Monday, 29 October 2012

Colourful Whites

These images all have one thing in common

They all contain white elements.  Now...ask yourself much WHITE did she use?  The answer is, much less than you might think.

This may sound simplistic, and you may feel you know how to paint white, but not everyone does.   And hopefully, I just might be able to add a wee bit to what you do know. 

When we begin to paint, we do not have lots of knowledge, or experience, so all of our control buttons are not yet finely tuned.  Even when we think we are looking properly, we often end up painting what we THINK we should paint rather than what is actually in front of us. Often, I have asked a student why he or she has painted that part of a scene darker than another part, when it is lighter......baffled, the student will look, then agree, but has no idea why it happened.  It is because we have preconceived ideas about how something should be painted - old habits left over from our childhood usually-  it is quite scary how often our subconscious takes over when we begin to paint.   The beginner sees a white window frame....and paints it white, no matter what might be happening to the white, particularly in the shadows which can change the white to a colour which has no resemblance to white at all! 

Learning to OBSERVE and analyse is part of the answer.  The other part of the answer is having sufficient understanding of what the prevailing light is doing to the scene - in terms of colour theory -  in order to be able to go one better than nature, to exaggerate/emphasise the colours in the scene.   We may see grey....and usually do...but we need to take this a little further.  Just randomly throwing a whole bunch of greys, or even purples and blues into white where it turns to shadow,  is not going to cut it.  

It is important to understand  about WARM LIGHT and COOL LIGHT.  

Warm light, from the sun, from a warm lamp, from a fire, will paint whites with warmth - with pinks, golds, yellows, apricots, creams.  it is really exciting when you start to "see" this properly and begin to use it in your paintings.  

Cool light, from the sky on an overcast day, or from a fluorescent lamp, will make those same whites look totally different, with a bluish cast.

Then, we need to understand what happens to SHADOWS cast by both Warm Light, and Cool Light.
A good -  tho general -  "rule of thumb" to use is

warm light = cool shadows
cool light = warmER shadows.

But please do remember this is only a general rule  (hence the warmER word!).  Other factors may need to be considered, such as reflections from surrounding objects, which might modify both the whites in the light, and in the shade.  This is when good observation comes into play, and might be a "tool" you need to sharpen!

To help yourself quite a lot, I recommend you find images of master painters, and study how they treated their whites.  Do this with a piece of white paper in your hand.  Place it against the reproduction in the book.  You may be really shocked by the difference between the pure white of the paper, and the  " whites" chosen by the painter.  At the same time, by way of fine-tuning your colour button,  ask yourself what TEMPERATURE the light was...warm or cool.  

Take a look at my "white" eggs...................and in the next image, I have scanned them on a grey ground, with a piece of white paper placed over the picture.  I think it speaks for itself!

- so - what temperature was the prevailing light?

Finally, it is important to the painter to learn that white, as a pigment, is tricky to use, much more tricky than it might first seem.  If you work with oils or acrylics, it is really vital to realise this.  It is opaque.  It is usually cold.  It will lighten, obviousy,  but will also modify whatever colour you mix with it, sometimes in unexpected ways.  It will often remove any vibrancy from the colour  -for example,  mix a beautiful warm, fairly transparent, vibrant red with a white, and what do you get?  a cool opaque pink;  a lighter version of red, but SO different in character.

White paint is NOT white light.  White light contains all the colours of the spectrum, which is proven by rainbows. (rainbow  displays the full spectrum of colors that make up the sun's white light, made visible by sunlight passing through water droplets). White pigment is actually the absence of colour.  It is best used sparingly.


  1. Hi Jackie, couldn't resist posting a comment. This is such an important lesson for artists, I have again shared it on my Facebook pages and a group page. I talk about warm and cool light so much to my students. .... and a recent workshop it finally hit home with two of them about the "warmer" shadows! You could see the light bulb go on in their heads ... it didn't have to be warm, just "warmer". They had asked me how I saw warmth in those shadows of a bush when all they could see was cool.

  2. Hi Jackie - a friend pointed me to an image you'd posted on WetCanvas, which led me to your blog, which leads me to ask ... do you have a list of work for sale? The painting of chefs is interesting to me. I understand it may have a home already, but are you doing a series of them?


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