Colour theory unscrambled

I just finished leaving a comment over at All the Strange Hours (a blog that’s now disappeared) in response to a great article on Munsell and colour theory in general. Then realised I could actually say as much as I liked on the subject and even go off on a tangent now I have my own blog – old habits and all that. I’ve been fascinated with colour since I took a class in Colour Theory a couple of years ago. Prior to that I’d mostly dealt with colour as it applied to print not really thinking about it much – just using it to get the job done. Of course I knew the basics – like any kid who has ever had a box of watercolour, I knew that red and yellow make orange.

It became more interesting as an adult with the oil paints. No longer happy with just any shade of orange I wanted to mix the one I could see in the landscape before me – OK so I could just buy a tube of Australian Sienna – but really…

The colour class I took merely whetted the appetite. From there I picked up a book called Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green by Michael Wilcox and read it from end to end. Pretty good. Unfortunately it didn’t help much until about six months later when faced with a college level paint class the desperation forced me to pick it up again and actually do the exercises. Yes, mix all 2500 colours. It was worth every little dollop of paint. I’ve had no colour mixing issues since. Yes, it did add up to a lot of paint. And rags. And lots of little MDF panels that I used for the task. Still it was worth it. I will save far more than paint in my coming years of painting – and a lot of frustration too.

Then I came across Munsell theory which Graydon Parrish has been working with and teaching as a practical painting tool. I sent away for the Munsell Student Set, read it first and then having learned my lesson previously immediately began working through the suggested exercises. That fixed any hue and chroma confusion…

Now, of course, I’m still painting grey cubes but that’s just continuing the experiment. The nature of the beast is well understood. Hey, I can mix the eight shades of grey between black and white on the Munsell Value Scale – pretty darn accurately in about 30 minutes… OK so I’ve had to mix and paint the scale quite a few times. I’m not that fast a learner. Making the cubes and then painting the still lives of them as Graydon suggested is one incredibly useful exercise. Just ask Paul.

Still asking questions, I’ve been reading about Wilhelm Ostwald’s theories and their practical application in book by Faber Birren called Creative Color. Ostwald, a Nobel scientist in chemistry, corresponded with Munsell but at some point took his study in a different direction. He identified what he called the “uniform chroma scale” – or shadow series – which he says is the secret behind the richness and luminosity of chiaroscuro. Instead of mixing black and white to a given colour to change the values – a touch of the original colour is added too so the proportion of hue content is kept constant. So yes, now I’m mixing chroma scales too. More paint. I like theory that has practical application and experiments so I can see for myself.

As I said, I’ve had practice working with cyan, yellow and magenta in the print industry. Then a few more years mixing oil paints on the basis of red, yellow and blue. My husband is an electronics engineer and has explained really well how the red, green blue of my monitor works. Three different systems – all of which work – differently. Grrr…

Always the kid wanting to know “why”, “just because” won’t do – I had to keep reading.

Recently I came across a thread at Wet Canvas written by WF Martin – that really made my head spin and essentially solved the problem for me. It does fit together! Not for any particularly practical purpose – I’m still playing with Munsell greys and Ostwald chroma scales – but it settled the whole issue in my head. So go read this man’s explanation (and do the exercises!) with an open mind. It’s an eye opener.


Book Shopping

I don’t get enough visits the city book stores and I really do make the most of the occasion when I do. Today was one of those occasions. In reality a kid-related event, my two boys were due a reward for a big effort at school this last term, so it was off to the Big Smoke for a couple of country kids. I excused myself from the cinema part of the day – since Transformers really isn’t my cup of tea – and headed off to browse books for nearly 3 hours. Bliss. The result was expensive but like I said this doesn’t happen that often (not including mail order…) so I was splurging. Once I get stuck into school again in ten days time there’ll be time for nothing.

So what came home?

Odd Nerdrum

The big one was a copy of Odd Nerdrum: Paintings, Sketches and Drawings by Richard Vine. I’ve been wanting this book since I read the little book On Kitsch, of which Odd himself was one of the authors.

On Kitsch is a collection of essays and speeches looking at the history of kitsch as well as Odd’s insistence on calling his own work kitsch. Possibly he’s right if the original meaning of “kitsch” is used – a work that’s beautiful or academic in a world that doesn’t value those things. (Unfortunately I can’t review this more completely with quotes and stuff because I’ve loaned my book to a friend. I’ll come back to this when the book comes back because I think it’s important.) I was drawn to the book because some of my work had been criticised as kitsch by a teacher – after reading I can add that I’d be proud if it were!

