How to Successfully Paint Color Relationships from the Start

23 May 2010

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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on 24 May 2010 6:48 AM


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.

dmaidman wrote
on 24 May 2010 8:00 AM

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.