In trying to understand color I’ve been looking through my teacher’s archives and seeing her work with new eyes. I haven’t actually written about her directly, though I suppose I write about her indirectly quite a lot. Before I’ve always found her paintings beautiful but could never name what was so magical about them. Now as I struggle to get a grip on color I’m beginning to understand the depths of her genius. Juliette Aristides, according to John Pence Gallery which represents her, is a mid-career artist born in 1971.
She’s young for a living master, 45 at the moment, but started young as well pursuing nothing but drafting and painting since she was 17. Typically the old master artists started their atelier training around 12 years old, studied for 10 years before beginning their professional careers, and lived only into their mid 60s (Velasquez 61, Rembrandt 63, da Vinci 67, and the great Raphael only reached 37). In all probability Juliette and her contemporaries will enjoy longer careers than great artists of the past. She is already an accomplished painter, author, and teacher (this year marks the 15th anniversary of Juliette’s atelier) and because of her tenacious faith in the learning process and disciplined dedication to artistic growth, I know her best is yet to come.
As a student Juliette learned to paint the same way she is teaching us, using classical methods to deliver tightly rendered realistic results. In her professional career she has become a realist painter whose work can be described as “painterly,” her brush strokes have loosened to describe movement and atmosphere. This is certainly a coveted quality in a painter and someday I will attempt more painterly compositions but for the moment what’s most fascinating to me is how she uses color.
I have a year and a half left in the atelier, if she accepts me for a 4th year. Fingers crossed. All of my remaining time will be spent stewing over how to achieve natural looking three-dimensional form in color, form painting as it’s called, or turning form. The technique of making a painting look so round you could take a bite out of it.
Turning form in color requires the command of three color properties: value, temperature and hue.
An Ode to Value
Before I started painting in color, value was the only tool I had for turning form. In the first year of the atelier I drew in charcoal and shaded from the shadow side into the light to make objects look round. During year two, painting in grisaille (black, white and gray) I did the same thing. The feeling is so amazing when you first learn to turn form. And honestly the awe I felt when I painted my first grisaille sphere has never gone away. It’s the feeling of breathing life into your painting. It starts as a flat drawing and you get to watch it inflate as you shade. Then you step back from your easel and viola! There’s life on the canvas.
If only color was that simple! Form painting in color is a whole different ball of wax. The good news is that it still very much relies on value. If you remember my color wheel of spheres you’ll remember that the goal was to turn form on 12 different colored spheres using value while staying true to each color. Because the illusion of form relies so much on value we were able to make the spheres look round by tuning colors from dark to light. But look back up to Juliette’s painting of the pear and to the apricots at the top of the page. No object is truly made of one color. This is because objects reflect colors from other objects around them and different colors and surfaces respond to light differently. So how do we learn to take a red sphere and make it look like a luminous apple?
After mastering value, we must dive into hue and temperature.
Hue: how chromatic is the color?
Imagine a pair of denim jeans. The jeans are blue. Blue is the hue, the name of the pure color. When the jeans are new they are very blue (high chroma), but after a few washes they become faded blue (low chroma). The intensity of the hue refers to its chroma. So, that is the brightest red apple I’ve ever seen! Translates to the red hue of the apple is very intense, the chroma is high.
Temperature: how warm or cool is the color?
Blue is the coolest color and orange is the warmest. But the tricky thing about color temperature is that it’s all relative. For example, yellow is cool compared to orange but by no means do we typically think of yellow as a cold color. To understand the warm/cool relationship between colors you need to know the color wheel by rote.
Temperature is tripping me up and it’s where Juliette excels.
After value, temperature is the next most important tool in turning form.This is exactly what I’m struggling with right now and what will continue to be my challenge for the rest of my time in the atelier. The next year and a half is just how do I manage to turn form in color?
