In his art manual, A Practical Treatise on Painting, nineteenth century author John Burnet compiled the then current principles governing the use of color in painting. Burnet, a prolific writer on art technique, posits in one section of his manual that the most chromatic area on the painted form appears only in the light (natural light is presumed), and in the halftone - the region on the form turned farthest from the light without being part of the shadow. "The proper situation of strong colour," says Burnet, "is neither in the high light nor in the deep shade, for it would destroy the character of either ; but if it is made use of as an intermediate link, it will unite both ; at the same time preserve a greater consequence."¹
Though this lesson was known to Burnet as late as 1830, it seems it was not a concept which had a lasting impact on art training; more than a century later, artist and teacher Andrew Loomis expressed in his seminal art instruction book Creative Illustration his concern that the understanding of the use of vivid color in the light, and particularly in the halftone, were the least known and least practiced truths in painting.² Loomis went on to explain in greater detail than had Burnet:
If the color in the shadow cannot exceed in brilliance the local color as seen in the light, then it follows that the purest and most intense colors belong to the light. ... All colors in their greatest intensity or tints of the pure color should be relegated to the lights or the halftones. When reaching the shadow these colors are reduced or greyed, or the color changed by influence of other color reflecting into the shadow.
It is not necessarily true that the color in the brightest light is always the strongest color. Light, being white, can dilute color, just as can the white on your palette. In order to reach the high value we may be forced to lighten the color. Yet on the next planes, which are halftone planes, color may be more intense, being still in the light. So then, the halftones may contain the most brilliant and pure color. Color can greatly lose its local color in highlights, which become the white or color of the light source. Working directly into or against the light forces us to put our most brilliant color in the shadow; since the lights are so diluted with light, the shadows are our only chance. But even here we are working in reflected light against the dominant light, and much color is apparent, though not as bright as it would be with the light behind us.³
Loomis, who also understood that nature was composed mainly of greys, and that those greys acted as a foil to make other colors look more bright, offered another method for retaining strong color without sacrificing the color relationships found in the visual world. He suggested that the purest color should be reserved for edges, accents, and for other manipulations to enhance those softer greyer colors of nature.⁴
Here is one of the best ways in the world to obtain brilliancy of color: Keep your color most intense on the edges of the lighted areas, where it merges into shadow. This seems to cast an aura of additional color over the whole lighted area. Just taking a local color of the light and rubbing it into a darker color of the shadow (which most of us do, most of the time) produces no brilliancy. It is apt to be just color in the light, then mud, then reduced color in the shadow.⁵
Since light has a greater range of brightness and darkness than pigment, then color also has greater brilliance in life than we can reach in pigment. Therefore we must work within the value limitations of pigment, or between white, color, and black. There is nothing else we can do about it. But the limitations are not as bad as they seem, once we understand what it is all about. No color can be made brighter than its full strength. It can only be made lighter or darker, or less intense by mixture. It can be made to vary in hue by adding other colors, warmer or cooler, but nothing yet known can make it brighter than white paint or paper unless by actual additional light thrown upon it. Purity of pigment is not the whole objective of the painter; tone and harmony come first. Vitality in painting comes from value relationships, not the untouched rawness of pigment. Contrast between strong colors cannot be the whole aim, for contrast is greatest when the strong is pitted against the weak.⁶
Brightness is relative. A color will be brighter against a greyed color than it will against a bright one. Since nature is largely grey, don't be afraid of nature's greys. ... we cannot paint nature from a tube or a pot.⁷
¹ John Burnet, A Practical Treatise on Painting ; Practical Hints on Colour in Painting (James Carpenter and Son, London, 1830), p. 1.
² Andrew Loomis, Creative Illustration, ( The Viking Press, New York, 1947), p. 153.
⁶ Loomis, op.cit., p. 154.
⁷ Ibid., p. 153.