A Quickie Lesson in Layering Warm & Cool Colors to Create Realistic Form

It is OK to paint what you see, but it is much more important to paint what you know. The human eye is not always "sophisticated" or "trained" enough to observe reality and the Old Masters certainly knew this.

Here is a quickie visual lesson in layering warm and cool paint to define realistic looking form. The example with numbers superimposed below is a head painted by Rubens. (Wisecracks about "painting by the numbers" won't be appreciated).

As light strikes a form most intensely at the highlight, it will transition into a deep shadow. As the light flows around the form, warm and cool tones begin to alternate. 

It is important to be able to see and understand this in order to create any form with a paintbrush.

Each band of color temperature helps define form. 

The overlapping of warm and cool color is essential in building realistic-looking form. (The terms "warm" and "cool" color are relative to the specific color used...i.e., warm and cool skin tones)

1. Highlight is cool. The lightest value, cool color paint on an object.

2. Light is warm. The next lightest value, warm color paint - and it continues to get lighter still as it approaches the area of highlight.

3. Halftone (where light and shadow meet) is cool. A mid-value, cooler color paint where light begins to turn into shadow - but can't be defined as either light or shadow.

Halftones can be narrow when light meets shadow quickly as at a hard edge.

Halftones can be wide when light meets shadow slowly as over the surface of a gently curved form.

4. Shadow is warm. A dark value, warm color paint.

5. Deep Shadow (cast shadow at the origin) is hot. Darkest value, hottest color paint.

6. Reflected light within a shadow is as close to pure color as you can make it (see the post just before this one for more detail). The reflected light should match the value of the shadow and it can be either warm or cool in color.

Below is a detail of a face by Rubens. With specific reference to the numbers above, I hope you can see the layering technique I have described. If you can begin to see this, you can begin to paint it.

The above illustration is merely meant to help the beginner "see" and is not meant to be a set of rigid rules. 

Sometimes I think of painting as a bit like learning to ride a bicycle. Some of us don't learn as quickly as others and training wheels come in verrrry handy. Eventually though, those training wheels will get in the way - but in the meantime they are darn useful.

So many begining painters "crash and burn"...sadly, left alone to suffer from an untrained eye. Unless they are taught to "see" they will never learn to paint well.

I feel that any help a beginner can get to produce a good result is valid. With a few successful paintings under a belt, so to speak, a beginner can gain the knowledge and experience that works for them.


Susan said...

Thank you thank you thank you!!! This is so informative and insightful! You have opened my eyes, Karin. Great post. I cannot tell you how much I have learned from you and continue to learn. I just hope that what I am learning begins to be reflected in my paintings. As you know, I do not do portraits and the only ones that I have done have been of family - but I am learning and determined. I value your lessons and mentoring very much. And, just so you know, I think you are the greatest portrait artist of the 21st Century. Your work is breathtaking and I cannot thank you enough for sharing your knowledge and gifts with those of us who otherwise would struggle.

Over at "RaisinToast"

Anonymous said...

Thank you so very much for giving of your talent in an easy to comprehend style. I am a shut in and started painting to help get used to constantly being in-doors. Your easy to follow lessons have helped me tremendously! Please keep it up.

Maggie Winters

My Painting Studio said...

Thanks Maggie. You inspire me to keep writing. I am working on a book - the basics of painting realism. It is to be in much greater detail than this blog will allow. It is really difficult and sometimes I want to give it up...but I won't when I think about you.

Stay tuned and keep painting. It feeds the soul and helps us grow in so many ways, doesn't it?

Tony Irwin said...

Hi Karen! I read this at the start of the year and wanted to thank you - it's really transformed my portraits. I wanted your opinion on a rule of thumb for how to mix the halftone though - would you aim for a tonal value halfway between the light and shadow? Or would you aim for a colour which is a cool version of the light, but approx the same tonal value?

I've had fun recently making the shadows much darker than they appear in the photos I work from. As long as I keep the light and highlights the same tonal value as in the photo, then it doesn't seem to matter how I mess about with the shadows - which feels good to me, much more as though I'm placing the subject in my own world than slavishly copying their photograph.

But this made me wonder if there was a rule of thumb I could use to mix that cool halftone?

Thanks, Tony

My Painting Studio said...

Yes Tony, my “rule of thumb” for a halftone is to aim for a tonal value halfway between light and shadow. You can even add a touch of cool blue to make sure it stays cool - as compared to the color temperature that surrounds it (I mostly like to use French Ultramarine Blue for this).

I tend to keep my shadows lighter then they appear in a photograph -because photos tend to clump values at each end of the scale and give a distorted value. But “observable reality” has more middle tones. I’m thinking that this is why most everyone says “don’t copy a photograph and work from life.”

But I disagree. Go ahead and use a photo reference and experiment with those values - as long as it looks “believable” to your eye. Sometimes the drama of high contrast values works well.

Unknown said...

This is an awesome post. Thank you so much for taking the time to be so thorough in explaining what has been extremely complex for me. Your posts have help me make an immeasurable jump, not just portraits, but painting and seeing objects in general. Cannot thank you enough!

My Painting Studio said...

Thank you "Unknown" - it is comments like this that make it all worthwhile. :)