How to Successfully Paint Color Relationships from the Start

Old Timer by Aaron Westerberg,
12 x 9, oil on canvas.

Painting instructors often ask students to consider two important relationships between the colors squeezed out on their palettes: value and temperature. By that they are asking them to consider whether one color mixture is lighter or darker than another, and whether the mixtures tend to have a warm or a cool appearance. That can be a challenge for students if they have 10 or 12 tube colors laid out on their palettes, so instructors frequently suggest that they start with just two tube colors. That’s what artist-instructor Aaron Westerberg did during a workshop he recently taught in California, where he showed students how to apply their drawing skills to creating oil paintings. 

Westerberg started his class by offering a step-by-step how to paint demonstration of using two colors, terra rosa and Venetian red, to paint a portrait on white canvas. He first applied a thin wash of terra rosa to the canvas and set it aside to dry. “Once the toned surface is dry, I’ll use more terra rosa as a warm color for drawing the head, then use Venetian red as a cool color for darker values,” Westerberg explained. “Later, I will lift off some of the paint to expose the white canvas—the lightest value—and to establish what is called an ‘open grisaille.’ If I were to add titanium white to my palette and mix that with the two reds, I would wind up with a closed grisaille.

“You should start a painting by establishing the darkest darks, then go to the richest, most dominant color, and finally mark the lightest lights,” Westerberg continued. As his demonstration progressed, he finished the painting by laying in opaque color while still allowing the transparent colors of the underpainting to remain visible. He used a drybrush technique to establish transitions between thin and thick applications of oil color.

M. Stephen Doherty
Consulting Executive Editor

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M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

2 thoughts on “How to Successfully Paint Color Relationships from the Start

  1. Steve,

    It seems as though asking the essential question: is it darker, lighter, warmer or cooler – is a universal concept among masterful painters. It is so simple a concept which I often forget to ask myself during the painting process.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  2. That’s really interesting. The difference between this process and my own reminds me of a comment I once heard from a mathematician. One underemployed summer, I struggled through Georg Kantor’s book on mathematical definitions of infinity. The mathematician said, “Oh yes, Georg Kantor. Naive set theory.” That “naive” really struck me – the definitions seemed rigorous, but apparently Kantor, way back at the beginning of this branch of math, was kind of scattershot in his approach, and used some assumptions and guesses I didn’t notice. I think I am “naive” in my approach to value and temperature. I have some natural sense of it, and a good idea of what the colors I use do to each other on a canvas, but as far as the topics you raise go, I kind of just wing it. I don’t have the rigorous three-point approach described here (darkest, most colorful, brightest). I don’t even particularly subscribe to the warm/cool dichotomy of dividing a composition or an object. But this approach seems like something interesting to try. It would be difficult for me, because I depend strongly on the transparency of paints, so I have to build toward most of my extreme values (darkest particularly). I know that this naive approach prevents me from achieving certain very beautiful effects, but it allows me to do other things, and it seems to work intuitively for me.

    Anyhow, thanks for bringing up a very interesting topic.