So on that positive note, I was curious to see what Odd’s paintings were like. I looked around online to get an overview but was left wanting more. So was pleased, when I saw a copy of Odd Nerdrum: Painting, Sketches and Drawings at Borders. I say saw because that was two months ago. I spent an enjoyable hour with it then but didn’t buy on account of the Aus$140 price tag. Books are expensive here but that was extra ouch. Yesterday I went again with the intent of bringing it home if was still there. I just about ran down that elevator…

So what can I say about it. It’s heavy and hardcover with over 400 pages. It is beautifully reproduced. Many of the images flow right to the edge of the page making it feel like it’s all image. And images are what it’s about. There’s not a lot of text and what’s there is readable rather than academic, admitting here that I haven’t read it all yet. Each time I sit with it I start reading and am then drawn to the pictures. Fascinated. I can’t say that I love his subject matter so much as the way he paints. Some pages I turn quickly because I really don’t like what is shown. Obviously that didn’t put me off entirely. I ended up wanting this book so badly because there’s just so much there that is worth looking at.

So is his work kitsch? He can paint that’s for sure. In a manner more akin to the old masters than the modern. There’s narrative too, which could also date it. Narrative, realistic and well crafted. Odd’s premise was that these things are what make a work kitsch. He does all of them well.

Virtual Pose 2

Virtual Pose 2 is a book and CD set promising to be a “virtual life drawing studio”. I have to admit it was an impulse buy at Borders, again ridiculously expensive at $76. I was really hopeful that it would help with life drawing and anatomy – study areas that I’m spending a lot of time on this year. Not the book, I could see that the pictures were too small to work from. Are there any books in the genre that are a decent size? I was hopeful that the CD would be good. In the pages at the back of the book describing installation, the screenshots look promising.

Virtual Pose book

Virtual Pose book pic

And yes, the screen really does look like that – except that’s been cropped – in reality it’s about 14cm (4″) high… and on my screen looks like the screenshot below.

Virtual Pose screenshot

Virtual Pose screenshot

What did I learn? Don’t impulse buy something I can’t look at properly. If I had my time again on this one I’d treat it like an online, sight-unseen, purchase. Read reviews. Get opinions. Gather as much information as possible before committing.

On Shrinkwrapped Books

Strangely, I did apply the “get more info” rule a few hours later at Dymocks bookshop. There, I saw Studio: Australian Painters and Creativity. The cover looked interesting but I couldn’t look at it properly because it was wrapped in plastic. I found a store clerk and asked if it could be opened. Unsure she found someone else to ask. He then checked their computer to see if there was another copy already open. No, this was it. More delay as he then goes to find someone else to ask, clearly I’m being a nuisance… at that point I saw red. With gritted teeth politeness, I said, “Don’t worry about it. There’s another bookshop at the Art Gallery. I’ll go see if they have it.”

The next thing I’ll no doubt get some bookshop emailing me to complain about not being able to return books to the publisher that have been opened and that the internet is killing their trade. To which I’m unsympathetic. One of the advantages that bricks and mortar shops have over the internet for this customer is that I can see more than the cover and make impulse buys based on what I see. There’s no opportunity for me to read reviews and do my research, so I have to base my decision on what I see by looking. I do pay for that privilege – the prices are higher.

Australian Impressionism

My last buy of the day was Australian Impressionism written by Terence Lance. It is brand new on the bookshop shelf and is actually the catalogue for an exhibition recently held at the National Gallery of Victoria.

I saw this book a couple of days ago but didn’t buy then because I wanted to take another look at a book I have called Golden Summers, Heidelberg and Beyond to make sure that I wasn’t doubling up too much. After all, the Heidelberg School pretty much is Australian Impressionism, yes? Alright, I have more to learn. Anyway the decision was that the new book would add something to my library, so it was on my shopping list should I come across a copy.

I had to chuckle to myself when reading the Director’s Foreword:

More than twenty years have passed since the National Gallery of Victoria’s hugely successful Golden Summers exhibition, which delighted audiences around the country through the panoramic view it offered of the art of the Australian Impressionists, justly celebrated as the first truly national School of Art.

Australian Impressionism has been conceived to take up the story again, but this time concentrating on the five key initiators of the movement and limiting the timescale…

So what’s it like? Soft cover, 352 pages, lots of pictures and fairly readable essays. Keeping in mind that I haven’t had a chance to read it properly and I do have a habit of starting to read and getting distracted by the pictures… all I can say is that I’m looking forward to spending some hours with it.



Firstly, I should point out that I’m not always down at the art shop looking for new things. I’m actually a bit of a stick in the mud – preferring to use what I have and hope to get better with more practice. Sometimes I get pushed… and the dominoes effect does the rest. I’ve been comparing notes with Paul over at Learning to See and he said that he prefers to use brushes called “brights”. I thought they sounded interesting but couldn’t think that I’d seen anything like that at the art shop I usually go to. Thought no more of it.

