Creating Light by Alternating Warm and Cool Color

My new book, Universal Principles of Art, presents one hundred chapters, each dealing with a single idea about making art. As well as laying out these concepts in simple, jargon-free English, the book provides roadmaps for their use in the practical business of making art. The chapter, Color as Light, deals with the Impressionists' discovery that a sensation of light could be recreated on the canvas in a way that was radically new. One of the principles they put into play was that of alternating warm and cool color.

Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son by Claude Monet, 1875, oil on canvas.

Woman with a Parasol – Madame Monet and Her Son
by Claude Monet, 1875, oil on canvas.

I take as my example Woman with a Parasol by Claude Monet. To understand how the extraordinary sense of air and light is achieved in this painting we have to examine how the artist organized the color relationships throughout the picture.

Monet had discovered that by breaking up colors into their components a painting could be made to feel more vibrant. Shadows that might have been painted grey or brown in previous generations were now composed of small strokes in a variety of more saturated hues. The viewer would recombine these to an optical equivalent of a more subtle color as he looked at the painting. The resulting sense of shimmer and life provided a more present sensation of light. 

But just breaking up the color wasn't quite enough. In order to achieve light the artist had to put a further principle into play, the alternation of warm and cool color. This is a fundamental idea in color perception.

In any given visual field the viewer will sense that some colors read as warmer or cooler than others. Further, when a form takes on light, the viewer will perceive that the color temperature tends to alternate as light moves across the form.   

This can be seen in the white dress in Monet's painting. There is a warm, red brown ground underneath the painting and the darker shadows are painted in a heavier warm brown. The halftone shadows, which comprise most of the dress, are painted in blues alternating between cool turquoises and warmer violets. Farther up the dress a much warmer yellow works as reflected light thrown into the shadow. The sudden highlight on the edge of the dress is a clear, cool white.

Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son by Claude Monet, 1875, oil on canvas. Detail.
Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son by Claude Monet, 1875, oil on canvas. Detail, umbrella.
Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son by Claude Monet, 1875, oil on canvas. Detail, shadow.

This alternation of warm dark shadows, cool halftone shadows, warm mid-lights and cool highlights is taken up again and again in Monet's painting. In the parasol, for instance, the green in the shadow shifts from a warm green in the darker part of the shadow to a cooler blue green in the lighter part. 

A full range of darks to lights can be seen in the grass where the deeper darks are dominated by warm red browns, the half tone shadows go to a cool blue green, the mid-lights are warm yellow greens and the highlights cool off.   

Of course to achieve an illusion as successful as Monet's the precise color combinations have to be judged quite accurately and the painter must be alive to exactly how each passage is reading.  No principle or idea will guarantee a successful work of art.  But looking for warm-to-cool alternations on forms as they take on light will allow you to create a much greater sense of illumination.

Universal Principles of Art is published by Rockport Publishers.  A sneak preview is available on Amazon



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About John A. Parks

John Al. Parks is an English painter who was educated at the Royal College of Art in London. He began exhibiting at the Royal Academy while still a graduate student and achieved immediate success as a portrait painter, undertaking the famous Pear's Portrait Commission as well as many private commissions. Parks moved to New York in the late seventies and has exhibited widely in the United States and Britain over the last thirty years. His painting has focussed largely on English themes in which he has explored the nature of personal and national identity through a long series of highly original images of English life. 

Parks is a member of the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York where he teaches courses on portraiture, realist techniques and gouache techniques. 

In addition to his work as a painter Parks has published many articles on art and travel in publications ranging from the New York Times to American Artist Magazine to catalogue essays for the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. In 2014 he published "Universal Principles of Art," (Rockport Publishers), a book that provides a broad introduction to the world of art. Parks' painting is represented by 532 Gallery Thomas Jaeckel in New York. He makes his home in Dutchess County, New York.