How do I choose the colors I use?

Many collectors often ask me how do I pick the colors I use? And why this one or that one? In some of my painting videos you will often see me making a mark on a piece of paper off to the right of my canvas. Occasionally if I'm working on a canvas that's larger than the final image, I may use the side of that surface to give me greater accuracy.

So what is this paper and why is it so important?

It's a value scale. By value, I mean the relative lightness or darkness of a given color to an "absolute" scale (such as what you see above). The challenge for pastelists is relating pastel colors to each other so that you can discern different objects and where in "space" they are, correctly.

While a pastel's color may map to a specific point in the absolute value scale, once that color is applied to the canvas, the next color that is painted next to it must be the appropriate value for it to read "true" to the viewer's eye. This is important because it helps the viewer understand how near or far one object is to another by the relative lightness or darkness. (Look at black and white photos and you'll see what I mean.) A color's relative temperature is also crucial to discerning relative distance (cool colors appear farther away and warm colors appear nearer). 

Sedona Glow, value testing swatches

Now let me rock your world. The same color can be appear warm next to one color, but appear cooler next to another. (Stick with me, I get that this is crazy-making.) This is known as "simultaneous contrast." It can even appear lighter next to one color and darker next to the same color when placed on a different surface. (And you wondered why artists are slightly nuts?)

Sedona Glow, 9" x 18", juried into the Red Rock Pastel Society 2022 Members Show

That value scale helps me to determine a pastel's absolute value and when I mark a pastel and other pastels next to it, I am able to gauge their relative values so that I can paint a true atmospheric perspective of a scene. Without understanding these basic principles, my paintings would appear flat. You wouldn't be able to tell how far away that cliff was from the beach in the foreground. Or the shape of one tree from another. Or whether there was a crevice in a mountain. In short, you probably wouldn't enjoy looking at it.

And while this tool and these principles guide me in doing that, the choice of colors (aka my "color palette") comes from my own personal preference and visual bias. Thanks to genetics, and gazillions of hours of practice, I can discern a wide array of colors that most people would just see as one big blob of a color. I will see 20 or 30 different colors because I observe varying tones (neutral gray added to the base hue), tints (white added to the base hue), shades (black added to the base hue), and temperatures (warmth or coolness) in the scene. For instance, where you might see a shadow as "black," I might see deep purples, dark blues and teals, forest and olive greens, Indian reds, red violets, even deep bronzes.

Before I begin a painting, I decide how warm or cool I want it to be. And because I'm a colorist, I don't just stick to what we call "local color" (matching the actual colors to what is there). I prefer to "push" the local colors — meaning I will exaggerate their intensity (saturation). Sometimes, I will take a relatively cool scene and push it warm (or vice versa). I do all of this to create the feeling I have for the scene in the hope that you will feel it too. And the reason why I can do all of this are the lessons all artists have learned from the Impressionists.

My original photo reference for Sedona Glow that I took in Oct. 2017

Interpreting the Light

The Impressionists were masters of interpreting how the light affected objects and their placement and translating that from a 3D world onto a flat canvas. They used multiple colors to create specific effects. Rather than just paint the sea a flat blue, they used blues, greens, teals, whites, violets, pinks, yellows, oranges to create the light's vibration. They preferred vibrant colors rather than muted ones. 

They used paint thickly, creating textures on their canvases with brushes, palette knives (really anything that would let them apply paint) to create movement, depth, and energy. 

Their approach was revolutionary and considered heretical — because the "approved" norm back then was muted colors and smooth canvases with no visible brush strokes.

That's why the French Impressionists' paintings took the world by storm in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They captured the way light shimmered, sparkled, glowed, and vibrated across varying degrees of distance. They perfected the principles of "atmospheric perspective."  Their triumph of discovery and application is why we revere their works so much.

Remember that at that time, photographs were expensive and not common. Photos weren't used as references for producing art. Either an artist painted who or what was in their studio, or they had to use their imagination. This limited an artist's ability to learn how to create the sense of perspective in real life (other than portraits) because in a studio, they only had so much room with which to work.

The Impressionists were so passionate about capturing light and perspective that they began painting "en plein air" (in the open air). They were mesmerized by light's effects on the land, sea, buildings, flora, and fauna. They discovered the color nuances in shadows — shadows weren't black, but many shades of different colors depending on the time of day, the surface the shadow appeared upon, and the light reflected on the object. 

Monet, Renoir, Bazille, Sisley, Pissarro, the Barbizon School, and the Hudson River School embraced painting en plein air. Because the light constantly changes throughout the day (and night), they saw capturing it as a challenge and their life's work. Unlike painting in a studio where lighting could be controlled, and perspective was extremely limited, painting en plein air forced them to paint quickly. They had to learn how not to "chase the light," and instead capture what they saw spontaneously. Look at Monet's Haystacks and Rouen Cathedral series — the same scenes done at different times of the day — to see what I mean. 

This resulted in them using short brush strokes, lots of colors, and painting fast — often finishing a painting in one day (we call this "alla prima") because the light would be different on the next day. Their spontaneous, fresh, heuristic approach to what they were seeing and experiencing revolutionized the art world and in more ways than one. They worked on small canvases and boards. They painted multiple canvases in a day, moving on to a new one when the light changed so much that they could no longer work on the current one. Carrying large canvases was not practical. And their preference to paint outdoors forced the industry to innovate by inventing the paint tube and the French easel (portable) to hold all of their supplies and brushes. 

Pastels also began to become more popular during this time. Used during the Renaissance mostly for portraiture, pastels became a primary medium for many impressionists such as Degas. Embraced as well by Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, and others, soft pastels gave these progenitors much greater flexibility because pastel sticks simpler to use outdoors when compared to oil. Instead of carrying small leather bags of oil paint (or the new tubes), solvents in jugs, a wooden palette, brushes, and rags plus their easel and canvases, all they needed was paper, backing board, pastels, and an easel. (Still true today!)

Today, soft pastels are considered to be the most long-lasting, poetic, and luminous of all mediums. It remains my most favorite of them all. Learn more about soft pastels.