_________________________ A Discussion on Oil Painting Color - Yim Maukun

As we’re in the initial stage of planning for a book on oil painting, I came across correspondence with an American artist friend via e-mails through translation by my daughter Iris.  The conversation reveals some fundamental differences in the concepts of colors, how colors are used, the purpose of colors and the relationship between form and colors.  I would like to share part of the conversation here as it helps me explain my philosophy and process.

“My ideas about color are only secondary to, and governed by the consideration of light and shade. Following the Light was the main quest. We were painting in the Chiaroscuro style. The word chiaroscuro literally in Italian means light/dark. The schools of painting and the masters we admired were Rembrandt, Velasquez, Caravaggio, etc. It can also be thought of as the “brown” school. Our backgrounds were dark and the brilliant light on the focal point was premier. We learned how to see the movement of light and how it moved through our setup. Then to paint that movement was the quest.

We were taught that a color was about hue, value and chroma. Hue means the name of the color as in, is it red, or is it yellow or blue. Then value meant the lightness or darkness of a color. Then lastly chroma meant the intensity of a color. The idea was that a color is never so pure or brilliant as when you first squeeze it out of the tube. Then in the moment you add a touch of another color to it you have to decide how much intensity you wish the color to have or not have. The rule was that value was the very most important consideration. You could have a painting with very strong values and not such good color but the painting would still be quite strong. You could have a painting with very nice color but not good value and it would be a weak not very good painting. So ,therefore value was the most important consideration and certainly in our main focus of trying to show the light effect on our sitter or still life.  Another thought was that if you have color everywhere, you really have no color. The idea is conservation. Conservation of color, and of values. So in a painting, I would decide the composition of the color and decide what part or piece of that painting will be my focal point and it would be there in that area, that I would have my most intense chroma or color.”

“The Impressionists mainly used color. When you just paint with color, you really don’t have form. When you paint form, then there will be less color. I don’t think you can have both.”

To my American artist friend, I replied:

I have a rather different view towards the relationship between color and form and I believe you can achieve both without having to sacrifice one or the other.  Drawing is the study of form and light and oil painting is the study of color.  In an oil painting, you overlay colors on a drawing.  So oil paintings should have both form and colors.  What distinguishes one oil painting from another is the artist’s own interpretation of colors and adept use of colors to express what he sees.  In other words, the beauty of oil paintings likes in the temperature, texture and chroma of colors, in addition to value.  And of course, you need to get the form right in the first place.  The secret doesn’t lie in the palette.  You can have fewer than twenty colors on your palette but can still mix all the colors that you want for an oil painting.  That’s why I am not keen to emphasize palette colors, not that I have any anything to hold back from sharing.  My oil painting DVDs don’t feature the palette as much as instructional DVDs produced in the U.S.  Sometimes there are some shots of the palette, sometimes there is none.  Again, that’s because I don’t believe the colors on the palette contain a secret weapon.  In my experiences, there are no major differences between different paint brands either, be it from UK, German, Italy or Russia or even China.  Some of the works I did many years back in China still have pretty good colors.  The key lies in observation, interpreting colors and then using colors on the palette to express what you feel.  That’s why I strongly advocate painting outdoor to train your observation skills and interpretation of colors.  That’s why I often emphasize using a language of color to paint oil paintings.

For illustration purposes, I have listed here three images:

  • One of Portrait of Madame (partial) by John Singer Sargent who had a very elegant and polished style and was very precise on form. But you won’t see patches of colors in this painting.
  • One of Two Sisters (partial) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir to illustrate his use of vibrant colors but the form is not necessarily precise.
  • One of Ukrainian Girl (partial) by me in which you can see there are both form and colors.