Section 25. An Approach to the Use of Color

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Section 25. An Approach to the Use of Color


Half Hour Ex. 58: Gesture on Colored Paper (5 drawings) Ex. 53: Half-Hour Study in Oil (one) Ex. 58: Gesture on Colored Paper (5 drawings) Ex. 53: Half-Hour Study in Oil (one) Ex. 58: Gesture on Colored Paper (5 drawings)
One Hour Ex. 51 and 61: The Sustained Study in Oil Color, Nude (one study composed of three drawings) Ex. 33 and 50: Study of the Bones and Muscles (two drawings)
Quarter Hour Rest Rest Rest Rest Rest
Quarter Hour Ex. 59: Straight and Curve in Color (3 drawings) Ex. 58: Gesture on Colored Paper (3 drawings) Ex. 59: Straight and Curve in Color (3 drawings) Ex. 58: Gesture on Colored Paper (3 drawings)
Ex. 56: Straight and Curve in Frames (one drawing)One Hour Ex. 57 and 60: The Subjective Study (pne) Ex. 51 and 61: The Sustained Study in Oil Color, Clothed (one drawing) Ex. 19 and 51: The Head in Oil (one drawing)


Ex. 14 or 30: The Daily Composition.

Ex. 34: The Long Composition (fifteen minutes a day for one week).

Ex. 47: Composition from Reproductions (one hour a week).

Remember the Daily Composition (Ex. 14 or 30) every day.


Drawing and Painting

This is the point at which, if you came to my class, you would go on to the study of painting. It is not the purpose of this book to go into that subject, but naturally these exercises have not been planned with the idea that you would stop when you finished them. You will go ahead. And I believe you will find that experimentation and observation, based on the approach you have already learned, will carry you forward into painting in a natural way even if you are working without other instruction. The use of black and white crayon on colored paper has already introduced you to the use of color although you thought of that medium only as a means of drawing. And perhaps the most important point I can make is that you are not to think of painting as something separate from drawing. Just as you used three different mediums to accomplish the same purpose in the modelled drawing — crayon, ink, and water color — so you can achieve that same purpose, or assist in achieving it, by the use of color. My advice is that you continue these exercises for a while, gradually adding more color as you work.

Review in your mind the one objective of each study and seek for a means by which color can contribute to a more complete realization of that objective. This section contains some exercises which may help you to do that. The following is a list of oil colors which I suggest that you experiment with during the next few months:

  1. Ivory black
  2. Raw umber
  3. Burnt sienna
  4. Alizarin crimson
  5. Light red
  6. Cadmium red
  7. Yellow ochre
  8. Cadmium yellow pale
  9. Titanium or Zinc white
  10. Viridian green
  11. Permanent blue

This list is given only as a practical starting point. These are not necessarily the colors I use myself or the ones you will use ultimately. The ones you use will be chosen by you on the basis of experimentation, not by me. You will probably need also a larger bristle brush, a small flat sable brush, and a No. 3 water-color brush. You need not add all these colors at once. Add only one or two at a time and find out all that you can about each — what you can do with it — before you try another. As in previous exercises, study by concentrating on a specific problem.

Color and Movement

Whenever you are uncertain as to how to begin a study, think of the movement, sense the movement. Learn to identify yourself with the movement of the thing, the model, the event. Just as a line, a shape, a fold of drapery, responds to movement, so color responds to movement. Think of color as spreading out, pushing in, jumping, advancing or retreating. What you see has been designed by movement. The gesture of the thing is the surest and strongest impulse, and if you aren’t sensitive to it you can’t paint form with life.


In the one minute or five minutes allowed for gesture studies in oil, there is not time to think very much about the color you are using. Therefore, I suggest that you first introduce the element of color in this simple way. Color the brown paper by laying over it a coat of oil paint, using any color mixed with white. Prepare a number of sheets in this way, using as many colors as you have. (Cheap pastel paper of various colors, like that used for crayon studies, may also be used, though you should first shellac it to save time and paint. For this purpose use ordinary white shellac diluted with two parts of alcohol to one of shellac.) On this paper, make gesture studies in black and white oil. If you have time, add something of one other color, using the one which seems most needed to balance the color that is already on the paper. (These suggestions may be applied also to half-hour studies in oil.)


