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Color secrets of the pros

Color Secrets In Abstract Painting


An artist asked me recently about color secrets in abstract painting and how I think about and work with color.

Color is an enormous topic and one you can spend a lifetime exploring and never reach the end of it!

In the beginning of my painting journey, I couldn’t wait to get into my studio and use bright, vibrant colors. I used mostly chromatic hues, lots of paint and very little grayed colors. I was known as a colorist in my oil landscapes and mixed media figurative abstractions. I reveled in jumping from color to color and surprising myself with the color combinations I came up with.

One day this changed.

I saw the work of my dear friend and New Orleans artist Duane Couch and was smitten by her use of neutrals and scratchy mark making. I loved her minimalist aesthetic and her combinations of bronze yellow, aureolin, parchment, and various green golds and yellow greens.

Inspired by Duane’s neutral palette, I began working in a series, exploring a more grayed palette and less paint.

Rather than going into the studio and using almost every color I had on one painting, I began to simplify my palette.

The power of simplicity and constraint

There’s been a great deal of research in creativity on the value of constraint in opening up creative channels. If you’ve ever done improvisational theatre you know about constraints in the form of prompts.

Or, if someone asks you to tell a joke you may go blank whereas if they say: “tell me a knock knock joke” it’s easier to come up with one. The “knock knock” joke is a prompt or a form of constraint.

Another example of simplicity and constraint (and working in a series for that matter) is Picasso’s The Bull. These are eleven lithographs that are a masterclass in developing a series and distilling down a concept to its essence.

Picasso worked with the idea of a bull (this is a constraint) and took it from representational rendering to further bulking him up only to increasingly break him down to finally his simplest form in a line drawing. This work (as well as Matisse’s) is studied extensively by Apple’s super secretive design group and for good reasons.

Years ago I read a little book that made a big difference: Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts. One concept from the book is about how in one’s creative life there’s no absolute breakthrough experience but rather a series of ongoing, open-ended breakthroughs.

Essentially, there’s no end to our journey of creating. One of my favorite chapters in the book is called The Power of Limits. Another favorite is The Power of Mistakes (but that’s for another discussion). 

Back to the question of how I think about and work with color.

My artist friend asked me to give her some guidelines for working with color.

Tips For Creating Visual Contrast With Color

A) Work with simplicity and constraint. Explore a limited palette and limited values. Pick a few colors to work with (for instance, choose 2 secondary colors and the lovely color that happens when you mix the two. For example orange and violet are secondary colors that when combined make a gorgeous color: russet).

B) Excite the eye with visual contrast. Using your limited palette, you can increasingly create contrast with: warm vs. cool, dark vs. light, chromatic vs. grayed, textured vs. non-textured, transparent vs. opaque, large areas of color vs. small areas of color, and complementary colors. Here’s an example: Imagine I work with a limited palette of ultramarine blue and cadmium orange. Here’s how I can create exciting visual contrast:

  1. First, they’re complementary colors so they’re opposites and contrasting on the color wheel
  2. Dark vs. light value: I could add white to the orange, making it a light, pale orange which would contrast with the relatively dark ultramarine blue
  3. Warm vs. cool color temperature (orange vs. blue)
  4. Transparent vs. opaque (ultramarine blue is transparent relative to cadmium orange which is opaque)
  5. Chromatic vs. grayed: the light, pale orange is now grayed and even more opaque than it was before and this contrasts with the now relatively chromatic and transparent ultramarine blue
  6. Textured vs. non-textured: for further contrast you could make one color textured by agitating the surface, contrasting with the other color which is non-textured.
  7. Predominant vs. subordinate: I could make one of the colors predominant in the painting relative to the other subordinate one.

Increase Visual Contrast For Maximum Impact

Here’s the secret: the more color contrast you employ, the more visual excitement you’ll create with color. You don’t have to use every one of these ideas mentioned above, but it’s an interesting exercise to experiment with dialing up color contrast in your paintings.

I hope these tips are helpful to you in your studio. Don’t miss out on my FREE Workbook: Color Secrets Of The Pros.

Much love from my studio to yours-


P.S. Want to dive deeper into color? Check out my Experimenting With Color course HERE.


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