Wow! Value, Hue, And Intensity!

Every color has three different components. These qualities are value (lightness or darkness), hue (the color name), and intensity (saturation or brightness). Each brushstroke in a watercolor painting is affected by all three aspects of color, although usually the properties are discussed and adjusted separately. By manipulating value, hue, and intensity in a painting, you will be able to create the illusion of space and three dimensions as well as create art filled with feeling.

COLOR VALUE.

I have heard it said that VALUE (a color’s lightness and darkness) is the most important of these three elements of color to get right in a painting. Value helps to create form and to show the direction of light. In order to better see value in a scene, squint your eyes. Squinting allows less light to reach your eyes and will reduce both the color (hue) and detail you see, making it much easier to isolate light and dark values. Even when squinting, you will probably see many values ranging from black through a range of dark to light grays to white. Trying to capture every one of these variations in paint, from dark to light, would be too overwhelming. It is best to simplify; narrow down the number of values you plan to capture, and limit yourself to 3-5 values for ease of painting. For example, limit your choice of values to darkest dark, lightest light, and one or two mid-tones.

One method of achieving the desired value of your color, is to mix the right amount of water with the right amount of paint. If you add more water to a watercolor mixture, you get a lighter value. If you instead add more pigment, you create a thicker, darker mix. The thickness of your color mix relates to its value.

Further, you can create the desired value of a color by first choosing the right pigment for the value you want. Catherine Gill, in Powerful Watercolor Landscapes, pp. 120-121, suggests, “If you want a light value, choose a transparent pigment. For a middle value, choose an opaque. For a dark value, choose a stain.” You still must adjust the amount of water you use. For a light color using a transparent pigment, use more water. For achieving middle value color, make a thicker mixture with an opaque color. An even thicker mixture made with a staining color will produce a dark value.

Values – Beach Shadows Watercolor Painting.

HUE.

HUE is the name used for a color. Red, yellow, and blue are hues. An almost infinite number of hue variations are possible, from yellow-green to turquoise to blue-violet. When we talk about hue, we are NOT referring to light or dark, bright or grayed, or strong or weak. To better understand how hues (colors) relate to each other, learn about the COLOR WHEEL. Each hue has its own specific placement on the color wheel, depending on its similarities and differences to other hues. 

B. MacEvoy Color Wheel. (Download your own copy https://www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/cwheel06.pdf)

Hues located close to each other on the color wheel have more similarities; they contain more of the same primary color than hues located farther from each other. Nearby hues are harmonious and analogous. In contrast, those hues located farther away from each other on the color wheel are less closely related. Two hues opposite each other on the color wheel have little in common; they are complements. If mixed together, complements create a neutral, grayed hue, whether gray or brown. When complements are painted side by side in your painting, they contrast strongly and can emphasize each other.

HUE AND TEMPERATURE.

COLOR TEMPERATURE, whether a color is warm or cool, is a characteristic of hue. Every color leans either toward warm or cool. On the color wheel, cool colors are grouped together (blue, green, violet). Warmer hues (red, orange, yellow) are located together on the opposite side of the color wheel. While yellow is generally a warm hue, some yellows are cooler than others. For instance, a Cadmium Lemon pigment is cooler (closer to blue on the color wheel) than warmer (more orange) Cadmium Yellow. Cadmium Red is warmer than Permanent Alizarin. And Sap Green is warmer than Hooker’s Green, which is warmer still than Viridian. Thus, even within a hue, you will find a variety of temperature differences. You can warm a hue by adding yellow and cool one by adding blue. 

A color can also appear warmer or cooler depending on the hues painted nearby. In other words, a color’s appearance is relative. You will want to judge a hue’s temperature in relation to colors next to it. Ultramarine Blue next to Cadmium Lemon will look cooler than the same Ultramarine Blue next to Cadmium Red.

