These are some interesting exercises we did in art school. I’m going to share some of my artwork in this post because sometimes it’s good to see the work of an artist who isn’t a great master genius. They can be a little intimidating – like, OMG, I’ll never be able to do that. Which is probably true, but completely beside the point.
Here’s Purdue’s version of a classic exercise that pretty much every fine art (and graphic design) college student does:
You’ll see other variations around – when I was at the University of Cincinnati, we did one with more boxes, but fewer colors. I painted this while I was taking “Painting 101” with Victoria Stetler (I highly recommend her, she’s a wonderful teacher).
The first group of squares are a tinting exercise. The very top row of paint is the pure color, right out of the tube. In subsequent rows the color is mixed with more and more white paint. Pure color plus white is called a “tint”.
Ideally, there should be an optical illusion where the squares don’t look like they’re painted with just one color – they should look a little darker compared to the one below, and lighter compared to the square above. As though the artist varied the color in each box. I can see it in the lighter blue column, but I don’t see it in the yellow. I should have re-painted that column.
They should also actually look like squares LOLOL! Mine are a bit rectangular – measuring never was my thing.
Here’s a better version from the true expert on color theory, Johannes Itten. He wrote “The Elements of Color”
That illusion where the color within the square seems to change is showing you the power of contrast. Colors look very different to us based on what’s next to them.
I didn’t understand the power of this exercise when I was younger. But now it’s knowledge that I use.
I’ve realized that when I can’t get color A to do what I want in my painting, I need to try changing color B, right next to it. I often find that changing the contrast gives me what I want. It’s something I do when I find myself re-working one area over & over without getting what I want – I look to an adjacent area instead.
The second set of squares is an exercise in mixing complementary colors (plus a black-white column on the left).
Complementary colors are really powerful – using them effectively makes paintings much better.
I’m betting we all learned the color wheel in elementary school, but we might have forgotten LOLOL!
The primary colors (red, yellow, blue) combine to make the secondary colors (orange, green, violet).
Green, blue and violet are cool colors, while red, orange and yellow are warm.
And colors sitting opposite each other are called “complementary” (red-green, yellow-violet, blue-orange).
But what does it matter?
Mixing complementaries is how you create dimension in color. Not by adding more paint!
It’s the opposite of black and white.
With black and white pencil drawings, adding more graphite is how you create dimension. When things get darker, they recede.
But with color, when you add more, it just gets more intense. It comes forward.
As with this unsuccessful landscape of mine from several years ago (I painted this out and re-used the canvas). The brightness in the piece just jumps and jumps at you. There’s no receding – it’s flat.
When you want colors to recede so that your painting will be three-dimensional, you add their complementary. That way some areas will come forward, because others are going back in space. I see it happening on the sides of the buildings on the left in the drawing below, they look dimensional to me (but the buildings on the right side of the drawing to not – I think they could have used more blue/green).
Or – see the purple on the sides of the yellow and yellow/white gourds? It’s to tone down the yellow and make the gourds round. That’s also the reason for the blue shadow next to the orange gourd.
The last set of squares was an exercise on mixing neutrals and making dark tones without actually using black. We used the colors we’d created when mixing the complementaries above, and then experimented to see how much darker they could get. It was really interesting! We found that we could push colors a lot further than we realized, and get darks that were rich. Using black to make dark colors tends to create dull and flat areas.
Some artists carry color wheels or swatches with them, sometimes with notes on exactly how they mixed a specific color.