Munsell tutorials on video

Paul Foxton, from Learning to See, has released two video tutorials over the past month. Each one features a beautiful little flower painting, is hands-on practical, self-contained and easy to follow. Which would I recommend? Both!

They are available at Gumroad for “pay what you want”. I will add that the suggested $10+ is a bargain. Be generous.

Time’s Unfolding: A Flower Painting Demonstration

Time’s Unfolding, the first of the two tutorials demonstrates a flower painting from setup to finish, covering everything from sight-size, grid-assisted drawing to value control and the thoughts behind the motif. What I like about the way Paul teaches is his way of breaking down complex ideas into practical steps that can be applied to any subject. (He’s a master at skipping the mumbo-jumbo. A rare skill.)

The point he really nails in this one is that it’s about slowing down and taking the time to look (with the aid of a few simple, home-made tools to help figure out what you’re looking at).

Secret Treasure: A Munsell Painting Demonstration

Paul Foxton's video "Secret Treasure"

The second video, Secret Treasure: A Munsell Painting Demonstration, builds on the first, and as the title says, is much more about what Munsell is and how it can be used to assist in making a painting. It begins with a practical guide to describing and analysing colour, before using Munsell as a tool to mix and match the colours needed to make a particular painting.

The delicate transitions in his little flower motif are exquisite, but the point he makes is that matching them it isn’t rocket-science, it’s about taking care in comparing one patch of colour to the next. Munsell is used to describe the differences between each mix very clearly in terms of hue, value and chroma. Again, no mumbo-jumbo, it’s about learning to see the variations and use them.

I’ve been using and writing about Munsell studies since 2007 (my ‘colour theory’ category should find most of them), but Paul’s video is a much easier way to learn!

Munsell study: grey spheres

Munsell study neutral spheres

Munsell neutrals, oil on panel

I last painted the Munsell grey studies in 2007. This time I want to take the exercises further to get more control so I’m getting organised.

The paint is pre-mixed. I am storing mine in 20ml syringes (no needles!) bought from the stock feed store. The wooden block stays in the studio fridge and keeps the paint usable for months.

Storing oil paint in syringes

Storing oil paint in syringes

Mixing colour

Colour theory! Not just the “normal” one, but all of them: obscure, technical and obsolete. For a long while books after book arrived at Studio A from around the globe – mostly secondhand, cheap and old. Why not go back to the source, eh? I read everything that came in and, for that matter, did pretty much all the suggested exercises. Used a lot of paint for a while there…
If I were to boil down what I learned into a practical course it would be this:

Munsell Student Set

Munsell Student book

Values Can’t go past the Munsell Student Set for getting values nailed down and understanding hue, value and chroma. It comes with little colour chips (like tiny paint chips) that the intrepid gets to organise and stick down on the charts supplied. Worth the effort. Not a huge read (it come in a small ring binder) but it covers it and it works. The value chart you make is really small but it is enough, with some practice, to mix the greys to make a bigger chart – an exercise that is an absolute must. Frustrating first up but worth persevering.

If you can’t stretch to the book the Color Academy has a pretty good tutorial on Munsell. Then get a grey scale with a 1 to 10 range from somewhere and mix the string of greys. Then mix another colour in the same string of values (tones) by mixing and squinting til they read the same. Better still, don’t stop at one colour, do ten. Or, even better, make it twenty. You want to be able to do this without thinking about it. Plus – and this is important – it sensitizes your eye to see values in your subject.


Blue and Yellow Don't Make Green by Michael Wilcox

The second exercise is Michael Wilcox’s Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green. Michael’s theory is much debated and I’m not going get into the fray because, to be honest, I can’t be bothered. What is of value here are his exercises. And yes, that means doing them – all of them – just reading is a waste of time. You’ll not only get your head and brush around warm, cool and knowing what to mix for what you’ll end up with a set of charts in own poison, be it oils, acrylic or watercolour, that are good to have around.
thousands of little squares… It worked. A friend at a plein air get together was fussing over having left a tube of something at home. A quick forage through her box yielded a couple of others that mixed and matched the colour on per painting perfectly. Problem solved (or Solvered for the locals. West Australian in-joke). She needs to do Blue and Yellow… Oh, and didn’t need the same colours used in the exercises either.