Color temperature changes in a painting affect a picture in several ways. 1.) Color temperature can show the effect of light and shade. Warmer hues ( combined with a lighter value) can indicate the sunnier or brighter side of an object, while cooler hues suggest shadow and less light. Items closer to the sun are generally yellower and warmer than those farther from the sun or light source. Where the surface of a feature changes direction, you can alter color temperature and show its contours. For example, the east side of a barn may be in direct sunlight, but the north side may be in shadow; a contrast in color temperature can capture the three-dimensional quality of the image.

Changing color temperature to illustrate contour. – Barn Watercolor Painting.

The quality of light can also change color temperature. A sunset may transform everything to a rosy hue, whereas a road during a rainstorm may become grayish purple. Observe the light source BEFORE choosing your hues for a painting. You may notice a warm light source (a bright sunset or artificial lighting, which is often warmer than outdoor lighting) where you will need to paint cool shadows. Or the light source may be cool (from a north-facing window, outdoors under the blue sky, or even on an overcast gray day), suggesting the need for warmer shadows. So remember, shadows are NOT always cool.

2.) Color temperature can help you create depth in a painting by taking advantage of the fact that warmer hues tend to advance (pull forward) while cooler colors recede (push back) into the distance. With cool bluish, distant hills appearing farther back than warm foreground fields, you can create space in a painting. (As the distant hills recede, they will also tend to get paler, less intense, and will display less contrast and softer edges.)

3.) Colors (hues) can have a psychological effect on mood. Color contrast can add energy to your painting. Warm colors like red, yellow, and orange tend to arouse emotions such as love, passion, happiness, hunger, and anger. In contrast, cool colors, such as blue, green, and purple are thought to bring calmness, sadness, or indifference. Red sports uniforms have been linked to higher win rates. Blue has been linked to sadness, gray to feeling down, green with jealousy. You can use color temperature to engage your viewers, to get them excited or relaxed. 

Color Temperature Changes. – Red Geranium Watercolor Painting.
Color Temperature Changes. – Cold Winter Barn, Winter Light Watercolor Painting.
Color Temperature Changes. – T’s Fall Road Watercolor Painting.

INTENSITY.

Color intensity is a color’s saturation, purity, or brightness. An intense color is pure, whereas a less intense color is grayed. Intense colors, like Phthalo Blue, Cadmium Red, or Ultramarine Blue, are found on the perimeter of the color wheel. Less saturated colors, such as Indigo, Sepia, or Venetian Red, will fall toward the interior of the color wheel. To lessen the intensity of a bright color, add some of its complement or a close complement (the colors opposite on the color wheel). For instance, to lessen the intensity of Hooker’s Green, you could add a slight amount of Cadmium Scarlet, Cadmium Red, or Permanent Alizarin. Some readily available (but less intense pigments) include Sap Green, Payne’s Gray, Indigo, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber.

Understanding color bias helps you mix high-intensity or low-intensity colors. A warm red pigment contains some yellow – it ‘leans’ toward and is biased toward yellow, whereas a cooler red would have more blue and would lean toward blue, or have a blue bias. A hint to help you create a bright, intense mixed color is to use two colors biased TOWARD each other on the color wheel (e.g., a yellow situated closer to the blues mixed with a blue situated closer to the yellows), thus avoiding the addition of any of the third primary color, red, which would gray the mixture.

The grayer, softer colors provide restful areas within your painting. Less intense, grayed colors can also be used to draw attention to and support a bright color (providing color contrast), allowing the bright to take center stage. Contrast in color intensity near your center of interest can help to emphasize it. On the other hand, too many bright intense colors will compete with each other and can easily overwhelm a picture. A range of intensities in a painting creates more interest and a better painting.

Grays Can Intensify Bright Color. – Viennese Streetcar Watercolor Painting.

SUMMARY.

Use what you have learned here about value, hue, and intensity of color to improve your paintings and to paint strong three-dimensional pictures. Begin by considering value to begin to capture light and shadow. Then, work to create a range of warm and cool hues to establish mood and depth. Build more distance and interest while supporting your center of interest with grayed, less intense color.

