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The Color Temperature of Light: Lighting Still Lifes

Cool light, warm light with blocks, oil study
Cool light on the left; warm light on the right; same objects with white background; oils

When painting outdoors, lighting is controlled by the sun, clouds, atmosphere, and time of day. But in the studio you get to choose your lighting source from window light to bulbs of all kinds. In an article about color in the March 2011 Artists Magazine, Scott Burdick suggests an experiment to compare the effect of cool and warm light sources: Set up a still life of primary-colored objects and paint it twice; once under a warm light and again under cool light. That’s what I did in the studies above.

While I’m not sure I captured every nuance (or get the drawing just right), it’s interesting to see how different the same-colored objects and white background cloth look under different “temperatures” of light.

Warm Light. Left: Stroke counting; Right: One-colored shadow
Warm Light. Left: Stroke counting; Right: One-colored shadow

I did these two studies in Peggi Kroll-Roberts‘ studio, with the subjects lit by 150 watt incandescent bulbs which have an even warmer color temperature than the bulbs I used in my two top studies. The actual goal of the study on the left was to paint the scene (cantaloupe and watermelon slices) with as few brush strokes as possible. The assignment for the one on the right was to group and paint the shadows with one color only.

Lighting technical stuff:

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Limited Palettes 2-Color Studies

Clockwise from top left; all also include white: Cadmium Lemon Yellow + Sevre Blue; Cad. Yellow + Viridian; Cad. Yellow Pale + Permanent Rose; Ultramarine + Perm. Aliz., oil on 12x12" panel

Following in the footsteps of Kathryn Law’s 36 (!) color studies inspired by the Peggi Kroll-Roberts Limited Palettes video, I returned to doing more of my own. As Kathryn explains on her post, it’s all about learning what your colors can do.

The four at top I did yesterday, after switching back to regular oils (mostly Winsor & Newton). Below are some that I did previously using Holbein Aqua Duos water-soluble oils that I fell out of love with.

Dioxazine Violet & Quinacridone Red
Dioxazine Violet & Quinacridone Red; warm light, cool shadows

Dioxazine Violet & Cad Yellow Deep, V.1
Dioxazine Violet & Cad Yellow Deep, V.1

Dioxazine Violet & Cad Yellow Deep, V.2

Ultramarine Blue & Cadmium Orange; cool light, warm shadows

Phthalo Green and Cad Lemon Yellow; warm lights, cool shadows
Phthalo Green and Cad Lemon Yellow; warm lights, cool shadows

This is a really fun exercise. The idea is to discover about all the variations of value and hue that you can make with just two colors (plus white) and to experiment with using both cool and warm colors for the light or the shadows. It can be done with any medium (with watercolor you’d use two colors and vary the amounts of water instead of adding white).

Doing exercises like this is also a great way to have fun with paint when time is short or if there’s a big scary painting that you’re not quite ready to begin.

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Painting Value Studies with Peggi Kroll-Roberts DVDs

Block Study 5, from value to color
Block Study 5, from value to color, oil on canvas, 9x9"

After viewing and savoring my Peggi Kroll-Roberts DVDs, I’m doing the exercises she teaches in them, starting with value studies. To keep it simple and focus on values I used colored blocks for my subject. Above is the last study of the day in which I tried to apply to color what I’d learned by doing the gray-scale value studies below.

Value Study with blocks # 1
Value Study with blocks # 1, oil on canvas, 9x12"

One of the huge new (to me) things I learned from the Simple Value Plan DVD is that when you make a value plan for a painting, you can choose a range of values for the painting, such as making it high-key (mostly light) or  low-key (predominantly dark), rather than copying the values as you see them. Kroll-Roberts compares this to playing music in different keys.

She recommends making a value plan before starting a painting by simplifying and grouping shapes in the image into two or three values, with 1/3 light and  2/3 dark or vice versa for a more interesting design. In the study above on the right I used only mid to dark grays, for a low-key, predominantly dark study.

