Many emerging painters complain about their colors and values not being “clean” and most are at a loss as to what to do about it. (If you’ve never heard this particular term before, having a “clean” painting just means painting with convincing colors and strong, visually meaningful values—like this little oil painting by Carol Marine.)
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Marine’s reds, yellows and whites each play a role in defining something specific about those apples. Her shadows and lights indicate the exact position of her light source—which is incredibly helpful to have, by the way, if you’re drawing or painting a still life—so there’s no doubt about what’s going on.
The EmptyEasel reader who requested today’s tutorial (and whom we’ll keep anonymous) is allowing us to use the painting below as an example of colors which are not so clean or convincing.
Look beyond the light reflecting from the canvas and you’ll see that even though the subject is well drawn and in a fairly good composition, many of the colors are mixing together to become flat and one-dimensional.
The values aren’t helping too much, either—it’s not clear where the light source is positioned or how strong the light is. So how do we improve upon this painting?
First, we need to find what’s causing the problem. Could it be working with a dirty brush? Or skimping on paint? Or over-stroking? Or reaching for a big lump of white anytime you want to make something a bit lighter?
If any of those sound like your working habits, then here are my suggestions:
1. Clean your paintbrush as often as possible
Make a habit of holding a brush in one hand and a paper towel in the other. Any time you switch colors, wipe the brush by squeezing out excess paint with the paper towel.
If you’re switching to a new color that’s much darker or lighter, don’t just squeeze out the brush—squeeze it with your paper towel, then rinse the brush in your cleaner jar, use more paper towel to squeeze out the excess color and moisture, and then dip into the new color.
You will discover that keeping your brush clean while working goes a long way toward giving you precise values and clear, crisp colors.
2. Don’t skimp on paint—cover the surface
Too little paint often results in weak color. Use adequate amounts of paint to cover the surface and avoid trying to stretch your paint by spreading it so thin that the texture of the surface comes through.
3. Avoid over-stroking and over-blending
Start thinking of your brush as a tool to shape the paint, not just as an applicator of paint. This means slow down. Be deliberate with each stroke and avoid repeating a stroke in the same spot.
Connect a new stroke to reshape an old one you didn’t like, then move on to the next one somewhere else. Over-stroking and over-blending leads to muddy colors very quickly.
4. Find the right hue to lighten your colors
Do you reach for white each time you want to make a color lighter? Well stop.
Adding white changes the color temperature AND the value, making the color look dramatically different. Rather than automatically reaching for white, try to find another color that will give you the value change you need without neutralizing the original hue.
For example, notice the difference between Alizarin Crimson lightened with Cadmium Red Light, compared to Alizarin Crimson lightened with white.
Just imagine painting two apples with those color schemes. . . although it may feel right to lighten a color with white, that’s very rarely the correct thing to do.
So next time you’re painting, give these four tips a try. Most likely one (or more) of them will help!
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