Related blog posts you might find helpful include:

Join me and get painting tips, inspiration, and the latest news about classes, new art or products for sale, sent to you by email. Subscribe here. I’ll give you a free copy of my Color Blending Tips pdf. that you can download and print.

APPENDIX A: TEN COLOR COMPONENT TIPS

1.) Squint your eyes to better distinguish value (light and dark).

2.) Simplify your composition, and reduce the number of your values to 3-5        

     for ease of painting.

3.) To mix a lighter value, add water to a mixture. To create darker values, 

     use less water and more pigment, making a thicker mixture. Mixing 

     color with a transparent paint is the easiest way to create a light value. 

     Opaque paints are ideal for mixing mid-tones, while staining paints 

     work well to mix dark values.

4.) Each hue has its own specific placement on the color wheel, depending 

     on its similarities and differences to other hues. Understand how the

     color wheel makes it easier to mix colors, to use warm and cool colors 

     effectively, to arrange your palette, and to find a color’s complement. 

5.) Every color leans either toward warm or cool. You can warm a hue by

     adding yellow and cool one by adding blue. 

6.) The appearance of colors can vary depending on which colors are 

     nearby. You will want to judge a hue’s qualities in relation to the colors 

     next to it. Understand also that the quality of light can change 

     color temperature, suggesting a possible call for reconsidering the 

     temperature of your chosen pigments for a picture. Warm light 

     suggests the need for cool shadows, while cool light creates warm 

     shadows.

7.) Use value and color temperature to suggest light and shade and to 

     create depth in a painting. 

8.) Understanding color bias helps you mix high-intensity or low-intensity 

     colors. You must take bias into account if you hope to create either a 

     bright or less intense color and hope to avoid a muddy color. A warm

     red contains some yellow – it ‘leans’ toward and is 

     biased toward yellow, whereas a cooler red would have more blue 

     and would ‘lean’ toward blue, or have a blue bias. 

9.) To insure a bright color mix, use two colors biased TOWARD each 

      other on the color wheel (e.g., a yellow situated closer to the blues 

      mixed with a blue situated closer to the yellows), thus avoiding the addition of any 

      of the third primary color, red, which would gray the mixture.

10.) Grays and less intense colors support and set off bright colors. 

       Include them in your work to provide more interest and an improved  

       painting. To dull or gray a color, add some of its complement. Gray 

       can also be mixed by combining all three primary colors (red, yellow, 

       and blue).

From Pretty Good To Better Composition!

Only occasionally, as artists, do we discover a perfectly designed composition we’d like to paint. More often, we find an appealing image that needs some improving and editing to make it more effective. Editing allows an artist to interpret a scene and tell the picture’s story in a stronger, more personal way. All the information may be there in front of us, but we may want to re-organize some of the parts. We might want to combine several reference photos, or totally remove some distracting information. We know we don’t want to just copy a reference, but how would you go about ‘improving’ a composition?

Joe English Hill Photo, Spring.

Here is an image that appealed to me. Let’s evaluate the composition though – it does have some problems. It’s hard to tell what this picture is about, isn’t it? It probably wouldn’t make a very good painting, as is. What attracted me to this scene in the first place? I was drawn to the dramatic cliff (barely visible in the photo) rising steeply behind the vibrant, early spring colors. So, my first decision would have to do with figuring out what I want my center of interest to be, and then deciding how best to emphasize it. 

I decide to make the cliff my center of interest. How could I simplify some of the shapes or eliminate unnecessary detail? There is too much information in this reference photo. I certainly don’t have to include all of the trees from the photo. I will remove some of the smaller trees blocking the view of the cliff to uncover it. I will also eliminate a few trees on the far right, but leave one tree to help frame the cliff. This tree on the right would also function to stop your eye from following the line of the top of the far hill right on out of the picture. While I think the large green gold trees on the left also function as a frame of the cliff, I want to move them more to the left to further open up our view of the cliff. And I want to increase the height of the trees on the left, hoping they appear closer to the viewer and increasing depth in the picture. And finally, I plan to exaggerate the size of the cliff to make it even more prominent in my painting. 