Value Study with blocks #2
Value Study with blocks #2, oil on canvas, 9x12"

Another tool she demonstrates is to first mix a value scale and put it at the bottom of your value plan study as I did above on the bottom right, and select your values from that scale. You can see the 3 blobs of paint at the bottom of most of these studies that indicate the values I intended to use.

Value study with blocks #3
Value study with blocks #3, oil on canvas, 9x12"

Above I wanted the study to use the full value scale, black, white and mid-gray. I noted the colors of the blocks and how I was interpreting their values (yellow and white blocks and beige table top = white/gray; red, green and blue = gray/black,  depending on if they were in light or shadow). I did some more adjusting of value once I had it blocked in so there are more than 3 values.

Value Study with blocks #4 - High Key
Value Study with blocks #4 - High Key, oil on canvas, 9x12"

On Peggi’s DVD High Key Value, she demonstrates creating a high key (mostly light values) painting by simply selecting the values that are mostly very light. I tried doing that with this study, and I think it works, but could have used an even lighter “darkest dark.”

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Watercolor Class: Remnants & August Class Registration

Watercolor Glazing Exercise
Watercolor Glazing Study, 10 x 5"

My Sunday morning watercolor class focused on glazing this week. Glazing is applying a transparent layer of paint over painted or unpainted areas. Like a piece of colored glass, a glaze won’t hide what’s below it but will change the way it appears.

I used the study above to demonstrate glazing with gradations. To make the design I printed the word “HAPPY” in big capital letters and then playfully added more pencil lines between and around letters to make more shapes.

Then I glazed each shape individually, adding more glazed layers in various areas until it felt done. I used only transparent primary colors, so that they combined to create secondary colors.  You can also use glazing to make colors appear brighter, duller, darker, warmer, cooler or in shadow or to unify an entire painting or a section of it.

Journal parrot feather spread
Parrot painting strategy sheet, converted to journal entry use

A student who takes individual classes asked for help with painting birds so I used the journal spread above to demonstrate doing a pre-painting strategy session. I tried out various techniques and pigments as I thought about how I might paint the parrot whose photo we downloaded from (where you are allowed to “copy, distribute, transmit and adapt” the copyright-free photos). Doing this bit of preparation and note-taking really helps to avoid some (but certainly not all) mistakes and corrections during the painting process. LATER I used the spread to write a journal entry (which I’ve blurred here for privacy), right over the feather and color experiments.

I still have these “cheat sheets” for many of my paintings. Recently I came across the one for Cheerios with Strawberries and saw that I’d used a wash of cobalt violet light (a favorite color but very expensive) to make the milk look just like the non-fat that I’d had in that bowl of cereal.

Flat and gradated wash demo
Flat and gradated wash demo

I loved the colors so much on this demo for flat and gradated washes from the previous week that I hung it on my wall as if it was a finished painting (my own mini Rothko).

Watercolor Class Registration
My next 4-week class session begins Sunday August 8. You can register and get more information on my website here. It looks like this session will fill so be sure to sign up soon if you want to join in. I am also planning a new “independent studies” class for people wanting to paint with ongoing coaching. If you’re interested, send me a note to get on the list.

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Amazing Grace: “Sketchercizing” on the S.F. Bay Trail

Amazing Grace, ink and watercolor 6x9"
Amazing Grace, ink and watercolor 6x9"

The weather is gorgeous in the S.F. Bay Area today, sunny and warm with a gentle breeze. It inspired me to drag my old bike out of hiding and go for my first bike ride in two years. Of course the tires were completely flat. I got my first bit of exercise pumping up the tires (while managing to get chain grease all over myself working from the wrong side of the bike.) Finally took off down the street and 3 blocks later realized that when the front tire pointed straight ahead, the handles bars were turned to the left.

Rode back home, called bike store, got directions to fix it, used wrong little L-shaped wrench thingee which got stuck in the hole, called bike store again, found the correct metric wrench they said to use in my son’s tools he left behind in my garage, got the stuck one out, tried again, but couldn’t loosen the bolt. Looked around to see if there were any men home on the block who could strong-arm it for me. No men home.

