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16 Lessons in Color Theory

Lesson #14

I know that these lessons are coming pretty fast. I hope to finish this series by the end of March and we still have a good deal to talk about. You can simply print off the material and refer to it and DO THE EXERCISES as you can. I hate rushing it like this but there are many people who are looking forward to other series' and I try to accommodate as many folks as possible. Bear with me, friends.....


It's practically impossible to think of an artist who'd never be faced with the task or necessity of painting by artificial light. If you paint by artificial light, you must know what effect such light has on everything it hits. Even if you have no intention of creating a painting in which candlelight, a campfire, or neon signs play a big role, you ought to know how to handle your work by any kind of light. you may want to have light effects of your own. Rembrandt had them. He painted strange, perhaps super-earthy lights, that touched or illuminated a face here, a hand there, giving the picture an aura of mystery.


Artificial light is any man-made light: flaming wood, oil lamp, candle, gas, acetylene, electricity, fluorescent and mercury lamps. Some kind of artificial light seems to have existed in all corners of the earth, since the most ancient times. By multiplying even the simplest type of light, the candle, man was able to produce quite satisfactory illumination so that he was not forced to go to sleep as soon as the sun had gone down.

No matter how brilliant artificial light may be, it has serious limitations as compared with the sun. First of all, it is effective for short distances only and fades out gradually as you go farther and farther away from it. You can read by artificial light as long as you are near enough to the lamp. Its second limitation is that different kinds of light have different colors, ranging from a bluish, harsh white to a reddish ocher. Objects look different in every kind of light, an no artificial light is exactly like the light of the sun.

A third limitation, in art at least, is that artificial light casts stronger shadows than sunlight does, except for fluorescent lights which diffuse shadows to the point where shadows practically disappear, thus causing objects to seem rather flat. Finally, artificial light casts shadows in every direction, all around the source of light. A lamp hanging from the ceiling hits every object in the room at a different angle.


On the other hand, artificial light has some good features, too. One is that it remains in one-and-the-same place, unless you deliberately move it. Lights and shadows created by such a light will also remain the same, whereas lights and shadows created by sunlight change with the position of the sun. Even though different types of lamps have different colors, the color of a specific type of lamp is known in advance and remains unchanged. It isn't affected by weather, the time of day, the seasons. You can always count on the exact hue of any artificial light.

Gaslight is yellowish, almost like the moon; mercury lights are greenish, unflattering to most humans, but entrancing for scenery; candlelight has its eternal fascination. Fire has a fantastic, often terrifying effect on whatever it illuminates; its color depends upon the material which is burning. How do we paint such lights?


Many artists are forced to paint by artificial light, because they have no time during the day. Few art schools have skylight studios and they cannot depend upon the constantly changing natural light. Artificial light is reliable; you can turn it on or off anytime. One thing to remember, though, is that a painting must be finished by the same light in which it was started.

It's literally impossible to match colors by another light. Begin a painting by sunlight, continue it by fluorescent light, then by daylight bulb, and look at it again by sunlight; you'll find a mess of incredible patches! Hues you thought were exactly right when you applied them by one form of artificial light, prove to be darker (or lighter) than you had planned. They're also completely different colors and values. What you thought was the right shade of pale blue turns out to be a greenish gray, at least a couple of shades darker.


Light is recognized by its effect. Turn your flashlight on in a dark hallway; its lens is a brilliant spot, of course, but painting such a spot will never look like a flashlight. In order to create the ILLUSION of a flashlight, you have to paint the floor, steps, door, and whatever else in the hallway is hit by the beam of the flashlight. You must not paint the light, but the EFFECTS of the light.

Every major source of light is so well known that we recognize it by its effect. Pretend you were whisked away to another part of the world, blindfolded, with no idea where you were being taken, or what time of day. Pretend that you find yourself in a strange room that has a window. When your blindfold is removed, you'd immediately know whether the room is lit by electricity, by the sun, or by a candle. You'd know, by looking at the window - without seeing the sky, the countryside, or street - whether it is a sunny day, a cloudy day, morning, afternoon, evening, or night. You recognize the source of light by the color, intensity, the contrasts between lights and shadows caused by the light.

If you want to render any of these lights, paint objects exactly as they look in that particular light. Paint all values and colors correctly, and anyone should be able to tell what kind of light is depicted in your painting.


