In Making Color Sing, Jeanne Dobie advises on the best ways to use color (primarily in watercolor, but in general). In the first chapter, “Mouse Power,” she takes on a common newbie issue: how to make colors look bright?
The urge is to use bright paints. And you know I love bright colors! Yet, you may use lots of bold, exceptionally bright colors in your work, and still create a piece that looks muddled. Meanwhile, someone else may use much more muted colors, yet achieve a kind of glow. Why is that?
Jeanne Dobie’s answer: context. A very bold color can look relatively muted in the context of a bunch of other bright colors. But even a fairly subdued color will pop against an even more muted background.
Some of these chapters have an assignment in them, and others don’t. Here’s an assignment that I adapted from the book.
Chapter Topic: Using subtle, muted colors to offset your bright, pop colors and make them seem even brighter.
Assignment: Paint a painting with one pop color and the rest muted shades.
Stretch assignment: Compare the same “pop color” foreground with two backgrounds: one painted in muted tones, and one painted in other bright colors. How does the appearance of the foreground differ from one painting to the other?
Let’s try it out
Experiment #1: Green Pine
Here’s an experiment in keeping the foreground the same, but changing up the background. I worked loosely from this photo from Unsplash.
I started by drawing the same outline on two facing pages, and painting the tree in the same color of green: a classic Hooker’s Green hue that I mixed up from Phthalo Green (PG7) and Isoindolinone Yellow Deep (PY110).
I then painted the background in two different ways. On the left, I used muted colors; on the right, I used bright colors. (Because of who I am as a person, the right/bright side was easier for me to do and involved me using my instincts about what color to make things, whereas I had to work to make things muted on the left.)
On the left, against the muted background, the green tree seems to pop forward, brighter than its surroundings. On the right, against the bright background, the tree doesn’t seem like anything special; it competes with the other shapes for attention. The green of the tree looks dull in comparison to the brighter grass, and it even looks duller than the green of the tree on the left – even though they’re literally the same color!
Experiment #2: Sunsets
To further compare the power of bright vs muted colors, I attempted to paint this Blue Ridge sunset. This photo appears very glowing even though there are some quite muted colors, like beiges, in the sky. My “Mouse Power” theory was that I could paint even a more muted sky would look more “glowy” with extremely muted mountains, compared to a painting where I naively let myself loose on painting it as bright as I wanted.
On the left, I attempted a somewhat realistic color palette. On the right, I let myself loose to make it as bright as I wanted.
Hm… I don’t think my theory bore out. The more muted palette does draw more attention to form, and allows the yellow-orange in the upper right to seem more intense because it’s contrasting with more muted colors. Yet, the overall-brighter painting on the right still looks more glowing to me.
I suspect this is more of an execution than a theory problem, though – I could have gotten more transparent, less muddy muted colors if I were more adept at mixing. The bright painting also has better value contrast, which isn’t really the fault of the muted colors.
I still like to paint with a lot of clashing brights.
People talk about a painting with a lot of clashing brights as if it’s a bad thing, but it doesn’t bother me. I like having a lot of wild, competing brights to look at.
That’s not to say it’s not also fun to do muted palettes sometimes. Keeping the palette near-grayscale can foce you to to focus on form and value.
And it’s still useful to have context in my back pocket as a tool to highlight a specific focal point. If I want to make one thing stand out, I can tamp down everything else to make it pop.
But I’m not going to stop making overly bright, clashing palettes. I just like it!