Called sons  (both avid cyclists). Son #1 not answering. Son #2 was working from home and was  so sweet, came right over and fixed it for me.  Finally, two hours after I first planned to leave, I was on my way, down to the Bay Trail.

It was glorious! I rode through Richmond Annex, crossed over the freeway on the pedestrian bridge at Sacramento St., over to Central, down to the Bay Trail, and rode all the way to the Rosie the Riveter Monument and National Park in Richmond. I stopped to paint the ship “Amazing Grace” (above) in the Marina Bay Yacht Harbor.

Sit Stay Cafe at Pt. Isabell, ink & watercolor, 6x9"
Sit Stay Cafe at Pt. Isabell, ink & watercolor, 6x9"

My reward on the way home was lunch at the Sit Stay Cafe at Pt. Isabel. I was sitting under a bright red-orange umbrella there when I painted this and so all the colors came out really weird (that’s the bay and SF in the distance on upper right). I loved the body language of the people and the dogs.  Pt. Isabel is an enormous dog park along the bay with spectacular views. The cafe is next door to Mud Puppy’s Tub and Scrub dog bathing shop, so the patio and cafe are dog friendly.

Then I cycled home happy, if a bit sunburned. Tonight is the El Cerrito Art Association meeting, with a demo by artist and Liquitext rep Michele Theberge.

What a great day! The views of the bay, the harbors, the city, were spectacular, the sun hot and the breezes cooling. Doesn’t get much better than this! Definitely an Amazing Grace kind of day!

(Some of this also posted on

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Painting a Still Life Using The Carder Method”

Still Life with Tangelo, oil on gessobord, 12x12"
Still Life with Tangelo, oil on gessobord, 12x12"

Inspired by Casey’s success with the Carder Method and frustrated with my own slow progress at oil painting, I bought the Carder Method video and  Color Checker tool. Below are step by step photos of my using the method to paint this still life, a brief review of the Carder Method and photos of my studio set up for working with it.

The Carder Method is designed to eliminate many of the problems that can make painting difficult. By creating an carefully lit, controlled environment, a painter can focus on learning to clearly see color and value differences while eliminating problems caused by variables such as changing light.

Click “Continue Reading” to see photos and read more….

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Hannah’s Reflection

Hannah's Reflection, Oil on Gessobord, 16x12
Hannah's Reflection, Oil on Gessobord, 16x12

My friend Gina emailed me a photo with a note saying, “I like the light in this photo– for some reason I always think of you when I look at it.” Although I rarely paint from photos, especially those taken by other people, I just had to paint this one. My computer monitor is set up so that I can paint directly from the image on the screen which is a lot better than working from the limited colors in a printed image.

I’m not sure if I’m done yet, but I couldn’t see what else was needed so I stopped. If you have any suggestions for improving the picture, I’d love to hear.

Below are some stages of the painting.  I used a bit of artistic license: I gave Hannah a bit of a haircut and deleted Gina’s wonderful dog Bella because:

  1. The dog was competing with Hannah as the focal point and was about the same size.
  2. I couldn’t get Bella to “read” as a dog; no matter how hard I tried to draw her correctly, she just kept turning into a jackrabbit.

Top row: 1) the finished painting; 2) my painting start; and 3) a black and white version of the start to see if my values were on track.

Middle row: 1) & 2) the next two steps in the painting. 3) a view of a “color spot” layer that I made in Photoshop. I created a new layer, and used Photoshop’s Paintbrush tool to select (Alt-click) and paint spots of those colors because it can be easier to see the colors when they’re isolated. Even more helpful than the color spots is a color-mixing tip I learned from Dianne Mize on Empty Easel: you apply the color to the edge of  a small card and compare it to the subject until you get it right.

Bottom row: three views of the original photo. 1)  “Posterized” in Photoshop down to two values; 3) posterized with three values; 3) Gina’s original photo.

P.S. This park, which Hannah affectionately calls the “swamp adventure,”  is part of the East Bay Regional Parks. It is a river front park next to McAvoy harbor in Bay Point. It’s a little delta oasis in the sprawl of East Contra Costa County.