Street lamps and brightly illuminated store widows cast stronger shadows than sunlight, because artificial lights are much closer to the objects casting the shadows and because, with the exception of fluorescent lamps, artificial lights don't diffuse as softly as sunlight. Also, there are as many shadows as there are sources of light. A window-shopper is hit by the light of the window, the street lamp on the corner, headlights of passing cars, flashing electric signs. Lights and shadows cross each other and interfere with each other's effects.

The light of different lamps are also different. One side of your face may be orange-red, because there's a big red neon sign on that side; you look as green as a leprechaun on the other side, because you're hit by a brilliant green bulb.

Naturally, you cannot paint a picture in which lights go on and off, unless you construct a kind of pop-and-op art, with real electric bulbs. You can, however, depict the variety of hues, reflections, and brilliance of lights. You can also suggest their motion by applying spots of bright colors in a soft, undefined manner. Impasto is most helpful for this subject. Build the various colors up in small spots, and leave the paint quite rough. This rough surface will catch the outside light and thus create a really sparkling effect.


Spend a little time observing electric lights, mercury lamps, signs of all sorts. Look at them with both eyes open, then squint-eyed, and with one eye closed. you'll notice that none of the lights is just a dab of paint of a definite hue. Rather, each light has a multiplicity of colors, almost like a diamond which breaks the light into all the hues of the rainbow.

You'll further notice that colors round the lights also change. Something like a halo forms around certain lights, often with bright rays shooting out in all directions, like a big star, crossing the rings of rainbow hues. Remember that children always draw or paint the sun as a yellow disc, with yellow rays all round. Children don't see the discs or rings around the light. Yet there they are, those lavender or purple discs, softly blending into green, or blue-green hues outside the halo. Observe and jot down the names of the colors on a simple pencil sketch and try to paint the effect by broad daylight.

Let me admit at once that this isn't easy. You'll have to try and try again, with darker, and lighter tones, softer, and bolder contrasts, until you achieve the appearance of glowing lights. The next problem is to render people, cars, walls, and windows by these lights. Basic colors remain recognizable by artificial light, but the differences are great.


Take construction paper, cardboard, fabrics of all sorts in different colors and shades. Cut them into the same size, about 5" square. Mark the names of the hues and shades on the back of each piece; or number them and keep a list of what each number signifies.

Look at each piece by candle flame, by a small, yellowish electric bulb, by a white bulb, by white fluorescent light, by the light of a blue bulb, a red bulb, an orange-colored bulb, a green bulb. Almost any household can easily provide these different lights, or at least some of them. You can buy colored bulbs and insert them in the same socket, one after the other.

Try to determine each color, each shade by each of these lights. You'll be able to tell, in most instances, whether a color is red, blue, green, or yellow, but you won't ever guess the actual shade of each!

*NOTE; I have had students who read my instructions about these exercises, then come to class without having ever actually done them. The usual response is; "I didn't need to do them because I understood exactly what you meant." But this is wrath-risking. I cannot explain to you about these things, for you MUST experience them. Otherwise I will know something that you do not know and that runs counter to the task of a teacher.


Indoors, the problem is similar but more comfortable. It's easier to observe objects indoors than outdoors, where things move and you make yourself conspicuous, even suspicious, by sketching, taking notes, acting like a spy. In your own home you can light a candle and watch its flame. The flame of a candle is not a plain yellow tongue connected to the candle by a wick. The flame usually has a blue-violet core, almost elliptical, surrounded by lighter and darker shades of yellow, turning into the lightest possible green round the edges. There's a bluish crimson disc all round, broken by close knit lines of yellow or yellowish-green. A few longer lines radiate from the center of the flame in all directions.

The small candle flame illuminates nearby articles, throwing on all of them a yellowish tone, brighter near the flame, fading into darkness gradually. It may be reflected in a glass-covered picture, or in a mirror on the wall. The dark mass of a piece of furniture may be discernible against the somewhat lighter wall. Everything in the background is dark, yet never jet black. Nor is anything pure white or yellow. The brightest spot can only be the flame itself. Use that as your standard; compare all other colors and values with the flame.