Early Spring Color, Joe English Hill, Another View.

Color will be important to give the picture the feel of the new leaves and grasses of springtime. Spring is a time of fresh growth, when buds and flowers burst forth. Fields and forest floors are becoming free of frost and snow, and bright green shoots begin to appear. I hope to exaggerate the brightness and variety of colors in the final painting by using bright complementary colors. Reds and greens (complements) will be used for newly emerging leaves, and yellow and green gold leaves will complement purple-tinged rocks and purplish shadows. Muted grays and browns are planned to contrast with the bright colors.

I hope to make use of differences in color temperature as well. Cooler colors on the distant hill (and minimal detail) should help it recede, increasing depth in the painting. In contrast, warm yellow greens in the foreground field and trees should advance.

Values (lights/darks) in the reference photo seem to be much too similar. By looking at this black and white version of the reference photo you can see there is very little contrast in values. If there are too many areas of equal light intensity (or a lack of shadows) in a painting, the image will tend to look flat, less interesting, or bland. I will need to create more contrast to make the picture work better! Good value contrast (with light values close by and emphasized by darks) can create the illusion of light, depth, and a center of interest.

Black and White Version of Reference Photo.

After experimenting with several small thumbnail sketches to find a better arrangement of strong lights and darks,  I chose this arrangement. 

Final Thumbnail Sketch.

The lightest values in the painting will be the green gold leaves, road, cliff, some saved light birch tree trunks. Mid-values are planned for the middle distance trees on the opposite side of the road. And the darkest values, which will help to highlight the cliff, will be the top of the hill, dark shadows and tree trunks. 

Below is the finished watercolor painting, and its black and white version, which resulted from the improved composition.

Final Watercolor, Joe English Hill.
Black and White Version of Painting.

Join me and get painting tips, inspiration, the latest news about classes, new art or products for sale, sent to you in my newsletter. Subscribe here. I’ll give you a free copy of my Color Blending Tips pdf., that you can download and print.

Dusk, Evening, and Moonlight… Oh, My!

Paintings set at nighttime might seem very different from the usual watercolor scenes.  Dusk, evening, or even dawn pictures have a predominance of dark values.  The mood of a nighttime or twilight picture can often be somber, gloomy, quiet, or perhaps even threatening.  There may be fewer details seen than in a well-lit picture.  However, a nighttime painting can also be effective, appealing, and  powerful.  How would you paint a dark evening image?

The amount and quality of light available determines what we visually perceive in any situation.  Under clear, bright conditions, colors are pure, and edges and some details are sharp.  Values are extreme.  Lots of color is visible in shadowed areas.  A painting with lots of light values is called a HIGH KEY picture.  As the light becomes less strong (for example, on a foggy day, during a blizzard, at dusk), the level of detail, the sharpness, and the value contrast are reduced.  Colors become duller and more subtle, creating a LOW KEY picture.  Nevertheless, even in the dark, you want to see some details.  A nighttime painting will have a source of light or two or three, and before you begin to paint, you must decide on those light sources in your picture, as well as on the strength and direction of the light and on what it will illuminate.  Your picture needs some contrast in value (light and dark), especially near the point of interest, to be effective.

IMG_1729.jpg

To produce a painting full of drama and power, you need to create dominance, whether in value, color, or shape.  All you need to do to create VALUE DOMINANCE is to present the light, middle, and dark values in unequal amounts.  A nighttime painting will be a low key picture, which will have dark value dominance.  It will have more dark values than either light or middle tones.  However, your dark picture still will need the contrast of some light and middle tones if it is to pop.  The function of the dark colors is to complement the light tones and help your picture emit a glow.  If you actually use complementary colors for your dark and light colors, you will immediately create a reaction that transforms the light tones into radiant light.  Any warm and cool colors will create color contrast while vibrating against each other.

