Thursday, July 17, 2008

Local Colour and Realism

Before I move on to discuss strategies for colour schemes in producing artwork, it struck me that I needed to explain about 'Local Colour' and its role in art.

Try looking for definitions of 'local colour' on the web and you'll often find explanations rooted in literature, where interestingly it often seems to mean introducing aspects of local life which are distinct and different.

Here are a couple of definitions relating to its use in art. Sanford defines it as follows
Glossary Term: Local color
Local color means realistic color—color as it appears in nature (green grass, blue sky, brown horses, etc.)
Sanford - Glossary
The next one is from ArtLex - the online art dictionary
local color- The true color of an object or a surface as seen in typical daylight, rather than its color as seen through atmosphere or interpreted by the taste or imagination of the artist. Thus the characteristic local color of a lemon is yellow.
ArtLex - Local Color

Still-Life 1642
Jan Davidsz de Hem (1606-1684),
43 x 57 cm, Oil on oak panel,
Private collection

So lemons are lemon and skies are blue - in natural white daylight.

If these are the colours in natural daylight, then I wonder if there is any 'real' local colour in artificial light? Many artists today go to some considerable expense to equip their studio lighting with daylight bulbs to avoid the colour cast produced by much artificial lighting.

I often wonder how the Dutch and Flemish still life artists in the seventeenth century lit their still life set-ups for their impeccably observed still life paintings - where lemons are very emphatically 'lemon'.

Madame Moitessier 1856
Oil on canvas, 120 x 92 cm
National Gallery, London

Local Colour and Realism

Local Colour as a colour strategy is often associated with realism - the realistic and natural representation of people, places, and/or things in a work of art - as exemplified by paintings by artists such as Ingres, where amazing attention has been paid to every nuance of local colour in, for example, skin tones.

Modern portraits produced in the same way are characterised as photorealistic - despite the fact that photography often grossly distorts local colour as seen in real life.

When portraying local colour, it isn't the case that that only paints which are that local colour are used to produce the colour which looks the same as the object which is painted. Strategies such as the use of a grisaille might be used to monochromatically model the values underpinning a piece of realistic art. This is a link to Ingres's Odalisque in Grisaille, ca. 1824–34 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art - which he actually painted after his very famous painting The Grand Odalisque which is in the Louvre in Paris.

Local colour and learning to paint

Using local colour is also the approach to art which is often adopted by people who are starting to learn how to paint.

However, in this instance, we often see newbie artists trying to paint objects the colour that they 'know' them to be, rather than the colour which might actually be perceived by them through careful observation and reflection on the impact of local lighting conditions on the subject. Learning to paint is so often really about learning how to look! I always reckon you can judge where people are up to in developing their art by how often they look at their subject.

Betty Edwards, in her book Color: A Course in Mastering the Art of Mixing Colors, has a very neat synopsis of a process of painting which starts to be adopted as student artists learn more about colour. It's included in the section of the book which focuses on achieving harmonies and in it she identifies the changed role of local colour.

In summary she says
  1. The First Pass - cover the white of the surface with the relevant local colours of the main shapes and areas.
  2. The Second Pass - look for slight changes in hues and identify changes in colour produced by lighting
  3. The Third Pass - attend to pictorial colour - and achieve a "a color arrangement that is coherent, balanced, harmonised and expressive of your subject". This is a process of selection and editing and is about the art rather than the subject and applies to both realist and abstract art.
which neatly leads us onto..........

Local Colour - seen but not painted

Many artists recognise the local colour of an object but choose to paint it a different colour - which might, for example, be based in the science of light or is maybe completely arbitrary and relates to that artist's individual perspective. For example
  • The Impressionists would have created the perceived local colour through the use of colours which combined in an optical perspective to suggest the local colour.
  • Other will not use the actual local colour because they have developed and are following a particular colour scheme which forms part of the design and composition of the painting and/or relates to their concept or idea which underpins a painting.
Which is where the use of split complementaries, tetrads and other variations of harmonious colour schemes come in...........

Personally, I've always thought that being able to use colours which are NOT the same as the object is the colour equivalent of learning how to scribble. It can be really liberating NOT to draw or paint an object exactly as it appears - and a lot more interesting.

That's not to say I don't like examples of realist art - but, just as I love scribbling, I'm also totally in love with the idea of placing 'not quite real' colours next to one another so that they vibrate gently and create a more lively experience of a 'real' sense of colour.

In the next post in The Colour project, I will address colour schemes and strategies for achieving colour harmonies - such as the split complementary and the tetrad.


Links: The Making A Mark Project on Colour - previous posts
Resources for Artists information sites created by makingamark

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