In rendering such a scene, your best bet is to paint only the major forms, omitting details. Don't paint what you KNOW is there; stick to what you actually SEE. There's a bid difference between the two ways of painting. You KNOW, for instance, that the cabinet in the background has doors, doorknobs, and certain decorations, so you want to paint them. The fact, however, is that you do not, you cannot possibly see those details in the darkness. For those of you who followed through the basic drawing series, you will recall that we said that we KNOW too much about things. It is the same in painting; all the information is right there, before your eyes. Paint what you see, not what you KNOW.

Candle light cannot give sharp edges, ever, because it flickers incessantly. This softens all outlines, all shapes. You can achieve the effect by going over your painting with very transparent glazes of yellow ocher, making the glaze somewhat brighter near the candle. If your painting is based on actual, careful observation, and if it is rendered with skill, it will look like a picture of a candle-lit room.


Don't for a moment think that dropping a bright spot on a dark background gives the effect of glowing light. It will only be a bright spot on a dark ground, like an accidental splattering of a piece of paper.

Generally, a cool light looks brighter on a warm background, a warm light is more brilliant on a cool background. Thus, a blue neon sign is literally bluer and brighter on a dark red-violet than it is on a dark ultramarine blue; orange has more intensity on deep blue, or on blue-green than it has on a bright red ground. You can make any spot appear like an electric light by outlining it with a pale blue, a pale green, a pale pink, or a pale orange, depending upon the color of the spot and the color of the background. Experiment with various combinations.

As I have mentioned before, impasto can be most helpful in this subject. A thick, roughly applied dab of paint, especially when varnished, catches the outside light. Fireworks and fiesta scenes are greatly enhanced by impasto.

In watercolor, you have to paint the brightest spot first, with the cleanest paint, brush, and water. Add the rings or halos of the required hues, blending them before the aquarelle dries. Then paint the darks around the brilliant spots.

It's important to watch the highlights on any color. Don't just paint a drop of white in the center of any object. The highlight may be off-center, depending upon the shape of the article and the position of the light source. As for the color, the highlight may be white on yellow, pale green on orange, the palest blue on red; a very light green on a blue surface.


There's no light without shadow, but we usually think of shadows as something unavoidable, rather than pleasant. Yet, shadows can be as beautiful, as monumental, as exciting as lights are. They can also be more mysterious. When there are several sources of light - as in a street scene at night - each light effects everything differently, and every item has as many shadows as the number of lights hitting it. The shadow is darkest where several shadows overlap each other, often forming interesting geometric patterns.

Observing shadows in diverse lights is important not only in realistic painting. It's perhaps even more intriguing to see what shadows can do for you in the realm of mystery and imagination. Danger lurks in the dark! Huge shadows are frightening or ominous to adults and children.

The artist has to have a storehouse of effects, a kind of art vocabulary, for use in any possible subject matter. Art has always been associated with magic: beliefs, superstitions, spooks, ghosts, mental, spiritual, or spiritistic adventure, the eternal magic of romance and make-believe. Art can also be an excellent story-teller, even if few artists practice that kind of art in our times, except, of course, in book illustrations. But that's a great branch of art, too.


For mysterious shadow's, it's often necessary to place the source of light in an unusual position. In Rembrandt's most entrancing works, we often encounter such lights, coming from an unseen part of the picture, or from outside the frame, perhaps from another world. These lights softly illuminate unexpected features and introduce transparent, but deep shadows, in which we can sometimes discern forms of humans or objects.

A light on the floor creates a threatening shadow, because any article so illuminated has very tall shadows, especially when it is on, or close to, a wall. Put two lights on the floor, one a little to the right, the other to the left. A short person, or even a little doll, or any innocent article near these lights will appear to have two huge wings on the wall behind. Small lights coming from directly above may create a feeling of a face, or the upper part of a figure, floating in midair, because the lower parts are in shadow.

The colors of shadows and lights may be realistic or imaginary, but they must never look as if they have been cut out of paper and pasted on the support. Beware of painting even the deepest shadow pitch black. Employ other colors: ultramarine blue with alizarin crimson gives you a dark, yet translucent color. Such a mixture has more depth than a spot painted pure black. The difference is similar to having two black things next to each other: a sheet of black cloth hanging from the wall, and an opening in the wall (of exactly the same size of the black cloth) leading to a completely dark room or cavern. Even from a distance, you'll notice that one darkness is flat, whereas the other darkness has depth. Try to remember this when you want to convey depth in your painting.

That's all for today. Next we will contemplate the optical effects in color and design.