction you choose without being held back by basic problems which can be solved.