Make gesture drawings in straight and curved lines as in Exercise 46, using any two oil colors, as red and blue, on large sheets of brown paper. Do not worry too much about which color you are using, but feel your way through the gesture first with one and then the other almost haphazardly. Use one color for both the straight and curved lines until you are tired of it and then take up the other for a while. Soon, if you are thinking primarily of gesture, you will find that you select a color, just as you choose between the straight line and the curve, because it best describes the movement you see.


Most students find that the subjective study (Exercise 57) becomes much easier when it is practiced in color. Introduce into it immediately as much color as you like, used in any way you like. Put down any color that comes to mind regardless of whether you see it or not. In fact, in the beginning you should force yourself a little to use colors that you do not actually see. Your choice will be determined by the way you feel about the subject. A pleasant experience would not be recorded in the same colors as an unpleasant one.

Collection Edward Fuchs, Berlin
Mother with Child on her Arm by Daumier


Marshall Field Collection
Fields at Auvers by Van Gogh
Whenever you are uncertain as to how to begin a study think of the movement


There is a universal tendency to associate certain colors with certain emotions or certain things. For example, we often speak of seeing red, feeling blue, or being yellow. We sometimes think of people as being very vivid whereas, if you analyze their actual physical characteristics, they are quite colorless. Start, not with a color you see, but with the color that the model or something else connected with the subject happens to make you think of.

The use of color is necessarily a personal thing. Schools based on the systems of certain painters, no matter how good those painters are, lose the personal experience, the individual evaluation of color, which is necessary to make the effort succeed.


Continue making sustained studies in only two colors, but try substituting for black and white the following combinations in turn (and then others that you think of):

(1) raw umber and white
(2) light red and white with the addition of a little black for the darkest parts
(3) a neutral green (formed by mixing black and cadmium yellow on the palette) and white

Almost from the beginning you have been conscious of the back of the subject even when the front alone is presented — of the need for complete solidity. A master becomes able to achieve this effect with an economy of means — by the quality of a line or by the use of color alone — but beginners must struggle with the task. This solid result may be achieved most completely by violent contrasts of black and white. Naturally, if you are using one color to pull the form toward you and another to push it away, the two colors which are most opposed (black and white) will produce the maximum difference in the form. We have previously utilized this maximum difference in the sustained study. Actually, the figure doesn’t appear to range all the way from black to white, especially when it is only a part of a large composition, and a large quantity of black pigment doesn’t serve as a very satisfactory basis for additional color. Therefore, we are substituting other colors for the black, but this can be done without any sacrifice of the form provided your comprehension of the form is absolutely clear.

Draw for fifteen hours as directed in Schedule 25.

Repeat Schedule 25, gradually adding and developing the following exercises.



There is no necessity for feeling at any time that the use of color is confusing or complicated. Actually, the effect of color may be achieved by the simplest methods and with the use of very little pigment. The following directions will demonstrate that and serve as a simple step forward. Return to one of your sustained studies in oil color which was drawn from the clothed model. Over the flesh put a mixture of light red and yellow ochre. Over the dress, if it was blue, put a simple solid blue. Apply the color so thinly that the drawing remains perfectly clear underneath. The color may be kept thin either by rubbing it into the drawing with your brush or finger or by mixing a medium with it. Try both methods. As a medium I suggest either of the following:

(1) One part Venice turpentine and one part turpentine
(2) One part sun-thickened or stand oil and three parts dammar varnish. The dammar should be a twenty-five percent solution.

Already your drawing approximates the colors that existed. Then look again at the model, or at other models, and note what seems to you to be lacking in the drawing. Perhaps the dress now seems flat or vague, so you return to white and build up the lightest parts again. If it seems too blue, you can counteract that by adding another color over it after it is dry. In this manner, keep going as long as you want to. Don’t feel that you have to reproduce exactly any color that you see. In general, keep the largest areas simple, almost a monotone in color, and then here and there — ultimately in the right place — add color or contrast or emphasis in small bits. As you learned to draw by drawing, and could learn in no other way, you will learn to paint by painting. It doesn’t matter very much what you do so long as you keep trying different things until some begin to work.

