What is that color?

Currently I’m watching the water move up and down in tiny rippled waves at my daughter’s swim lesson. The greens and blues with light yellows all twirl around in a dance. The greens look slightly murky while the light that reflects the sky coming through the tinted windows are a bright under saturated orange. Add to this the white lights from above and you have the brightest highlight. It seems simple enough to describe in words but if I sit down and try to mix the colors to create a piece of artwork I would stop at the murky greens. What is that color?

This is the question that I hear in my head the most when I paint, whether I paint a person, a tree, or a still life. Most likely it involves some sort of gray that isn’t the stereotypical black + white gray that we normally think of. Nothing throws me off more than when I stare blankly at my subject and mishmash of color stares back at me daring me to mess up my beautifully composed canvas with a grayish mush that is the wrong color, temperature, and or value. How is it that color that is so highly unnoticeable be so incredibly important? Make no mistake, grays and muddy colors play a vital role in the color composition of a piece of artwork. True colors appear brightest when they are next to these supportive grays. The illusion of light appears flat without the dull grays in the shadow area. 

So what is that color? How is it that we determine the precise color of gray we want? To start off I am not a firm believer of precision or perfection so my process does not involve high tech analysis that will compute the right amount of color of each to create that gray. Once I remove the expectation of perfection I move on to ask myself a series of questions. First I ask what is the general color of that gray? Next I ask myself what is the temperature of that gray? If is it warm than we know warmer colors are involved. If the color is cool I know blues and purples are involved. Lastly I ask how dark is it? How light is it? 

I don’t generally have recipes for grays. With each subject that is presented to me a different combination of colors are called for. I do have favorite colors I use when I begin to paint. I try to match it with what is in front of me. Into that mixture I make grays that are related to the general color that I’m using. For instance, when I mix skin tones I divide the mixtures into two. One for the light side and another for the shadow. From there I mix my grays using those two piles of paint. After asking the series of questions I can usually find the grays by adding little amounts of paint. Once I’m convinced of the accuracy, I can make a separate pile of paint for that gray. It is not unusual for me to have several piles of paint with different grays next to each other.

Often times, there is such subtlies in between the grays and when that happens I rely solely on the temperature of that gray color. This is especially true in skin tone where the combination of the temperature of the light and the pigmentation of the skin collide into a mash of sorts. An eye can get lost easily in the differences. Asking questions and experimenting may be frustrating at first but eventually a painter becomes familiar with the color combinations and can use them to play with the contrast of grays against color. 

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