The You Can’t Get There From Here School of Color Mixing

Get Lost? Not if a Portrait Artist Knows His Latitude, Longitude and Altitude.

Maybe it’s because I started out as an illustrator, but I think of myself primarily as a problem solver. A problem solving portrait artist! That’s why I love painting portraits so much. To me a portrait painting is a giant conundrum waiting to be unraveled. My approach to coming up with the best answer is hierarchical, going from large to small. I face the biggest issues first, and from there I keep navigating my way down to and through the minutia. The most prevalent question–what color do I want and how do I go about mixing it?–is the problem we painters ask ourselves most often. We precede every stroke with a touch–or many, many, touches–of the brush to the palette.

I don’t really like to use color theory with regards to overall color composition. It can easily become predictable, were every painting looks the same. Boring! I like to play around and find a harmony that sings to me. There are intrinsic limitations with every problem. The best solutions are the ones which turn those into strong points. In a portrait we always start with our sitter, and work backwards from there. I like flattering my subjects while staying honest to their character. I don’t think it’s a matter of one versus the other. I choose clothing and background elements that I feel work the best. When a client wants a particular item of clothing or a specific background included, I need to find the best way to create unity. With regards to solving problems, its necessary to realize that one exists. The more specifically I can clarify it, the greater my chances of succeeding.

Once I’ve worked it all out I can go ahead and paint. Since I have taken great care with my compositional decisions, I feel that being faithful to the colors I’ve chosen makes the most sense. In the detail above, from my portrait of the Hart-Cohen Family, you can see that the seemingly daunting task of painting her hoodie could have been a real deal breaker. However, when mixing a color, the more specificity I can describe it, the better my chances of nailing it. I know a lot of people use warm/cool terminology to specify their intended mixtures, but if you read my post on that subject, you know I feel it’s not specific enough to go on. The reason is, if warm and cool are terms both used to describe shifts in hue as well as intensity–two totally different characteristics of color–confusion can easily result. Furthermore, depending on what you add to cool or warm a color you will invariably make it lighter or darker in the process. It’s the color mixing equal of you can’t get there from here. Most people learn about color in two dimensions: value and temperature. If we break down color into three dimensions: hue, value and chroma, you’ll always know where you are and how to get there from here. Using a GPS tracking device won’t tell you which floor your stolen computer is on. You need to know latitude, longitude and altitude. Being able to specifically describe the hue, value and chroma gave me the kind of control I needed to turn a potential disaster into a big win.

I was very lucky, when I started painting, to discover the theories of Albert Munsell. Munsell developed a system of color identification based on describing hue, value and chroma.

Until next time…