It’s Time to Take Sides: Color vs. Form

Oil painting by Daniel Maidman: Leah, oil on canvas.
Leah, oil on canvas, 2010, 24 x 20.
Oil painting by Daniel Maidman: The Sicilian Expedition, oil on canvas.
The Sicilian Expedition, oil on canvas,
2010, 60 x 40.

They say that there are two kinds of painter: color painters, and the other kind–the kind that focuses on form, tone, and line. I’m that “other” kind of painter. I am absolutely riveted by form, and color does not come naturally to me.

This color vs. form distinction gives rise to another distinction inside the realm of color itself. Good color painters produce what I think of as organic color–they respond to the colors in front of them in a profoundly sensitive way, and reproduce subtle variations in all the properties of color, especially color temperature. Give a good color painter some alizarin crimson and raw umber, and he or she will give you a blushing cheek in early morning light.

Form painters are forced to depend on what I think of as analytic color. They consider the subject they are going to paint, and they think over a system of colors that could be used to represent it. The resulting color choices do not necessarily match the colors that are actually present in the subject. Rather, they are selected either because they’re close enough to mimic naturalism (as in my oil painting, Leah) or because they will produce a strong aesthetic effect (as in my oil painting, The Sicilian Expedition).

Even though I’m an analytic colorist, I have been working hard on improving the color in my artwork. I have a few methods:

1. I study paintings with color I admire, and try to figure out how I would accomplish the same effects. Even if I’m not guessing the same color combinations I actually see in the painting, I’m forcing myself to think about solving problems the way the painter solved them.

2. Just as importantly, when I see interesting scenes in real life, I sometimes stop and ask myself how to mix colors to represent them. This forces me to decompose the complexity of scenes in the world into their component paint colors, a practice that becomes more reflexive over time, and glides into the studio with me as a tool I carry around.

3. I try to buy a tube of a new color now and then and play around with it until I figure out what it offers me.

4. I seek out painters I respect, and if they’re willing to “talk tech,” I ask them how they’re doing things I’ve liked in their work.

Just because you’re born one kind of artist or another, doesn’t mean you have to accept that that’s where you’re staying. Some things are easy for me that are tough for other people, and other things that are easy for other people are tough for me and always will be.

Where do you fall along the color-form continuum? Leave a comment and let me know.


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Oil Painting Blog
Daniel Maidman

About Daniel Maidman

Daniel Maidman was born in Toronto, Canada. He was raised in Toronto, Jerusalem, Washington, and Chicago.

Since attending college in North Carolina and Texas, Daniel Maidman has lived in Los Angeles and New York City. In Los Angeles, he set himself on a program to learn how to draw and paint the human figure. He attended life drawing workshops 2-3 times a week for eight years. As well, he spent two years working on an anatomical atlas based on human cadaver dissections in which he participated at Santa Monica College, under the guidance of Dr. Margarita Dell. Illustrations from his atlas are currently in use in the United States Army’s forensic field manual.

Since moving to New York, Daniel Maidman has sped up his painting schedule, while continuing to maintain his drawing skills through life drawing workshops at Spring Street Studio. Although he remains primarily self-taught, he has learned a good deal about color from conversations with Adam Miller.

Daniel Maidman’s other interests include filmmaking and writing.



9 thoughts on “It’s Time to Take Sides: Color vs. Form

  1. Interesting post! I think I’m more of the form painter type, since I tend to focus on drawing the form and then I think about color. I look to what I see (or imagine I see!) for direction regarding color, and go from there.

  2. I too am a natural form painter. I suppose it might be the result of having a slight color blindness in the green range. I tend to compensate by simplifying my color palette with watercolors. Lately I have been using, what are essentially intermediary colors, burnt umber and ultramarine blue. By mixing them I get get grays, blacks and a range of intermediary colors. I might add some red, yellow or green for enrichment. Another option for me is to keep the color range monochromatic. By limiting my color options I feel I can explore both form and color in a more controlled way.

  3. I am definitely a colorist, but I also have an excellent sense of form. To me there is not the distinction you elaborated upon. I think if you get the color right (value temperature, hue, saturation, etc.) the form seems to naturally take shape.

    It is my opinion that artists who are not colorists seem to rely on value, strong lights and darks to pull the painting together. I will not be drawn to the work’s color, but hopefully, composition, subject matter, and values will draw me in. While some artists who do not establish strong lights and darks and are not seeing value, usually end up with a painting that seems to fall apart. Again hopefully something else will draw me in. Interesting though, in both painters the color is actually wrong. Which I guess it goes to show you that art is not perfection and sometimes the quirky flaws can be endearing and used as a stylistic trait.

  4. Interesting post about the form-color dichotomy. Tonalist-colorist dichotomy is aften discussed with Rembrant being the prototype tonalist and Monet being the king of color. Line priority versus painterly priority styles are also debated. Of course, there are infinite combinations of each of these and many “in-between” examples.
    I actually dont believe artists should make a conscious choice, but rather just paint in a style consistent with his or her prefferences and vision. Musicians are taught “play what you like to hear”. The syle will develop naturally over time. Artitst who deliberately choose a style in advance may produce work that looks mechanical. Most artists end up painting in styles which have elements of both sides of the above dichotomies. Thats what gives us infinite variety in art and thats not a bad thing. Mark Beale.

  5. Kisu – I think you do too! Darrel – I do that too, the limitation of the palette. I’m glad you’ve found a workaround with the colorblindness difficulty. Kat – the idea of form emerging out of correct coloration is technically possible in terms of physics, but in terms of neurology, it doesn’t bridge the gap: interpretation of color and interpretation of form are housed in different parts of the brain. Check out Margaret Livingstone’s “Vision and Art” for much more on this fascinating topic. Mark – I would never advocate for an arbitrary imposition of an analytically-derived style – I hope the post explains ways to escape strictures, not impose them.

  6. Interesting, I’ll check out the book. I’m really interested in perception and the science behind it. I wonder if it matters on the individual artist’s approach and “brain mechanics.” If the artist is holistically viewing the subject perhaps some pattern seeking and spatial relationships is going on.Then, If the artist is focusing in on a one small section as if it were a flat abstract color not existing in space then I would assume different parts of the brain are activated. Thanks, I’ll look into it.

  7. I’ve been thinking about this topic again and was wondering why some people lack a sense of color in their art and why it is so obvious to me. I’ve closely worked with color professionally and creatively for several decades now. Everything from inks, paints, offset printing, printing color photographs, dyeing fabrics, professionally dyeing yarns, color correcting CMYK and RGB, and more. Below are links to tests – I did them quickly and easily. I have perfect color vision, no surprise.

    Check yourself out
    add the www since I realize websites have problems here.

  8. hhmm i dont know i am a colorist but i love form and composition too maybe im both male and female that maybe is why i think i don’t take sides cuz i love form and color both XD
    Monet and Michelangelo ,
    but i find people like
    John Singer Sargent to be both a colorist
    and a person of form
    and also James gurney too
    maybe this all started with Michelangelo s compairation with Monet
    than peple started to think yeahh
    in my opinion you could have the best of both worlds

    in my opinion you should like what u like there’s no need in taking sides at all
    its really not important to label your self in art
    cuz we are we

  9. and plus acctually to me color easy i just paint what i feel i don’t try to think too much about it i just try to feel my way around t if not or in bad days i cant
    i jusexpress the pain of not picking a good pallette or not being a good colorist
    or not making good art and it just falls beautiful a system of shooting and rebound