Your Painting (and Mine!) Fails Because of THIS

Avoid This Beginner Painting Mistake

Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son by Claude Monet, 1875, oil on canvas. Adapted from an article by Bob Bahr.
Woman with a Parasol – Madame Monet and Her Son
by Claude Monet, 1875, oil on canvas. Adapted from an article by Bob Bahr.

Since the mid-1800s, numerous artists (and beginner painting students) have stressed color over other elements in painting, mistaking color choice as the root of all success or failure in painting. They cite the Impressionists as examples, but Monet, for instance, explored how to paint light and its effects on the colorful scenes he saw in his mind’s eye. Although many think of Monet as a painter of colors, he is perhaps more accurately described as the original “painter of light.”

Paintings fail or succeed most often because of how accurate the color values are in the work rather than because of poor color choices or color mixing. The viewer “reads” a painting through its values, and a composition relies on how light and dark values are arranged. The problem is that beginner painting artists often see a color’s hue and chroma instead of its value.

Painting a grisaille (a composition in shades of gray) before applying colors can help us in matching the correct values in a scene to a desired hue in the proper value. A few exercises juxtaposing values on a grayscale with various local colors also help in training our eyes.

“The best way to understand color is working with it,” says Laura Antonow, who teaches a class on color theory in the art department at The University of Mississippi. “Learning how to mix paint, matching paints or fabrics, looking at colors in daylight and then under artificial light–all of these can help develop your color sensitivity.”

Color Study: Squares with Concentric Circles by Wassily Kandinsky, 1913.
Color Study: Squares with Concentric Circles by Wassily Kandinsky, 1913.

Antonow also stresses that painting artists should be vigilant about one painting art misconception: that color exists in a vacuum. “When considering a certain color, people forget to take into consideration the surrounding colors, the lighting conditions, and even the cultural context, all of which are extremely important to the way a color appears,” she says.

Beyond encouraging trial-and-error color experimentation, Antonow also suggests reading about color theory from authors such as Josef Albers, Albert H. Munsell, Johannes Itten, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. She also recommends paying close attention to the work of artists known for their dynamic use of color, such as Wassily Kandinsky and Mark Rothko.

Discover more ways to hone your color sensibilities with the Acrylic Color Essentials bundle. With the exercises in these select resources, you will combine the brilliant colors and buttery application of the acrylics you love with value and color savvy — creating color wheels and mixing tints, tones, shades, and neutrals. You will learn how to layer color, explore value in-depth, figure out what to do when color “accidents” arise and see how to let your own personal color instincts lead the way. Get your Acrylic Color Essentials bundle now! Enjoy!





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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

6 thoughts on “Your Painting (and Mine!) Fails Because of THIS

  1. Couldn’t agree more about the importance of value. Some artists that suffer from colour deficiencies can create successful works of art through the clever use of value.

  2. Loved your article on Why Paintings Fail or Succeed. So true about values of color, and how they affect one another. Very good idea to do value sketches….and I loved your comparison to Rothko and Kandinsky……what powerful use of color values by these two artists.

  3. Applying a composition in Grisaille (shades of grey), seems an ideal solution, to complete a picture, I shall try this, on some future art work.

  4. “Color as value” is an outdated perceptual way of thinking.
    If you start with value based thinking you will never develop your eye to see in color. Monet discovered this through his objective study of color relationships in nature. There is color theory and there is color understanding. Two very different things.
    I wrote an article on color perception to try to explain the difference.
    Here is the link – if am able to give one.