Sunday, February 20, 2011

Week 8: Color Seeing

On Saturday, my inspiring art teacher Shannon Grissom taught a color seeing class. Here's what we painted:

It's deceptively simple. Three colors - green, red, and white - and the simplest of items - a pot and a drape. Finding the nuances of color in this still life, where the light falls, and the interplay and mingling of warm and cool colors was the challenge. Oh - and we had to do it all with a palette knife.

Here's how you can do it, too.

What you need

  • canvas or gessoboard
  • palette knives
  • palette paper
  • acrylic or oil paint (I used a basic acrylic color palette of titanium white, cadmium red medium, cadmium yellow medium, dioxazine purple, phthalocyanine green, and alizarin crimson)
  • paper towels
  • table easel or standing easel

We're using the simplest of tools here. All you need is a palette of basic colors and a palette knife or two.
Without a pencil to sketch with or a brush to fall back on for detail work, all you get to use are your eyes and a few other simple tools. To draw the basics of the scene with the palette knife, start with a square for the pot, and stroke in the basic lines of the drapery. You can't be precise with the palette knife, and that's the challenge. With successive iterations, you build up the forms and colors piece by piece. Mix your colors with the palette knife, and wipe your knife off with a paper towel when you need to change colors.

To measure angles and forms, I used the palette knife to check the angles of the shapes. To check the colors, some students used an isolator: a piece of mat board or cardstock with a small circle punched in it, to see only the bit of color you want to match. I'm a sloppy, fast painter, so I just eyeballed the colors, making sure they were close enough at the start. As I built up each successive iteration, I honed in closer on the colors and their nuances. Here's how it works, step by step.

Step 1: After sketching in the basic shapes with the palette knife, start laying in the basic colors and forms. Here we have a simple series of shapes - rectangles and the triangular shape of the red cloth. At this early point, we're trying to get as close to the colors we see as we can.
Step 2: Now we fill in the rest of the background and the paint the light color of the pot. Notice how even though the pot is white, we're not using straight white, but rather white mixed a little red, green, and yellow to show how the light and reflections are interacting on the pot. We also add some more detail: the pot rim and the handles.
Step 3: Now we add in the shadows on the pot and the folds and shadows in the drapery, finding the variations in tone within the shadows.
Step 4: Now we're getting closer to finished. We refine the sharp edges and angles and smooth out the shapes. We add in a shadow on the back wall as well. This was now three hours into the class, and I needed a break. I stopped the painting at this point and let it sit overnight to come back to when I was rested.  
Step 5: Looking back at this the next day, it turns out the pot was lopsided and the handles were at different heights. To punch up the design, we extend the line of the red cloth, and smooth out the too-sharp shadow on the back wall. We add the bright lights and darks to add more drama to the composition.

Everyone's painting came out differently in this class. There's no exact right way to see color or to paint this composition. While I'm a sloppy painter, other students took their time, carefully matching each color before proceeding to the next. Here's Shannon with her painting:
The simplest of still lifes and techniques can be the hardest to master. This drill-down in technique will make all my art work better for it - and yours too.


  1. You rock Susannah! What a great blog and explanation of the class.

    It was so much fun having you in class and I love your study!

  2. So glad I could be there, Shannon, torrential downpours notwithstanding! And folks, for a different perspective, here's Shannon's post about the class:

  3. That is amazing. You did that with six colors and a palette knife? Your breakdown did make it seem more attainable for the average person... I'll have to try an exercise like this someday.

  4. Thanks Grace! Yes, just 6 colors, but the trick is to do a lot of color mixing. When I mixed the color for the green cloth, for example, I used a little bit of that in the shadows for the red cloth. And I used some of both those colors, mixed with white to lighten it up, in parts of the pot as well.

  5. thanks for your nice comments on my blog!! I'm loving your enthusiasm for trying new things - have never painted with acrylics (or a palette knife for that matter) but your post is an inspiration ;-0