IMG_0075.jpg

Farmhouse At Dusk, partially finished, illustrating the glow of complements orange and blue.

Darks can be luminous and colorful IF you mix them yourself from pure, translucent pigments.  Using transparent colors allows light to reflect off the paper and up through the color to create a luminous effect.  Opaque colors (such as ivory black Payne’s gray, Davy’s gray, indigo, sepia, neutral tint) do not allow any light to reflect back to the viewer and therefore appear flat and dull.  Instead of using opaque colors, mix your own colorful darks from some of these transparent pigments: permanent alizarin crimson, Winsor (phthalo) blue, Winsor (phthalo) green, and perhaps ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, quinacridone gold, or quinacridone violet.  Always design your darks to heighten your light pattern without overpowering it.  Also, try to include nuances and variations in your darks.  Do not use a dark mixture indiscriminately: large areas of unrelieved darks are not interesting.  Ideally, you will build up your dark areas so that subtle shapes in each layer are there for the viewer to find.  If you mix together all the colors that you plan to use for dark areas and apply this mixture in a single dark layer, the result will lack the transparency and interest of a dark created by GLAZING with separate layers of the same medium dark colors.

Transparency can also be enhanced if you strive for variations by NOT applying all the darks as one value. To add variety and vary the tones or values of your dark colors, paint some areas as ‘half-dark’.  By painting part of the dark area a bit lighter, you create variation and an illusion of depth into what otherwise might be dull and monotonous (that is, of all one tone).  Try to apply your layers of darks one at a time, each in one go, in one layer and as richly as possible.  By mixing your darks with lots of pigment to create a rich color the first time, you can avoid having to add a similar layer (of the same color) over the same area; such an added layer can deaden the dark area and create a pasted-on appearance with hard edges.

Sunset.jpg

Your pattern of dark shapes should ideally interlock or relate to your medium and lighter shapes.  Hopefully, the forms transition into and set each other off rather than float in space separately.  Neither light nor dark is as striking without the close proximity of other.

In summary:  Begin your nighttime paintings by establishing the light sources in your picture, perhaps using masking fluid to save some.  You may create other light areas during the painting process or by scrubbing and lifting later.  Do NOT lose your light values!  Glazing later can also subdue certain areas while allowing other areas to be left brighter.  Choose muted or subdued, NOT bright, colors for your twilight or evening image.

To actually mix a darker and more intense color, use less water.  Don’t repeatedly dip your brush in water when you try to pick up pigment with that brush.  Instead, go from color to color without cleaning (rinsing) your brush in between.  The only way to create the rich, dark colors is with less water!

IMG_0102.jpg

Cityscape In Winter, partially finished, illustrating reflected light and bright halo around lights.

In a low key, dark painting, begin applying paint in a medium or mid-tone dark.  Try to leave a lot of light around light source and subdue the rest of your painting.  (You can use a warm yellow-white for incandescent lights.)  If you want to create a halo of glowing light, start with a circle of clear water over the light, then float a dark wash all around the clear water areas, just touching it.  This dark color will tend to diffuse.  If the dark strays too close to your light source, absorb a little fo the dark color with a clean, damp (not wet) brush used like a sponge.  After this area dries, you can apply a soft wash of warm yellow over the clear halo, leaving the brightest light as the white of the paper.

Don’t forget that light illuminates but also reflects off a subject.  A streetlight may reflect light off buildings, and a brightly lit window may reflect onto the ground outside.  However, these light areas need to be surrounded by darks.  The farther away from the light sources, the darker your colors.  Details almost disappear in the darkness as it increases.

