Thursday, February 17, 2011

Words of Wisdom: Burnet, Loomis, and the Use of Intense Color

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.
³ Idem.
⁴ Idem.
⁵ Idem.
⁶ Loomis, op.cit., p. 154.
⁷ Ibid., p. 153.


Daniel Cruit said...

Great post Matthew; thanks! I definitely need to read over Creative Illustration again.

Chris said...

Thanks for the post.. In life, it is these little bits of information that help you make great leaps forward.

innisart said...

I remember the first time I read the section in Loomis' book that dealt with color. The idea of the more chromatic color being part of the halftone was a revelation to me, despite it being so logical. In art school, no one ever shared a concept like that with the students. That's really why I started this blog- so people can learn this info at a younger age than I did!

Loomis was really an amazing teacher. When he was discouraged from pursuing art as a student, he really dove into his own study, and found a very logical approach to all aspects of art. That made his ability to express principles so clearly to pupils through his books.

I'm glad Loomis' books are available online- albeit, likely illegally posted- but I wish his books would be reprinted in English. Many of his lessons are timeless, and we all benefit from them.

donm said...

thank you so much for these great posts! i didn't realize how much of a treasure trove loomis was.

Pam Perras said...

Thank you so much for this post and for your blog. I learn so much from it. I'm an artist racing against time (being older!), and have a son who loves to draw. I'm so glad I can share information with him and point him to sources..."so he learn this info at a younger age than I did"!

rahina q.h. said...

brilliant post Thank you for sharing this, really amde me think about what i see and how to represent it.

אורן said...

WOw, interesting.

אורן said...

Good to know, thanks.

RUDHI - Chance said...

Very interesting painting-*triks*; good to know to improve one's intentions on canvas...

Angresano said...

Great blog Matt and your heart is where your painting is.