Making colour charts
Making colour charts

Colour mixing charts

All combined Munsell and Wilcox are probably going to chew through 6 or 7 tubes of paint, a bunch of small panels or a couple of pads of those hideous fake canvas sheets. I used panels – 3mm MDF cut to approx A5 primed with acrylic gesso. Made a template with a sheet of acetate – cardboard would do – to trace on the little boxes. For watercolour, just used fairly cheap watercolour paper from Artshed – make sure it’s white not cream. Other than that: determination. Both paint and patience will be paid back in the time saved mixing colour, ending up with a small palette for ever and getting mixes right first go. Oh, and losing the frustration with all that? Priceless.

Have fun (and it is fun),

Pixel Pixie

Munsell chips

Tones, or values, are more important in representational painting than colour. A strong statement? Think about it – a black & white photo tells you everything you need to know to identify an object, colour just makes it prettier…

Munsell chipsEstimating values is for many the tough part of learning to paint. Squinting helps but even then: what’s what? A value chart gets around that by giving something to measure against. I followed Paul Foxton’s lead and made a set of Munsell “chips” a while back (the bits of wood in the photo) to do exactly that. Using them, by the way, did not turn out to be a crutch for life, as some folks reckon, it was only a matter of months before I was mixing the greys without looking and for the most part even thinking about it. They’re in my head (somewhere…).

Now, that’s all very fine when painting from life in the studio or (gasp!) a photo or other reference. Yeah, I do use photos when I need them. For one I paint ’til late (* think 2am…) and there ain’t much out there to see if one is painting landscape. Or in my recent clouds series: not many to be seen in Chittering over the past months. OK, so there’s the occasional fluffy white against the endless blue but not a one of the moody storms I had in mind. Besides, getting on into the series, I needed inspiration cos my plan calls for a hundred studies – I got to 67 before a more urgent project elbowed them aside – I’ll be back. Anyway, on topic, photos rock sometimes and dovetail very nicely with a value chart or chip while learning to see.

However (there is a point to all this), when I switched from using prints to a screen to display my reference (lots of reasons: among them zooming in on detail and way better depth of colour) there was a problem. Holding the chips up to compare to the screen didn’t work because the screen is bright and light and no matter what angle I held the chip to it I couldn’t get a match as I could with the hardcopy.

That’s where a tiny freeware utility called Pixel Pixie came in. What does it do? Simply a small box (on my screen about 4cm wide) floating over the top of any other software that’s running it displays all kinds of colour info – among them HSV. It does other stuff too but that’s what we want right here. The V in HSV stands for value… the value of the pixel at the end of the pointer. Can you see where this is going?

Pixel Pixie screen capture

Pixel Pixie

Read the values off the image, match it to a Munsell chip (or other value chart as you wish) and from there to your paint. Maybe in 10% divisions where, say, everything in the twenties is a value two, or the 50’s a value five etc. This works nicely with Munsell which goes zero for black through to ten for white. Some other value charts have it back to front – no problem – a nice fat red crayon can fix that…

The end result won’t be perfect, of course, because that’s where the art rears it’s head again. Beyond the blocking in of a painting it’s time to “go with the force” (Peter Dailey said that in class once – it still has me chuckling) and adjust to your eye and temperament. It can also be desirable to change values on the fly – raising or lowering the temperature of the painting by mapping to a compressed range. For example, decide that it’s a really moody sky and move everything down to a smaller range of dark colours.

Anyway, have a go, because anything that takes the frustration down a peg or two is worth doing and don’t worry about getting dependent on any tools (photos, chips or software) ‘cos at some point the eye does kick in, especially if you have a guess first, then Pixel Pixie or compare a chip to check it.

Have fun.

(* Painting day and night (really should get a life…) offers another problem: colour shifts under different light. I solved the problem with two Daylight lamps: one on the easel and another over the palette table. Works OK. A perfect south facing window – Australia remember – and shorter working hours would be better but neither of those is happening any time soon.)