After mid-tones or middle-dark tones dry, you can begin to layer in your next, darker tones.  As you build up to your darkest colors, you create depth, interest, and subdued variation.

Snowy City at Night.jpg

Snowy City at Night complete.

Paint Your Shadows Bold… And Transparent !

Light is often the making or breaking of a painting.  Some subjects seem uninteresting or lifeless until bright lights and the consequent shadows become parts of the scene.  Light not only creates interesting shadows for a painting, but it also produces tonal extremes, lights and darks.  Without dark tones and areas of shade, the light parts of a picture will seem bland and not stand out.  Dark tones are needed to emphasize the lighter ones.  In the same way, without light areas, the darker tones have nothing to contrast with.  The issue is not just how much light you put into a painting, but also how DARK you can make your darks! Very dark areas near very light areas will give your painting the greatest amount of contrast and impact.

out cold large.jpg

 

On a sunny day, the main tones are pushed to extremes.  Areas of BRIGHT light will be bleached out to some degree, and thus you will paint them with pale washes.  The brighter the light, the paler the tone, BUT also the more opportunity to offset light colors with dark.  Sunny areas contain warmer colors like yellow, brown, or red, whereas shaded parts of a scene will be grayer and cooler in tone.  At the same time, when painting a brightly lit section of a picture, do NOT think that a thick layer of brightly colored paint will convey the brilliance or glow you are looking for.  If you apply paint thickly, it can appear opaque because the brightness of the white underlying paper has been covered up.  Therefore, add lots of water to your color before applying it.  The more water you have in your mixture, the more the white of the paper will show through to suggest brightness.

cape elizabeth light.jpg

Because the bright spots in a painting will appear even brighter next to dark areas, SHADOWS and shaded areas ought to be a part of any painting.  A lack of light creates the darker tones within an image while also creating shadows and areas of shade.  An object blocking the light casts a shadow which can fall across a lit part of the scene.  SHADE tends to be simply a larger area of shadow.  The darkest tone in a painting is often the deepest area of shade, where the least amount of light reaches.  As light is reduced, color tends to become darker, grayer, and more muted.

acapella pigs.jpg

A shadow across an area of white (for example, snow) will show as a blue, gray, or violet.  However, shadows that are cast across several changes of color (for example, over a field, then a road, then a stone wall) appear to require several CHANGES IN SHADOW COLOR to look realistic.  That is ONE option. To create a shadow color, you could first look at the color as seen in direct light.  In this case, the shadow color must relate to the color it falls across.  If a shadow falls across a green field, its color will be a gray-green.  A shadow cast across a variety of features will change color appropriately, although the shadows MUST remain the same TONE (darkness) throughout (even as the colors change).  Furthermore, shadows cast across a landscape will follow the contours of the land, showing dips and depressions.

If shadows falling across a part of a painting are a darker and cooler version of the base color, how would you paint a cast shadow that crosses a path with grass on both sides (with this method)?  First, you would paint the areas themselves, with the grass painted green and the path perhaps painted a gray-brown.  Paint one area and let it dry before painting the next to avoid blurring.   When the painted grass and path are dry, next create a grayed-green and a grayer gray-brown for shadow colors.  Then paint the shadow in two different stages, one for the grass and the other for the path, with drying in between to avoid bleeding of color.  In theory, the overall TONE of the shadows stays constant throughout, even though the COLORS change according to the features underneath.

Kautzky Oak(154).jpg

Artist Robert J. O’Brien uses a somewhat different (and simpler) technique. Instead, he suggests creating one TRANSPARENT gray shadow color from indanthrone blue, gamboge, and quinacridone rose. Instead of mixing/using multiple shadow color mixtures (as described above), he uses his one transparent gray to glaze over ANY areas that require a shadow. He paints the areas first with their local color, then, when dry, he paints shadows with the ‘shadow gray’. To vary tone and darken certain shadows, he glazes the same gray over previous layers. (Two, or more, layers are darker than one layer!) Since the gray shadow color is transparent, the base color already on the paper continues to show through the layers and remains visible.