Cool and Warm

When you are using color, the contrast between light and dark is not the only contrast you can make use of. There is also the contrast between cold color and warm color. Demonstrate to yourself the importance of this contrast by making a sustained study in which you use only two tones of gray, a cool gray and a warm gray. The warm gray may be made by mixing on your palette white, black, and a little red, and the cool gray by mixing white, black, and green. Even though the two grays are close together in value (that is, neither one is much lighter or darker than the other) the contrast between cool and warm, like the contrast between black and white, will enable you to present the form as a solid thing. This contrast may be utilized as you continue the sustained study according to Exercise 62. When you first tried that exercise, you used one simple flesh color. The color contributed nothing to the sensation of the form. The form was there only because it showed through from your drawing.

Try using on a nude study two tones of flesh color, one warm (somewhat pink) ard the other cool (somewhat green). The contrast between the two adds to the sensation of form so that it appears even more solid than in your drawing. (Look at the actual figure as a guide to the parts which appear cool as contrasted with warm. In general, wherever the form turns it tends to take on a cooler color.) Think of color first as an aid to drawing. Just as we said that a line has no character (long or short, thick or thin) until we compare it with other lines, so a color has no character apart from other colors. Green is not green merely because it is green, but also because other things are orange or red. You must have noticed how some people’s eyes change color with the clothes they wear. Suppose you have a black and white oil study of a tree which you wish to take into color. First try painting it red and letting it dry. Then put green over the red. Notice how this differs from a green that was applied directly over black and white.


The time will come when you wish to achieve a maximum experience with the use of color — that is, you wish to concentrate on color just as we have concentrated on other phases of drawing. Then I suggest that you make half-hour or longer studies, using all your colors on paper of various shades. Paint directly — that is, start with color instead of with a monotone drawing as in the sustained study (Exercise 62). Use the color lavishly and freely from the outset without prearranged plan or system. If the rest of your student work has been done well, color, no matter how you use it, will contribute to and be determined by your understanding of the thing you are painting.


As you paint, you acquire facility, and when you look repeatedly at the colors of the model you develop an efficient way of representing them which slips easily into mere habit. This exercise has been devised to combat that tendency. It is particularly useful in painting the landscape where the predominance of green sometimes makes the student lose his sensitive, searching approach to color. Suppose that you are painting a landscape. Select some part of it with which to begin — for example, a meadow. Instead of painting the meadow green, as it is, arbitrarily choose for it another color, any other color — let us say, purple. Having painted the purple meadow, go on with the rest of the landscape in whatever colors seem suitable, avoiding only the colors that you actually see (except perhaps in a few minor instances). Do not try to work out a system. For example, if the meadow is yellow green and the trees are dark green, don’t think you have to make the trees a darker purple. You can make them red or yellow. If you paint a smooth stretch of green, it obviously looks like the green grass in a meadow. But when that meadow becomes purple, it requires a new effort to convince the beholder that the grass really is grass. You are brought back to a new realization of that which makes a thing what it is and of that which is necessary in order really to represent it.

Let’s repeat 

Let’s repeat what I said the very first time you sat down to draw. That is — drawing depends on seeing. Seeing depends on knowing. Knowing comes from a constant effort to encompass reality with all of your senses, all that is you. You are never to be concerned with appearances to an extent which prevents reality of content. It is necessary to rid yourself of the tyranny of the object as it appears. The quality of absoluteness, the note of authority, that the artist seeks depends upon a more complete understanding than the eyes alone can give. To what the eye can see the artist adds feeling and thought. He can, if he wishes, relate for us the adventures of his soul in the midst of life. If your student efforts are based upon a sincere attempt to experience nature, you will know that you are on the right track and picture making will take care of itself. The job is to get at the truth — the truth as you will be able to understand it first hand, arrived at by the use of all your senses. When you are really enthralled, really stimulated, by a force other than the visual, strange looking things are apt to occur, but you will not judge your work by formula or conventional standards. You may feel that there is no real necessity for remaining visually truthful or even structurally truthful in relation to the moment. There is always a bigger truth undiscovered — unsaid — uncharted until you meet it.