Colour Perception

Should I spend a fortune on very accurate computer monitors? Should I buy very expensive paints?

We can see millions of colours. Graphic artists will be familiar with this but how is this number arrived at. With a monitor it’s easy, colours are generated with a very specific method, RGB (red green and blue pixels), that can produce millions of possible colours. Each pixel can be set to one of 256 possible values. So 256 x 256 x 256 is 16,777,216 possible values. So why is it that I sometimes have difficulty matching a colour to something I am seeing? Depending on the colour method being used, and how it’s defined, there may be millions or even billions of possible colours that can be generated. Our retinas are probably not capable of differentiating billions of colours but it might be necessary to produce more than millions of colours in order to replicate certain areas that our retinas can perceive very accurately. Greens for example.

Our retinas don’t differentiate colours in a linear fashion; in some areas of the spectrum our retinas may be very sensitive and in others not so much. So in some areas of the spectrum we can differentiate colours that would divide the spectrum into multiple millions of colours and in other areas thousands of colours might be close enough. For example we are very good at seeing greens. This is why fluorescent lights are designed to fluoresce more in the green parts of the spectrum (this might be a lucky coincidence). This allows a lower wattage bulb to appear brighter. Since we evolved in a forest it’s understandable that we can differentiate greens better. From an evolutionary perspective we might have evolved to better see the Lion in the grass.

Although interesting this doesn’t really help the artist (me). I try to fiddle with colour and use various pigments that I think are closest to the colour I want to achieve. I know that a human’s colour vision isn’t particularly accurate and I have a significant amount of trouble trying to match some colours accurately or acceptably. This might seem very disheartening to many who are trying to reproduce specific colours but I think it has a great deal to do with what I call the reality illusion so I embrace it. So long as the painting looks good I try not to be too concerned about why. I don’t recommend spending a fortune on a colour monitor. If you really like the colour of a paint then buy it and try it out.


Kindergarten Colour

For painting I use kindergarten colour. Blue plus yellow makes green and red plus yellow makes orange. I keep trying different paints and pigments. Some colours in the kindergarten system (that’s my name for it) aren’t very good. Purple for instance (blue plus red) is often very muddy and unsaturated. That’s because the pigments used for blue are so inefficient. For purple I usually resort to Dioxazine purple; a modern purple pigment that I like.

This is all about experimentation. Every experiment gives me a different nuance of colour and it takes time to find the right one. Green is my latest problem. I settled on Hookers green (Bazar name). Green is easy to mix but with acrylics it’s nice to have a specific tube of a colour that you can easily revert to. I settled on Hookers green but didn’t like the way the tubes were made so I decided to change the brand. The colour was different and I needed to add blue or yellow to get the right colour. I think I’ll likely go back to mixing green from scratch when this tube is finished. This is likely a problem with modern paints because they haven’t been around for centuries to standardise the colour.


Time And Painting?

I have spent so much time on this last painting. It is a portrait and I haven’t done a portrait in a long time.  A likeness took ages to appear. I redid the image 4 times, the last two I used sandpaper and I re-gessoed the face area. Most of the time the image starts to jump off the painting surface but with a portrait this doesn’t happen for me; instead it’s the likeness that tells me I’m near the finish.

As I read this again it sounds like I might be complaining. I’m not. It’s the process of painting that I enjoy. Once it’s finished, I rarely think about it again. Paintings go into the attic. This annoys my wife, not because of the painting but because we are running out of room in our attic. Our attic is cluttered with much more than my paintings.

Skin Tones

I’m presently working on a portrait. I did the skin tones with Burnt Siena which makes a passable skin colour. Once I had the tonal values close I went back and added colour; blues reds and magentas, this looks much more realistic. Why? I think the colours are actually there but we don’t consciously notice them after they’ve gone through our brain’s interpretation. A single skin colour appears flat, but a plethora of them appears natural because our brain needs to do the same thing as it does when looking at a real person. I think this has a lot to do with reflection. Human skin is a lot more reflective than most people think. Some artists take this to extremes but it still looks right.

Cleaning Acrylic Paintbrushes

To be more specific, cleaning acrylic paint off paintbrushes. The easy way is to clean them often. This is my method but I only paint in 20 minute increments so I only get one or two paintbrushes loaded with paint. I wet my brushes before I use them and that seems to lessen the amount of cleaning I need to do later. I use a paint brush holder that holds the brushes in water.

After I’m finished painting I immediately wash the brushes I’ve used (usually only one or two). I wash them in water and hand soap. I was trained with oils and washing the brushes in turpentine was tiresome. I liked the original smell of turpentine but cleaning the brushes was a little arduous; acrylics are much better.