So, to create LUMINOUS shadows, you need to be able to see through the shadow to the color beneath. Using a TRANSPARENT paint color is a must!  Your shadows should NOT be thick and opaque.  The most transparent blues are phthalo blue, indanthrone blue, ultramarine blue; the reds are permanent alizarin, quinacidone rose, permanent rose, or quinacridone red; the yellows are  quinacridone gold, gamboge, burnt sienna, or hansa yellow light.  Most blacks and grays straight out of the tube are NOT transparent, so it is advisable to mix your own shadow colors. Mix your shadow color DARKER than you think you need.  Don’t be afraid to paint the shadows dark!

Sometimes color or light can reflect back into a shadow, especially at the shadow’s edge.  REFLECTED LIGHT may require a lighter or warmer section within a shadow.  Reflected light can be very subtle but can create varied color intensity within the shadow itself (for example, warm light suggested by a touch of yellow in the shadow, or a yellow underlayer).  In other words, areas of shade close to brightly lit parts of a painting might absorb more light; the painter could use more color and less gray here to create a bit more color intensity in the shadow.  

In most cases cast shadows have CRISP edges, which you would paint wet-on-dry (wet paint on dry paper) over a dried wash.  As previously mentioned, nearby objects can reflect light or color into the shadows.  A painter could brush in reflected colors while the shadow color is still wet, for SOFT blending. Other shadows may be SOFT-edged (for example, where fleeting light flashes over a hillside, or in some snow depressions).  Paint these soft-edged shadows wet-into-wet.

barn walshaw.jpg

 

The general process for creating a watercolor with enough contrast to make your picture “pop” involves painting in stages and layers.  Your aim is to paint confidently with a brush full of color and to paint shadow areas right up against the lightest parts of your painting.  Think of it this way:

Stage 1 is the initial drawing and any light toning down of the papers,

Stage 2 is painting in the light washes,

Stage 3 is building up the darker colors and shadow areas,

Stage 4 is adding the darkest marks and details, and

Stage 5 is painting the cast shadows.

Remember that your light colors need BOLD DARKS!

Add People To Your Painting.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO ADD PEOPLE TO YOUR PAINTINGS

As a beginner watercolor painter, you probably avoid painting human figures at all costs.  After all, you don’t want to ruin your painting!  Unfortunately, some of the strongest attractions you can add to your paintings are people.  Even when the figures are small, your eye is drawn to them.  On the other hand, every picture does not need signs of life, and you may want to leave a scene quiet, serene, and uncluttered.  Nevertheless, in many cases, the inclusion of people (or animals or images of man-made objects or of everyday life) brings a picture to life, adds interest, and invites a viewer to look more closely by suggesting a story.  Figures in a painting can also help you suggest scale and perspective.  Figures or man-made objects can increase contrast by introducing a man-made color not found elsewhere in your painting, like the color of a cobalt blue car or the red coat of a person walking.

Unless you are painting a portrait, chances are that any human figures you add to your picture will be relatively small.  As Frank Clarke says in Simply Painting, “What I would like you to do is forget people and paint CARROTS!” (p. 69). The carrot is the body of your figure, wider at the top than at the bottom.

IMG_6971.jpg

After painting twenty carrots with watercolor paint, “put dots on top of the carrots . . . . Don’t make them too big” (p. 70). The carrots now have heads!

IMG_6972.jpg

Some carrots can have longer hair. Some carrots can be facing the viewer. Some carrots might even wear dresses. “Baby carrots” look like children, having “smaller bodies,” but with “heads as big as a fullgrown carrot” (p. 71). Once you have practiced the basic shape and feel comfortable with it, it’s time to vary the shape and make it a bit more nuanced.

