The Plane Truth - Learning to See

This article will be useful to the serious artist. It is not about subject matter but about learning to understand, control, and correctly use the three dimensions of color.

This information will be applicable to any and all paintings regardless of the chosen subject, medium, or technique. Rather than being 'advanced' instruction, it is of primary importance. With a bit of dedication and practice, it could become a shortcut to artistic success. My goal will be to introduce what may be a whole new way of thinking and working and to assist painters to easily describe what they actually see, perhaps for the very first time.

John Asaro formerly taught at the Pasadena, California, Art Center College of Design. He would tell his students that when doing portraits, being able to see exact relationships of light and shadow on the planes (surfaces) of the face was essential and the secret of getting a likeness. The exact measurements and positions of those planes differ on each person. Close observation is imperative because it's the deviations from the expected (the norm) that will become the likeness. That same approach is essential to produce an acceptable likeness of any object.

Beginning to See the Light
Consider this: If we have no light, we see nothing. If we do see something, it is only because light has made it visible. To depict what is seen then, an artist would have to accurately describe the observed light and shade differences. They are what we're painting a picture of.

Let's take this a step further. Doesn't it make sense that when we paint, we should concentrate fully on what will be on the picture surface, rather than what will not? Think about it. The subject itself will not literally appear on the picture surface. What will be there are patches of color, that will, or will not, produce convincing illusions of the subject. We must know how to produce the illusions.

Worried about Drawing?
Keep in mind that line is man's invention. There are no lines in nature. Line drawing may be handy to establish initial dimensions or placements but only light, shade, and edge control can produce the required illusions of form. When we learn to see and depict light and shadow correctly, objects magically appear on our picture surface, without line drawing. There's nothing wrong with doing a detailed drawing if you want to, but keep in mind that you're going to cover it all up with paint.

Value Assignment
Find an ordinary tan-colored cardboard carton, about 8-inches square and preferably with no lettering or labels. In evening hours, set it on a table with a single light source above and to either the right or left. Turn off all other lights. Twist the carton so that one vertical corner faces toward you. Notice which of the 3 surfaces seen is lightest, which is a bit darker, and which is darkest. Be sure to notice that less light is not an absence of light. No surface will be black and void. Try to see if and how adjoining edges differ from one another. Which edge is most sharply seen and which, in comparison to others, appears softest. To produce an illusion of that carton, seen under that lighting situation, at that moment in time, those observations would have to be duplicated on your picture surface.

Place a white piece of typing paper under the carton. Do you see light reflecting from it and illuminating the base of the shaded side, that vertical surface turned away from the direct light? Our CD Lesson 3, titled A New Way of Seeing, provides much more information and many illustrations related to all-important value control. In fact, you'll see a step-by-step segment about painting a turbulent seascape, with values only.

Develop the habit of comparing light and shade on any object you see, wherever you are, and in any lighting situation. Learning to recognize them easily and quickly will speed up your easel time. While painting, we must make decisions about values before other dimensions of color or even the subject itself.

Terminology Review
We use the word value as we refer to the lightness or darkness of color. All pigments are darkest in their pure form. Any color can be made lighter in value by blending it with white.

I would highly recommend that you habitually paint a scene as a value study, before giving any thought to the other dimensions of color, which are warmth or coolness, brightness, or dullness. I use Payne's Gray and White on inexpensive 8" x 10" panels.

Temperature refers to the relative position of any color on a color wheel to red or blue. Reds are considered the warmest and blues the coolest. Warm yellows, oranges, and reds attract the eye and seem closer than cooler greens, blues, and violets. Experiment. Use warm colors only in areas you want the viewer to see first and visually return to.

Intensity refers to the brilliance or purity of color. Brilliant (higher intensity) colors will attract the eye and are best reserved for focal point areas. Adding white or a tiny bit of its complement (the opposite on the color wheel) can subdue the brilliance of any color. Experiment with color-wheel opposites. Always keep the background a bit on the dull side and use color right-out-of-the-tube to feature the higher temperature hues.

The next time you visit a gallery or art exhibit, you may notice that the paintings that grab your attention often have a dominant color, appearing more often in proportion to others. Check to see if the painter strove to satisfy the human need for harmony and variety. Do you see touches of the complement, the opposite on the color wheel? Adjoining opposites enhance one another when one is featured and the other is subdued. Does the dominant color simply cover more of the picture surface, or is it its temperature and intensity that attracts the eye?

We hope that you find our articles interesting and informative, but they are merely the tip of the iceberg. Treat yourself to a copy of our CD-ROM. It's user friendly and simple to use. You do not have to connect to the Internet, and it does not take space on your hard drive. All you have to do is point and click to have personal instruction at any time you wish.

Have fun as you upgrade your artistic control,


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