Early in 2007, I took a course with contemporary realist painter Scott Owles. Scott is an affable guy with a great sense of humour and, what’s more, a fantastic teacher and artist. I had no practical training in fine art previous to this as my art education is in graphic design. Many of the principles are the same, but colour takes on a whole new dimension.
In a conversation about limited palettes on Linda Blondheim’s Blog, I brought up field colour as a method I have recently begun to work with. Linda asked me to explain it further, so I will attempt to do that here. Any errors in this explanation are mine. Scott is a true master and I hope I wasn’t a completely incompetent student! This post assumes a bit of understanding of value (light/dark) and colour saturation.
Field colour is a colour method that was used by the Masters from the Renaissance right through the 19th century and has become less common since the rise of Impressionism. Many artists today often use a sienna or umber ‘underpainting’. Their palettes for the remainder of the painting can vary considerably. An underpainting using a field colour sets a restricted ‘colour’ family to every stage of the painting and the colour of that underpainting depends on the overall colour theme the artist wants to create. It was not uncommon for landscapes to have a blue-green underpainting, giving the finished work a sombre or ‘rainy’ mood.
When Scott first introduced us to field colour, he sat us down and had us go through several charts of colour tables. Each table was a single colour family; warm yellow, cool yellow, red-orange, blue-green, etc. (see example of warm yellow chart, below) Then we looked through books of Sargent, Titian and other masters. We began to see the overall moods in paintings and how the use of field colour makes colour unity and harmony very simple. The results were very realistic and the effects of layering and glazing created some very luminous paintings. The colour theory used by these painters was very different from the Impressionists which dominates most colour theory and art eduction today. The Impressionists tended to avoid the use of black and much of their palette was influenced by the rise in the study of physics and optics in relation to how we perceive colour.
The chart is organized by value from top to bottom (1,3,5,7,9) and saturation from left to right, where the left is the purest undiluted colour and the right is a variation of neutral grays created from titanium white and lamp black. The above chart is a warm yellow field. The yellows are created from cadmium yellow medium, yellow ochre and raw umber. Unfortunately in the photo, the grays show a bit blue, but they are, and should be, neutral. What is accurate is that the yellow when combined with the grays look very green. The cool grays do look bluer when next to the warm yellows and, therefore, a sense of complementary colours, albeit less vibrant than the Impressionist palette. Part of the exercise of understanding how this worked, was to paint a chart for each of 12 or so colour groups.
If a colour needs to be saturated further with a pigment not on the chart for effect or accuracy, then it is mixed with the correct value and saturation square from the chart. For example, if you want or need a bluer blue at the 5 value, mix in a bit of ultramarine with the chart colour. The result seems dull on the palette, but it is amazing how it can pop off the canvas and the result is very harmonious. The goal is a more subtle vibration of colour.
I have experimented a little on my own with field colours. I work primarily in acrylic, however, I was taught this system using oils. Beyond behaving differently as media, oils and acrylics vary a great deal in how they handle pigment. Raw Umber in acrylics is very transparent and difficult to use, so I tended to mix it with a little burnt sienna and lamp black to get a similar effect to oil. The painting below was done with a warm yellow field colour. The grays and yellow ochre mixed to create the greens in the field below the trees and I stepped up the slight amount of blue in the horizon with ultramarine. Overall, the only pigments I used were cad yellow, yellow ochre, lamp black and titanium white with that speck of blue. Most of my other work uses a more impressionist palette, but with this one I got great results and the Gallery told me I could have sold it twice!
Stormy Skies, 10×8, acrylic, 2007
I hope this has served to introduce the concept of field colour. I am happy to answer any further questions if I can! I am currently working on another painting using this system in oils and I will post it when it is complete!