These figures are too far away to see facial expressions or features but close enough to see body language and gestures.  Capturing body language is what transforms your “carrot” into an interesting person.  Try to paint your figures with the least number of brushstrokes possible.  There are a number of ways to suggest body language.  First, where you position the head on your figure determines the direction it is looking or moving.  A head can tilt quizzically to the side or can indicate an aged figure leaning. Then, the width of your torso depends on whether you want a front/rear or side view.  The shape and position of the torso determine body language to a large degree.  Is the figure sitting, running, waving?  Also, when you vary the shape of the lower part of the body, you suggest more body language and information about your figure.  If you divide your “carrot” in half, you can create a rectangular shape for an upper torso and then create legs with long tapered strokes.  You can have a bend at the knee if you wish.  Legs in a side view should overlap.

IMG_6973.jpg

            And now, turn your attention to adding some simple arms.  (You don’t need to add hands or feet unless they are an important part of a gesture.)  Keep in mind that one arm is often hidden in a side view.  Make sure you attach your arms at the shoulder, not in the middle of your body, with a long tapered stroke similar to though shorter than that used for the legs.  You will want to make the arms long enough to reach mid-thigh.  Sometimes arms and legs are bent; paint arms in two strokes in this case, perhaps one part smaller than the other, or alternatively, paint in one stroke and blot one part of the arm lightly.  (Blotting will help you create a 3-D effect.)

IMG_6975.jpg

For a standing figure to appear balanced, the feet must be located close to or on each side of a vertical line drawn from the head to the ground.  You can imply movement, however, by placing the feet so they extend beyond a vertical line from the head to the ground; for example, if the body is leaning, you will need to counterbalance with an arm or leg extending, or the figure will appear to be falling or defying gravity.

IMG_6976.jpg

To suggest a figure is walking, simply shorten one leg or bend a leg to make it shorter and tucked behind the closer leg.  This makes the shorter leg look farther away.  A slight gap between foot and shadow can also suggest walking, as the foot will appear off the ground.

IMG_6977.jpg

Add colorful clothing to your figures by (a) letting the original color dry and then painting the clothing color on top, (b) dropping in the clothing color while the original color is still damp, or (c) painting the whole figure one color, then blotting the area you want to be clothing.  Paint the clothing color either when this area is still damp or when it has dried.  Remember that clothing and accessories often determine the shape that you paint your figure.  Is your person wearing a hat, holding an umbrella, carrying a heavy bag, or wearing a heavy winter coat?

Although one or two figures look good in a painting, figures tend to look better in groups.  (If you plan ahead, figures can be carefully masked with masking fluid to protect their shapes.)  To suggest the feel of distance, use several figures in diminishing sizes.  If you reduce the size of figures into the distance, it is important to remember that all heads need to remain on a similar (eye) level, no matter how far away they seem to be!

The most important concern in including human figures is to get the shape and proportion of the bodies and heads to look correct right at the beginning. I would suggest drawing the figures carefully with pencil before applying masking fluid to preserve them and before adding any paint.  It is also possible to add a figure part way through a painting. Draw a simplified, tapered figure shape on tracing paper and try positioning it to see how it looks the painting. When you have chosen the spot to place your figure, place this tracing paper on a cutting mat, and cut out the shape of the human figure with an X-acto knife.  Place the tracing paper on the painting again, and carefully lift with water and brush to remove the pigment, using the tracing paper as a stencil. When the paper is dry, paint the person with feet tapering to a point if you want to suggest walking.  Leave a gap for a collar to avoid making your person look hunched.

When painting a figure, it is tempting to try to paint eyes, noses, and mouths.  However, too much detail is often a mistake, making your people look overdone or even clumsy and ugly.  Minimal detail is better.  If a figure is sufficiently distant, don’t try to paint facial features at all because we can’t clearly discern distant details, even in real life.  When figures are closer, sunglasses can be a very useful device to help the viewer read a shape as a face.  Remember: it is the shape and scale of your figure that gets across the all-important body language of a human being.