Seurat & errant authors

The bulk of this post is more or less a copy of an email to an artist friend a few days ago, slightly edited to suit a blog post. My feeble excuse for such a shortcut is that the pressure of study is such that I’m lucky to be able to do this much!
What has me so excited is partly the new light on Seurat’s work, partly a new way to think of colour usage but most importantly a fine example of writers writing what they have read, not what they know. Enough to make me rant…

Another words, it’s about the perpetuation of fiction peddled as facts. For students the continuous regeneration of errors in book after book is a serious disservice to their learning and that of the students some of them will go on to teach. I don’t for a minute blame those teaching, now or past, they too have been hoodwinked by books written by those claiming to be expert. It’s simply of matter of those who would be published making reasonable effort to check their facts. Please.

Rant over. The story begins (quoting directly from my email, as stated above):

Right now I’m reading (for myself – not uni – in between the crippling loads of required reading…) a book called Advice to Young Artists in a Postmodern Era by Williams Dunning. Don’t let the title put you off – no way is this book for truly young artists. It would be completely wasted on them. Besides which, we are all young artists – if not might as well give up.

I’ll quote, rather rather than paraphrase, in case I miss something (aren’t scanners wonderful!)


Studies of students from all fields consistently indicate that art students in general have read less than those in most other disciplines. But when successful people in all fields are compared to successful artists, the artists register as among the best and the broadest read of all the professionals. The implication for artists here is quite clear: don’t read, don’t succeed.
Gilmore also argues convincingly that “the higher the level of creative activity involved, the more compelling the need for a cohesion of studio practice, awareness of art history, and critical analysis, as well as [a] general education” (Gilmore i991,37)•
Furthermore, those who read little can seldom discuss art intelligently, and an ability to discuss the ideas in your field is indispensable…

Now, the good bit:

But never allow what you read or what you know to blind you to your own vision, and never allow what you have read or heard shape what you see or experience. During my years in art school I read in several books, and I heard from several art history instructors, that the pointillists, especially Seurat, mixed their pigments additively. I was told that when Seurat and the pointillists wanted a green, they did not use green out of a tube; instead, they placed small dots of blue and small dots of yellow next to each other and let the color fuse additively in the eye to create a green that was livelier than any that could be mixed subtractively.
Josef Albers, the patron saint of color, wrote an inspired book, Interaction of Color; I believe this to be the best method ever devised to teach color empirically rather than theoretically. But on the mixing of green in pointillism, he made the same mistake everyone else was making. He tells us what he has read rather than what he has seen, and noting what he has seen is usually his strong point. About the impressionists (pointilists were originally called impressionists) he wrote: “Instead of using green paint mixed mechanically from yellow and blue, they applied yellow and blue unmixed in small dots, so that they became mixed only in our perception-as an impression” (Albers 1963, 339). Albers has just reiterated the classic misconception about retinal (actually partitive) color mixing.
When I was working on an M.EA at the University of Illinois, I visited the museum at Chicago Art Institute. I specifically wanted to see Seurat’s La Grande Jatte, the painting that is usually named as exemplary of the theorizing mentioned above. I stood in front of that painting and looked carefully for tiny intermingled dots of blue and yellow that would mix additively in the retina to make green.
There were none!
There was no place on that canvas that I read as green where I could find blue and yellow dots intermingling. Seurat had used dots of several different shades of green to depict the lawn and the foliage and those areas he wanted green (which generated a more vibrant green). Among these different shades and colors of green dots, he placed here and there a dot of red, which tends to make the green seem even brighter and more vibrant.
He chose red because the impressionists and the pointillists still used Brewster’s by then outdated red, yellow, and blue primary colors to construct their color wheel; hence they believed red was the complement to green, and they had learned correctly from M. E. Chevreul’s Laws of Simultaneous Contrast that adjacent complements create supersaturated color that is perceived as brighter (more saturate) than any pure color alone.
In the bright sunlit areas on the lawn, Seurat interspersed dots of yellow to make those areas yellower (lighter and warmer); and in areas of deep shadow he interspersed dots of blue, which made the shadows darker and cooler.
This came as a shock to me. I wondered if those writers and art historians had ever looked at pointillist paintings.

A bit of an eye opener? The guy who wrote this is professor of fine arts at Central Washington University. The book is published by Syracuse University Press. Another words: he has cred. It is certainly enough to have me off looking for decent reproductions of Seurat’s work.