Red, Yellow, Blue, Black & White

Here's another secret that the Old Masters knew & it is hiding in plain sight. You can check this out in a stroll through at any good museum.

Almost every good painting has some representation of the following five colors:

It doesn't matter if you paint like the Old Masters (or like your own unique contemporary self) - this is one of the fundamentals of painting and it works.

Max Beckman knew this in 1921 and I am sure this Old Master principal was learned from his original classical training in art.

If one of these colors is missing, the eye will hunger for it - and the painting will, somehow, seem incomplete until it is included.

The red is a tiny touch at the waist and the drapery is blue. The background is yellow.

How's this for subtle color? The head of the cane is blue. The cane is made from a deep reddish wood. The frock coat is a warm yellowish grey. The shirt and gloves are white and the tie is black.

It doesn't have to be obvious. For example, red doesn't have to look like a fire engine. It can be represented simply be the color of cherry wood. It can be a reddish neutral. 

The color doesn't have to cover a large area - it can be "just a touch." But it has to be there.

The secondary colors (the combination of two primary colors, i.e., orange can stand for either red or yellow depending on the shade or how and where it is used).

I learned to paint by copying the Old Masters. Copying a Vermeer was the first time I noticed this "secret." I looked around - and sure enough, all the greats did it.

Painting a sky is such a good way to put blue into a painting.

The "red" in this painting is just a little on top of the book.

Black objects paint well - shadows don't count as "black."

Once you see this, you can't stop seeing it.

Sometimes it is very obvious.

The black in this one is the detail around the neck of the child's clothing.

I'll bet that people didn't really dress this way with these colors. The artist manipulated it because it serves the painting so well.

Despite the pale skin, it is the "white" band in the hair that counts.

Even The Mona Lisa follows this rule.

This one is obvious.

This one is even more obvious.

Greenish blue counts as "blue" in this one. The hair is red.

I am so sorry that these pictures are so small and hard to see - but the artist was very clever to put the pages of the book in yellow and the roof of a distant building in red.

I'd say that the wood of the table is red. The book pages, yellow and the stone door frame is blue. See the tiny touch of white at his throat?

You'll see a lot of strong primary colors (plus black and white) in the religious paintings of the Italian Renaissance..

It's a bit of a formula once you begin to notice this "secret."

The spot in the necklace is red. Blue appears in the dress.

Next time you wonder what color to paint something - ask yourself, "what's missing?"

Tiny little spots of color can - and often do - make the painting.

All the colors are on her palette in this painting.

Sometimes it is really subtle: Yellow and Red on the palette. Blue in the painting. Black and white are obvious.

Even a study in gray has red, yellow, blue neutral grays. 

This Corot is one of my favorites. And yes, red, yellow, blue, black and white are represented here. 

It was painted with a very limited earth palette: My guess is that Corot used Burnt Umber, Raw Sienna, Raw Umber, Ivory Black and Titanium White.

Burnt Umber represents red.
Yellow is Raw Sienna and/or Raw Umber used as a glaze.
Blue is represented by Ivory Black plus White
White is made by mixing Raw Umber and White

I'll chat about limited earth palette paintings in another post sometime soon. I think that they are uniquely beautiful.


Anonymous said...

Karen, if only I had your eye AND your talent. I am immensely lacking in both, but still, I try! Thanks always for the informative blog posts - we students are eternally grateful. It's always a pleasure to stop by and see not only what's new, but re-read previous posts. I find as I go along on this painting journey, I gleen even more from the second reading. Again, thanks so much for this and all. Had an absolute ball at the Nat'l Portrait Gallery the other day picking out the R.Y.B. Black and White in each. We actually giggled with our newfound knowledge and ability. We owe you so much!

My Painting Studio said...

It is always exciting to finally see something that has been hiding in "plain sight," isn't it?

It sort of transforms the riddle of "what colors should I use to paint this....?" into "what clever excuse can I use to sneak these colors into my painting?"

Stay tuned. I have a bunch of stuff to share - but need to figure out a way for you to clearly see it in this blog venue.

Good painters don't require a heap of talent - but mastering the craft and solid technical knowledge will get you where you want to go.

Anonymous said...

You are a incredible artist and just as wonderful a teacher. You are talking about things that I didn't hear about in art school. I had heard about this particular rule in a passing comment a drawing professor and it had stuck with me... but I had never seen it quite so well illustrated. To be able to spend time in the national looking for this kid of thing! I'm far away from galleries and museums, the amount of time I've been to spend in major museums hasn't been able to get me much beyond the stage of awe. (Although a self portrait as the Marie Benoit painting was my first oil painting in art school... quite the memories. I sold it to a doctor for 150 dollars to buy more supplies.) I think your advice is good.. to do more studies of old masters. You have looked so carefully and well. Thank you for sharing and making it duck soup simple.

Judy P. said...

Hello, I have just discovered your blog, and am wowed by this insightful post- I have never heard about this point before! It will really help me in my attempts.
Would you say the white in the Mona Lisa is the pale area atop her breast? I'm not sure, this color scheme sure can be subtle.

My Painting Studio said...

Judy P.,

It's tough to say since I'm not standing there - but I'd guess that her sleeves are meant to stand for white (in shadow).