Then I was looking for information on an oil primer that could be cleaned up with water (I’m allergic mineral turpentine – seriously so!). I’d heard that Art Spectrum made one so I was Googling – hoping for a data sheet. One of things I found was a page by them called Oil painting without solvents. Very interesting…

Among other things on the info sheet was a discussion of brushes – mentioning brights and their ability to give “crisper, harder edged brush marks”. Hmmm. About time I thought about these a bit more.

The problem is they’d have to be synthetic too. I don’t use animal products.

So I Googled around a bit and found a brand called Neef – who make a stiff bright synthetic- advertised as “allows for tight control in strokework, smaller sizes can be used for detail or highlight work. Due to the ease of control this brush is ideal for the beginner. The stiff synthetic has the firmest spring”. Beaut. Time to order. Mail order would do – I knew that my art shop wouldn’t have them.

Anyway as a follow up to this I did a bit more Google magic and found that there is a supplier in Perth – an art shop called Murray Gill Fine Art Provisions. I had never heard of them. They’re in Subiaco which is a long way from here. Never mind, we were having a day out maybe this could be the first stop. It turned out to be fun, a great little place with lots of different brands to those I usually see. I’ll definitely be going back.

What did I choose today? A few more Neef brushes – rounds this time. And this little wooden brush support for when you need to put a loaded brush down for a second.

Brushes on a brush rest

Brushes on a brush rest


Oh dear, no model…

Life Drawing at the Midland Art Group was looking a bit unpromising last night. We usually start at around 7pm but the model was late and it was a smaller turnout too. Probably due to school holidays and the particularly horrible ‘flu that’s going around. Not to worry, it just meant there would be plenty of room – some weeks it’s so busy we work two deep with some artists with sketchbooks and drawing boards sitting in front of those standing with easels. Waiting, waiting. Anyway, come 7.10pm and still no model. Ben, who runs the group is on the phone and finally makes contact only to find that she too has taken ill. Oh no. He was looking really worried. You see around Perth there’s another life group somewhere, run by someone called Gary. Now I don’t know who Gary is, but rumour has it that in that group a no show model has Gary taking on the role himself. Ben is on the phone, armed with a list of numbers trying very, very hard to find another model. “Motivated” would be a good description…

Persistence paid off when a he managed to contact a girl, via a referral, who just happened to be at the video store, a mere three minutes away… A sigh of relief from a very grateful group of artists, led by an even more grateful co-ordinator.

Meanwhile, everyone else had been sitting around sipping wine and coffee, relaxing and actually enjoying getting to know one another rather than sweating over hot charcoal as we usually do. Life drawing is serious work for most of us. Does one ever get good enough to have fun rather than just tense concentration? It’s exhausting work.

Linocut cat

I’m taking part in my first international print exchange and here’s a little preview of my offering – the first proof off the press.

Linocut cat

This print is 10″ x 8″ to comply with the rules for the exchange – normally I work a bit bigger than this which meant I had nothing suitable in my files. A new design was called for.

It’s a linocut worked on a piece of grey Silkcut lino. This particular print, being one of the first proofs, is printed with waterbased ink on heavy cartridgepaper. The edition will use the lovely Graphic Supplies oil based ink on Stonehenge paper. In fact the paper is already cut to size and everything set to go – just waiting for me to stop typing and go print instead.

The deadline for prints is ages away but I’m getting it finished now, along with several others for other exhibitions because once I’m back at college printing has to take a backseat to assignments.

The kitty-cat pictured is Smoky – 8 years old which makes him a senior. In our house that’s meaningless he’s just a kitten compared to Rosie who’s over 21. Then there are the four young ‘uns… yes that does make six. Then there are two dogs, two sheep, 8 ducks, 7 chooks and a rabbit.

The hardest part with this print is coming up with a name. If I were keeping it, I would just call it Smoky. Decision pending…


More cubes

I’ve returned to the three cubes because I have a brand new cloth. OK so it’s just an offcut from the end-of-roll box at the fabric shop but the colour is right – a nice N4 grey on the Munsell value scale. Hopefully it’ll make the exercises a bit more useful.
My photo of today’s setup is a bit dark but it shows what I’m working from.

Cubes set up on new grey fabric

Cubes set up on new grey fabric

The first painting is a standard effort, as measured, with one difference at the light end. It’s amazing what a day off can do for freshening up the eye – when I set this up and began measuring I could see that the light side wasn’t a flat tone as I had thought but was in fact light until most of the way up and then gradated down a tiny bit and then showed the lighter highlight along the edge.