Acrylics and Portraits

Acrylics have a great advantage painting portraits. I’ve noticed that the better I know a person the more difficulty I have getting a likeness. I noticed this when I was sketching portraits years ago and It was such a problem that I stopped doing them. I did try to paint a couple in oils, but had the same problem and it took longer because I couldn’t just erase them and trying to clean up a canvas is tedious at best.

Acrylics dry so quickly that painting over a mistake is a five minute job. Sfumato technique is a little challenging but moving features is easy and sandpaper works well as an eraser. I think this is the fifth or sixth iteration of various parts of this portrait. I tried freehand first but that didn’t work so I put an appropriate sized printout right on the painting surface. This works fairly well. I use dividers to transfer measurements from the printout to the painting. If an area isn’t working I start with the sandpaper then re-gesso the area and start again. I could use any colour of paint but the gesso has more of a sealing affect and it takes the next layer of paint well.

I typically use a printout to create images that I paint from. This works well if I need to isolate components or do a little editing. Colours however are muted, so if I’m comparing the printout to the painting I have to remember that the painting can and should have more vibrant colours.

Add Something?

It’s easy to add something to a painting. It’s even easier to subtract something. If I’m trying to improve composition I try to remove something rather than add something. I also try to rearrange parts of the image and the benefit is that I have the item in the photo, it’s just not in exactly the right place but the light direction is usually OK.

The idea for this post came from reading from Murray Phillips website. His notes are worthwhile reading.

Fractals and painting

I’ve noticed particularly in backgrounds that once I have an idea of what I want the background to look like I paint it quickly and it often exhibits the reality illusion. This has often been quite surprising; on one painting I just wanted to fill in the background quickly which I did, then went to get tea and when I returned the background just jumped out at me with the reality illusion. My initial explanation was that the background matched closely the mental image of that I was trying to paint. I was surprised at how quickly this background came together and I’m starting to wonder if it’s because it was fractal-like. This particular painting did not turn out well.

Fractals definitely mimic reality and they are surprisingly simple. Painting is certainly not a fractal but it should be able to be done as if it were. Ironic that I’m thinking about making my painting more fractal-like in order to mimic reality, when it’s the fractals themselves that mimic reality. I notice that with some paintings I can fill in large areas very easily and without looking at a photo at all. I think that I have somehow replicated a fractal-like component of the image and am using it to paint whatever area. I don’t know how I do this. I’m trying to work out how best to use this idea but I’m not having much luck. It may be that it’s just not practical as we don’t usually think consciously about fractals; even though we may use them regularly. This is the lion in the grass conjecture but even if we use fractals to spot the lion, they may be ingrained in us at such a basic level that we can’t access them to do something like art.

How I Talk About My Art

My Wife and Daughters will be quick to point out that I am not the best person to be writing about this.

There are thousands of ways to describe art. Someone likes my painting but why? The really sad thing is that I have no idea why they like my painting. I listen to their explanation and it makes very little sense to me. I might like the painting because it has a strong reality illusion; the painting exhibits flashes of appearing real. Others might like it because they like colourful paintings. Maybe they like ocean waves and starfish (Seastars). I try to talk about what I felt or wanted to convey while I painted or why I did something with the composition. I try not to use artistic jargon or meaningless phrases. Artist’s statements are a good example of mostly meaningless obfuscation. Here is a site that generates great sounding artist’s statements.

Artist’s statements don’t have to be like this and some artists write very useful and interesting statements. I have trouble writing about my paintings. People don’t always understand what I’m trying to say but they are usually not so intimidated that they don’t ask me what I mean. My paintings don’t mean anything to me. I can talk about how long it took, or how the reality illusion is strong or weak, how the colours were arrived at or what attracted me to the scene, but a meaning escapes me. Why do paintings need to mean anything? I was attracted to the scene and I enjoyed painting it. It may have sat in my attic for the next 40 years but how is that relevant?

A painting is what it is. You like it or you don’t. I liked something in it and I enjoyed painting it. I don’t care how it matches your room decoration.

Comparative Sizes

I’m presently painting a portrait. I don’t have a complete photo because I’m making various parts up from various images. At the moment the hands are too big.

I’ve noticed that for me the farther apart the items are on the painting the harder it is to gauge their size. The best idea I’ve read so far is to use a known distance; in this case it’s going to be the distance between the eyes, and use it to compare other distances on the painting. The initial know distance is completely arbitrary and everything else is compared to it. Sometimes I get it so wrong that I need to start over but more often its close enough.