Turning form is all about midtones and midtones are all about value and temperature. Remember the sphere and how hard midtones were to see? Roundness is created in the midtone region, the darkest part of the light, just outside of the shadow. Because midtones gain color slowly as they crawl from shadow to light, this area tends to be grayer. In color, gray comes from mixing warm and cool hues. So we adjust both value (moving from dark to light) and temperature (from a warm hue to a cooler gray) to turn form.
Mixing complementary colors makes a perfectly neutral gray.
Think of the color wheel as having a perfectly neutral gray mud pit in the center of it. If you draw a line from blue to orange on the opposite side of the wheel, you go straight through the mud pit. When you warm blue paint up by mixing in orange it neutralizes becoming perfectly gray in the center before making it out of the mud pit and becoming more and more orange on the other side. Of course the same thing happens cooling orange toward blue. This phenomenon is true of every two complementary colors on the color wheel.
This is my major hurdle with temperature: avoiding simply using a neutral gray in the midtones.
New painters (like myself) tend to neutralize midtones by simply dragging them straight through the mud. We must really learn to see the temperature of the color in real life and mix it accurately spot by spot. In real life midtones are chromatically neutral, not just mud gray. They are green grays, orange grays, blue grays, red grays and we need to learn to see them all and nail the value.
After learning grisaille paining in my second year the first colors we introduced to our palettes were orange and blue. Because they make neutral gray it was a good first baby step out of grisaille. I painted my Cup and Scone painting with this palette (plus a little yellow). Turning form was still simple because it’s basically grisaille with the option of making the gray bluish or orangey. Think of the cup in that painting, it’s basically a grisaille cup with the tiniest hint of blue-gray in the midtones and orange-gray in the shadow. I was able to have success with this palette because I was still thinking mostly in value but not really using temperature consciously.
Temperature is what separates my afternoon still life success from my morning figure painting struggles.
Look at the figure painting above by Juliette. You see a shadow side and a light side clearly delineated. Look at the shadow on the figure’s lower back just below the waist. Move your eyes slowly from the shadow side into the light, as if you were an ant crawling over the surface little step by little step. You can witness the shadow ending in a yellowy brown and the color shifting as it first hits the light into a cooler blueish violet and then becoming warmer and more chromatic with some pinkish orange and continuing to lighten and cool into the lightest part of the hip.
Creating realism and liveliness in a painting means learning to shift temperature and chroma and value all at the same time without muddying up the color. See the beautiful hue and temperature shifts in the fish and lemons below. Notice there is no dead neutral gray anywhere even through the midtones have been muted expertly:
In the afternoons I’ve been making color studies of fruits. I’m simply tuning value strings of chrom for lemons and limes like I did for the color spheres. But looking back at Juliette’s pear, I see red, orange, yellow, green, violet and blue! There’s no neutral gray. I didn’t use gray on my lemons and limes because I barely shifted temperature when I lighted or darkened colors using only a small amount of a color next door on the color wheel. If I approached the figure the way I approached lemons and limes, I would have a flesh colored grisaille painting, like a flesh colored cast, or a painting of a mannequin instead of a human.
You can get away with a lot when your object is one simple color but painting flesh relies on brilliant contrast between warms and cools and changing hues. Let your eyes rest on this beautiful figure painting by Juliette and see how much your appreciation for a painting expands when you see a warm shadow meet up with a cool but chromatic midtone and the rosy hue on the legs shifts to a yellower hue on the abdomen with violets and greens in between. Enjoy the roundness of the forms while witnessing all the changes in color that make up one subject.
You don’t find mud in Juliette’s paintings. Juliette doesn’t neutralize with gray nor by mixing a color with its exact opposite on the color wheel. Her understanding of value, hue and temperature allows her to take risks and make leaps with color. She neutralizes by knowing exactly what needs to be darker or lighter, how intense the chroma should be on the form and to gorgeous effect how to mix in a slightly cooler or much warmer hue so that the temperature shifts elegantly by hours and minutes instead of abruptly from night to day.