Monday, February 13, 2012

Painting White Part Two - Color

If you haven't already, please check out Part One of this little series, which talks about how to create the illusion of white with proper value organization. Now onto color.

Ok, the color you use doesn't matter. The end.

What's that, you want more... ok, here we go...

As discussed previously, an object's reflective properties determine what wavelengths of light it reflects back, which also determines how much overall light is reflected. In layman's terms we can say simply that a red object reflects red light. As a side note, it's important to realize that just about every object in the real world reflects back a little bit of every color. That is to say, even the reddest red apple is not really all that red!

What color does a white object reflect then? All of them (same with black and gray, but we'll deal with them later). As such, white objects and surfaces tell us a lot about the lighting conditions in the given area of a painting (or in the real world, for that matter).  So a white sheet in bright sunlight appears very nearly white; in shadow on a sunny day it may almost appear to match the blue sky (because only the ambient light of the sky reaches the shadow); if a red apple is sitting on the sheet then you'll see some reddish colors  in the apple's shadow, and so on.

That's how it all really works, but in painting "reality" is only part of the story... Because value is soooo overwhelmingly important in visual perception, the fact is, the colors you choose to use in painting white don't matter all that much, in terms of potentially appearing to be "wrong."  The question is, what do you want to do with color in your picture? The way white is handled in a picture tells what the artist is doing, because all other color factors have been filtered out, so to speak.

Sometimes there is a clear logic behind the handling of white, for example, here the warm light of the fire hits the  white surfaces facing it, giving them a yellowish color, while those facing the other way (ostensibly lit by the purply sky) are cooler:

In this picture there is no such logic - the "shaded" areas of the white shirt are colored yellow simply so they harmonize with the strong yellow background. Many times it works great to simply paint your whites in colors pulled from the rest of the picture. Maybe that has the same sort of effect as "ambient light"...
These whites could have been painted very cool, which is probably how they would really appear in "reality."

In practice artists tend to move freely between logical color, abstract color, and color for design.  The good news is, if you have your value organizations right, you have a tremendous amount of flexibility in how you handle color, without fear of the picture breaking apart. This is true of all colors, but as noted, observing how white is handled in a picture really exposes the underlying color approach. Check out all the "whites" in this picture:

Sure the warmer colors are allegedly coming from the lamplight, and the cooler colors from the sky, but as you can see I am able to move quite freely between blue, purple, red, pink, yellow, orange - whatever I want to make the kind of impact I want - without worrying at all about the picture's color becoming incohesive (spell checker tells me that's not a word, but I like it). Here's a selection of these "whites" from the snow scene, in isolation:

It can be really stunning to see that, basically any color can appear as white. Here are some notable examples of "whites" from a few of my pictures - a very wide range of hues, saturation and values:

And, for reference, the larger versions of the pictures these "whites" come from:

So if you're ever looking at some amazing painting of a white tablecloth, with all sorts of pinks and purples in the shadows, and wondering how on earth the artist could have mapped all those colors out, or observed them so carefully... remember that there is a lot more flexibility in how you handle the color of white than you may think.


  1. Thanks to your articles, James Gurney's book Color and Light, as well as various other books and websites prompted to me by a discussion we had in, I am beginning to view color, light, black and white in a more accurate way than before.

    You see, before, I understood the color theory, I had observed it many times yet, it seems that in my own art, I dunno maybe because I like dramatic almost comic-like contrast, I just needed to use both a full range of colors and just see that damn white.