This is painted that way. White paint at the bottom of the light side gradating to N9 at the top, then a white highlight along the edge. That way I get a white side and a white highlight without losing a step as I did on the earlier exercises. This isn’t the only way to paint this – I think the other mappings of the tones were just as valid – each version shows a different effect. This one looks like three cubes in somewhat dull light. The definition on the black cube is lost – but that is exactly what I was seeing.

Munsell study grey cubes

Cubes on grey 1

For this one I experimented with shifting the values a bit to try to make it look like it was under lighter lighting conditions. Playing with the new lighter cloth must have gone to my head – I’ve painted it too light and the effect of the cast shadows isn’t convincing. Obviously there’s more to it than just adjusting all the tones by one step.

Munsell study grey cubes

Cubes on grey 2


Linocut tools

Linocut tools

Linocutting tools

Since I had them out to play, I thought I’d snap a picture and show my linocutting tool kit – even though there’s not much in it – someone may be interested…

  • two tools: a small v and a gouge out of a set of Japanese wood carving tools. I do have the set but only tend to use these two. I also use them for woodcutting so I’m careful to keep them sharp. Sharp tools are easier to use and safer too.
  • a strop kit to keep the tools sharp, I use this one but any strop would work. Small is fine because the tools are small. Clear instructions came with my kit but there are also good instructions in this thread at the Wet Canvas forum (go down to the third post by Willamette)
  • a small piece of the rubbery stuff that goes under floor mats to stop them slipping – any department store should have it. I “borrowed” mine from under the mat in the hall… It works better for me than a bench hook (shown below) – mine is home made from scraps of MDF and works just fine. I’ve simply come to prefer the bit of anti-slip mat.

Linocut bench hook

Linocutting bench hook

Beyond that that you need good lighting, a comfortable chair and some good music. It can be a long process on the bigger or more intricate blocks – please take care of your back by not hunching over. Remember to take regular breaks to stretch.

That’s it… happy linocutting.


Adding cones and spheres

Today’s paintings are pretty much the same as yesterday with the addition of cones and spheres. I also left out the black cube so I could use the values I have to better effect on the grey one.
This first effort at painting a sphere was one of those penny-drop moments – the tones are the same as the cube, just blended a bit and a lighter patch to show the reflection from the grey cube. There was no reflection from the cloth of course because it’s too dark.

Cubes and spheres 1
Cubes and spheres 1

In this one I added the grey cone to make it just a bit more difficult. I also angled the white cube differently to make it a bit darker on the shadow side. I ended up with it measuring the same as the sphere – giving me a lost edge. I also experimented with softening the edges more – particularly on the sphere. I think I went a bit too far. The cone is probably the more successful.

Cubes and spheres 2
Cubes and spheres 2

Groups of cubes

More grey cubes, this time in groups of three. The last exercises showed that the problem areas are at the extremes of light and dark. These exercises, I think, show that the real power is in the middle values. The adjustments to compensate for the limitations of the white and black paint are the same in these grouped cubes as they were for the single cubes – except of course – that they’re all happening at once.

At the light end I have foregone the white highlight on the edge of the cube and used my white paint for the light side. The values from there down are as they are measured. At the black end I still had the problem of the shadow side of the cube being darker than my black. I painted it the same as the cast shadow. Even though I started as light as I could I still ran out of steps, it was even worse on the next painting as I will show.

Paul at Learning to See has suggested that changing the cloth for a lighter one would make these exercises more worthwhile because I’d have more steps to play with. I think he’s right (as always!).

Group of cubes 1
Group of cubes 1

This second example is slightly different. At the light end I chose to paint the lightest side with N9, preserving the white paint for the light highlight. This forces all the values for the white cube down a notch to compensate. The grey cube is as seen but again minus one value to be in step with the white cube.. At the black end I have run out of values and have no choice but to paint the top, the shadow side and the cast shadow all in the same black paint. The effect is still convincing. Three cubes on a dark cloth.

Group of cubes 2
Group of cubes 2

That’ll do for today. The others I painted were all variations on these, just moving the mid value up and down for different effects. Trying to keep the relationships so the form was convincing but under different conditions – soft light, bright light, chiaroscuro and Aussie sun…


A chook called Dippy Egg

Really! She’s a breed called ISA Brown and definitely getting on in her years but still a favourite with all of us. She was really friendly and proved to be a natural clown from the day she came to live with us – hence the double meaning of dippy – on the one hand a soft boiled egg and on the other someone slight soft in the head! Do other people call chickens “chooks”? Or is it just an Australian thing?

This the first proof from the linocut block. I rather like the single colour here but I’ll experiment on some proofs with watercolour to see if I want to add colour. I could offset the block and make more blocks for other colours. Edition pending a decision.

Linocut chook

Dippy Egg, linocut, 30cm x 30cm (12″ x 12″)