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Painting Impressionism: color block study

I have been reading an outstanding book by Lois Griffel, who follows the methods developed by Charles Hawthorne at the Cape Cod School of Art (where some of the outstanding American impressionistic painters have studied). She shares the importance of doing studies with color blocks, so here, I will share how to do a simple one.

photo of colored blocks
  1. First, I created some color “blocks” to paint, using some package boxes I had around the house. I painted them with pure acrylic colors for most, but added a tiny bit of white to the blue and green to make them opaque. Above is the reference photo. I then let them dry for a day, and repainted them for stronger color.
  2. I waited for a cloudy day, since in this method, I will want to do both a sunny day study, and a cloudy day study to see how the light affects the colors. It is raining today, so it was perfect for the cloudy day study.
  3. I took a white (gessoed) canvas since this method depends upon painting on a white surface. I first sketched in my blocks, then laid in my lightest colors, paying particular attention to the values: how light is the light surface of the green block, compared to the dark surface of the white box? How does the yellow dark compare in value to the red light?

Below is the lights painted in:

I used cerulean and ultramarine mixed with white for the light blue; lemon yellow with a hint of white for the yellow; I saw a lot of pink, surprisingly, so added pink to my white; and pure red mixed with a hint of lemon yellow for the red. The theory says not to mix white if possible, to use pure colors as much as possible.

4. The next stage involved putting in the darks, the table top, and initial block in of the shadows.

I was really surprised at how much pink I was seeing in the shadow of the white box (I kept blinking, looking away, looking back to be sure). I also saw alizarin in the green shadows, probably bounced from the red box. The shadow on the yellow box looked green-blue to me, so I painted it that way. The table top is a pale cream, so I painted it that color. I saw a bit of lighter ares in the block shadows, but overall, painted them as shapes. I laid the shadow colors in as one unit; part of the theory involves breaking things down to basic shapes, and using color to portray the light and shade areas.

I took a break here. I had been painting for an hour, and you are supposed to take frequent breaks when doing this method; so I had lunch.

5. Now, I refined my colors, adding and scumbling in color and adjusting it a bit to look more like the blocks and their shadows:

I was surprised to see how much bounced light there was on a cloudy day. I adjusted the values a bit, and the colors. The cream cloth is on a black table, but I didn’t bother with it. This was all done in acrylics, but I plan to do this in oils, since this method was developed for use with oils.

I plan to do the sunny day study next. If it’s rainy out, I will use my full daylight bulbs to create the right lighting.

I’m glad I did this. I plan to work at developing my understanding of color, so will be using these blocks and other items to learn how to paint what I see. I decided to share this method for others to use – I hope you find it helpful.

3 responses to “Painting Impressionism: color block study”

  1. Excellent and very useful indeed! I always have some problems when it comes to painting or coloring lights and shadows, your exercises has helped me to understand colors better,thank you very much for sharing!

    • I am glad it helped. I will post the other exercises when I do them. The book is called “Painting the Impressionistic Landscape” and is good for learning about color in landscapes. I decided to just post about the color studies here

      • Ok,they are extremely useful! I have a lot of difficulty in painting and coloring the shadows and lights in particular on the face and human body

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