    But I see now, more than before, how large of a crutch that may be because it has ended up ruining the illusion of lighting type (even if I hadn't researched it properly) I was trying to achieve. The most important lesson to this I got with the acrylic painting I had asked you about last time I posted. I couldn't get it photographed when you asked, but I finished it and posted it for critique here

    I have two questions. 1)The difference between 'logical' color (I understand what this is), abstract color and color for design. What are these really, how do they relate, how and/or when are they used? Why? Any examples for study? and 2)Would it be wise, when setting up a palette for a given picture, to set up, along with our color gamut, a "tonal" gamut? The reason I ask is because I know that, as long as I am seeing that damn pile of white, I am going to be inclined to use more and more of it, in order to up the contrast and finally ruin the effect. And even if I don't, I am concerned how the color, being on my palette in the need of mixing up more of the lighter colors, will cloud my judgment to tonal relationships of the new mixes compared to he older ones (yet the same tone/chroma/hue) that will be dry and darker (damn acrylics).

    This is quite a dilemma for me because to me, it seems more useful to mix colors when you need them, not pre-mix, yet, in illustration from imagination, even if one uses reference, shouldn't there be room for the imagination to actually do some work, instead of slavishly sticking to the reference? I ask because, I don't want my studies to take me from one habit or crutch to another.

    The reason I say this is because, I have so far been inclined to use knowledge, memory and imagination for my creations. I like this, yet I need more technical skill, and more knowledge of reality (in ALL areas, including those I have been studying) to improve. I don't want that to evolve me into say a Dan Dos Santos. No disrespect towards the man, he's great but, that's not the kind of illustration that got me into painting. Take a look here No there's no doubt the illustration is a technical feat's stiff and motionless to me. I can say a million things about the pose, face and hips (even tho the guys used a model etc) but, the main thing is that, she seems motionless, no feel of her action. Even the head hanging from the cable is perfectly pointing down, motionless. Coming from Frazetta, that thing there is the exact opposite I want any of my illustrations to look and feel like, ever!

    The same goes for every part of the picture making art and science, such as...white. So, any words? Sorry for the length.

  2. To your question (note that these terms are mine, maybe not very accurate or informative)

    By "logical color" I mean simply the color that nature would produce were the scene real, or, if it were set up as a 3d CGI scene, what we would want or expect the software to produce. This pays no need to design or composition. All it takes into account are the light(s) position, color, intensity; the "local colors" (reflective properties) of the various objects, and the position of the viewer. Even to say this is like what a photo would produce is slightly wrong, since cameras don't see the way our eyes do - but it's close. This aspect of color when used proactively is what creates the illusion of 3d light and reality. Most artists don't *fully* understand this aspect of color, which is the most "scientific" in that it is only barely subjective. 3d technology has provided a great guide for this area of light and color. For one thing, it breaks down all the factors into clear and understandable principles. But it also prioritizes them into a sort of hierarchy. So "diffuse" lighting (the main light striking the object) is the biggest factor, then there's "ambient" which is sort of the sum of all the light bouncing around the scene, or an intense omni-directional refracted light like the dome of the sky, then there's ambient occlusion (nooks and crannies where even this light doesn't reach), then reflected light (specific areas where light bounces off one thing in the scene and illuminates another, usually most obvious in areas not already lit by the diffuse light (i.e. "shadows"), then specular highlights, etc. There is very much a right and wrong here. It's 100% scientific. The only danger is thinking that this area matters more than the other areas, because for art it probably matters the least.

    By "abstract color" I mean when color is used to convey something other than the illusion of light and 3d space (as above), but is used more for its emotional meaning, for a direct emotional response. Red for heat/ anger, blue for cool, etc., rainbow for "happy", or color for no particular reason at all (random), or because the artist just likes yellow.

    By "color for design" I mean when you use color to drive or support the composition (I use the terms composition and design interchangeably, but I like "design" because it implies that this something proactively and purposefully done by the artist). So maybe most of the picture is desaturated then there's an intense purple dinosaur somewhere, drawing the attention.

    Obviously you can see how in a representational piece you'd want all three of the above to merge seamlessly. In commercial illustration there's one more aspect - the actual narrative you're often forced to follow. Authors will very often come up with something specific about color that seems cool, but makes for a weaker illustration. The character always wears a bright red cap (but they don't want it to be the center of attention); the character has really dark eyes, or whatever.

    (more in the next reply)

  3. Check out this Frazetta piece Conan attacking ape (or apeman) wearing a bright red cape:

    The cape (and picture as a whole) is a clear, simple (and amazing) demonstration of all these principles.

    LOGICAL COLOR Obviously the lighting is convincing. The cape, specifically, is only painted in a few colors, but all the principles are there. The most intensely lit areas are shifting toward yellow, while the deep shadows are losing saturation (because he's chosen to make the light in this scene warm, and there is little ambient light). But, the long narrow shadow that runs diagonally down the cape (under the apeman's face) is very red, not black, because... "logically" it's lit by the rest of the cape reflecting into it (you see this a lot in tight folds), and "compositionally" it's downplayed because if it were almost black like the other deep shadows it'd be a huge, undesirable eye grabber.

    COLOR FOR DESIGN The red, as really the only color in the scene, occupying a huge area, could be called the "main focal point" in terms of color. It's a big bright diagonal slashing down the composition. That's what's notable about it, colorwise. Of course the composition is impeccable value-wise as well, which is what always holds a picture together. But imagine if, say, that shield in the background were bright blue, or Conan was wearing a bright purple vest (I've seen pictures like that...) So imagine this picture was not a depiction of anything. Imagine there is no sense of light or 3d space... maybe turn it upside down. Just imagine it as a purely "abstract" (non-representational) image. What would be notable about it and why?

    ABSTRACT COLOR the red cape is certainly accentuating the mood of intense combat, struggle, strife. It sort of implies blood, heat, anger.

    To the point about NARRATIVE, this book specifically states that the apeman wears a red robe, as I recall. I suspect that was a lot of the inspiration behind this piece, for the artist.

    Re tonal gamut - with physical paint you do need to do a bit more planning than with digital, because you can't simply adjust it after the fact. With digital I may start painting in grayscale, without worrying too much about how dark my darkest dark is, or how light my lightest light is. I am definitely keenly conscious of where my darkest dark and lightest light is, but maybe, for example, my darkest dark is 20% gray, 30% gray, whatever. Then I just adjust the levels (sort of rescale the values) so the darkest dark goes down to 10% gray or even black. I do something similar with color - I may start painting my lit whites as kind of a saturated warm color, and my unlit areas cooler, but then I can adjust them so the warm lights aren't so saturated.

    With physical paint I mix a small matrix of colors in advance, and almost certainly the "lit white" is a main one. That is my white, so to speak. There is no actual white on the palette, for me. It encompasses both tone and color. It's the high point of the tone/color gamut. When I used to work with acrylics this whole issue was a big problem. I used to mix a good amount of each color then store them in little plastic containers. I switched to oils, and now I simply put the whole palette (a disposable paper palette pad) into one of those flat plastic boxes designed to (theoretically) keep acrylic paint wet. As a side note, you may try one of these. Acrylics darkening as they dried is the main reason I stopped using them.

    I hear you about what you do and do not want your work to be. For an alternate... "perspective" on fantasy illustration, I'm sure you've seen Justin Sweet's work ( If not, check him out.

  4. Thank you for this info and analysis of the Frazetta painting. A really powerful piece indeed, I never thought the shadow right there could be so important, and I always felt that Frank was just following the story, but I see there's more than I had even seem myself. And I understand how these elements may relate to my illustrations. I was conscious of the general setup, a pleasing overall design, but I see how little things need not always be painted "realistically", if the design plan it to work.

    I've seen Justin Sweet's work, I like it, tho to tell you the truth, I don't understand much of it since I have found little, the illustrations are scarce and it all seems complex. Study awaits.

    Thanks again, can't wait for your next article.

  5. I absolutely love your tutorial, i think i am getting the idea slowly with your examples from your tuts and previous comment.

    Is it okay to ask, if you can analyze a artwork from a artist i look up to, like with how you did the Frazetta piece?

    I am always amazed by how she uses color and sets up her values(B&W) with it.