Text and images © Nicholas Ferenczy November 2010
Colour provokes an instant emotional reaction in people. So not surprisingly, the interpretation of colour in 2-D art is a very personal matter. To talk about it is a bit like talking politics or religion – apt to be provocative. So I excuse what follows as being just a way into colour in figure drawing, giving a few possibilities among endless ways to go. But it might just help…
Before starting, ask yourself the following:
1. What colour is my own skin?
Of course, it’s a naive question because if you look at your hand you’ll soon see it isn’t one colour but a great many, and this applies equally whether you’re of (say) black, white or Asian (and all points in between) descent.
Skin is partially transparent, so the colour you’re seeing is not merely that of the skin itself, but that of the subcutaneous tissues and blood vessels seen through and modulated by the skin – what might be more generally called the colour of the flesh.
If you’re ‘white’, you might see anything from creamy ivory, through pinks, yellowish pinks to greys and even purples. Of course, these colours vary not merely from one white person to another, but within the same person depending on how much time they’ve spent in the sun, on the room’s temperature, whether they’ve been exerting them self, as well as on their general health and so on.
These are the colours of flesh seen close up when scrutinised, and a good example of flesh painted like this would be in the works of say, Lucian Freud and Jenny Saville.
Viewed from farther away, the flesh is of a more general hue and influenced more by tonal variations due to shadows (cast by the head on the neck or an arm on the torso, for instance). Unless you’re very close-up, this is how you’ll see colours most often, and in any case, in the life class scenario you won’t have time to observe them any other way. (Though there are endless ways of reinterpreting colour, as we’ll see…)
▲ Skinscapes: flesh varies greatly not only in colour but in texture too. Take a look at the palms and backs of your own hands, fingers and knuckles and you’ll see that finger prints aside, it has a ‘grain’, and there are even hairs!
2. How can I apply the colour in the time I have?
If you haven’t time to use paint, consider using a limited palette of coloured pencils, pastels or even water-soluble felt-tipped pens. Don’t worry if it seems rather ‘disrespectful’ to apply such ‘diposable, brash mass-produced, tatty’ tools to such an ‘ancient worthy ‘subject” as the human figure! They’re among the tools of our times – they say something about us – and you use what you need to get the results you’re after. (One view of the artistic process is from the perspective of ‘elevating’ base materials – earth, minerals and so on, turning them into something higher – rather like the alchemists tried to do. Art materials manufacturers will spin for their own interests.) This way you can draw and colour at the same time. But at once this raises another question…
3 How many colours do I need or put another way: what can I achieve with (say) only one or two colours?
A monochrome drawing is made in one colour. But you needn’t choose to make it in greys. Many old masters used warm red-browns. Watteau, a French artist, and Leonardo used a red chalk called sanguine. Rembrandt often used a reed pen with bistre ink – that is, a grey-brown ink made from the soot of burnt wood. Sepia – the ink of cuttlefish – was also used to make drawings with a reddish brown or yellowish brown tinge.
If you made a drawing with a blue coloured pencil alone, it’d have a different feel again.
4. Do I want to use colour naturalistically – that’s to say, being faithful to the actual colours in front of me – or might I use colour experimentally?
Look again at that list of colours that might be seen in the flesh of a white person – ‘creamy ivory, through pinks, yellowish pinks to greys and even purples’.
In fact, even these descriptions are slightly flamboyant. Natural colours are most often subtle variations on what are known as ‘neutral colours’ – neutrals (or tertiaries).
Just as the forms of a figure slide seamlessly from one to another, so too do the neutral colours of the flesh. The point is: in the time you have, you’d be hard pressed to treat these colours naturalistically – as they might appear in, say, a traditional portrait, for example.
An alternative is to look at the colours in a figure more generally and to simplify and edit. But of course, you don’t even have to relate the colours you use to the real colour of flesh. All you have to do is make a drawing that works.
This thought ought to be a completely liberating one! A quick skip through art history and a look at figures and portraits such as those of Gaugin, Derain and Matisse, will soon reveal that successful colouring need bear little or no relation to the actual colour of flesh.
5. Would a coloured ground suit my purpose?
One way to introduce colour is to work on a coloured ground. (The ground, by the way, is the thing you’re drawing on – also called the support.) So for instance, you might select a piece of sugar paper of a certain hue or lay a wash to stand in for the mid-tones of your figure.
This can be any colour. It might be one of the actual colours of the mid-tones in the figure – a greyish brown, for example. But equally, it might be a wild choice – green or bright orange, say.
You’ll need a darker tone for the shadows – which might be from the same family of colours as the mid-tone hue, or it could be one that’s entirely complementary (opposite) to it.
For instance, if your mid-tone is orange, say, you might choose a deep purple for your shadows, or, if your mid-tonal hue is green, you might choose a deep red.
You’ll need another light tone – perhaps from the same family of colours as your mid-tone or maybe from the darker shadow (you simply have to experiment). This is for the lightest areas in the figure.
Then finally you might use an off-white highlight with just a hint of the same colour of the light tone, where light strikes hardest.
This limited use of colour can be made to work with gouache, coloured chalks, pastels, coloured Conté or soft coloured pencil – even by collaging torn paper – basically any medium with which you can work from a mid-tone outwards to light and to dark. (It won’t work with a transparent medium such as pure watercolour.)
6. Look at the model and ask: does my palette enable me to cope quickly and systematically with what’s in front of me?
As spontaneous as a colour drawing might appear, its success will be due in no small part to a systematic use of tone and colour. To this end you should choose a limited palette specifically for that model under those particular lighting conditions.
Instead of getting your head down and mixing paint (say), look up at the model and try to analyse the colours. Whether you’re using coloured pencils, watercolour or gouache it’s worth sacrificing the first short pose, to work out a palette.
It helps to think tonally – just as before when you where making a greyscale tonal drawing. But this time, look first at the most prevalent mid-tones. This is where you’ll see most clearly the general colour of a particular person’s flesh.
▲ Cool flesh hues raw sienna + ultramarine blue
Often here there are two colours – one tending towards warm and one towards cool. But they need to relate. So for example, a cool mid-tone might be something like raw sienna with a touch of ultramarine. A warmer mid-tone might be raw sienna with a touch of brick red.
Depending on the lighting, the lightest tone might be nearly white. So if you were working in watercolour, the lightest flesh might take the colour of, or very nearly the colour of, the paper – perhaps just shading into raw sienna. (You might preserve the actual white of the paper for the highlights.)
▲ Warm flesh hues raw sienna + brick red
▲ Family of shadows ultramarine + cad Red + burnt umber
At the other extreme now are the darker tones. One strategy here might be to take a darker brown, such as burnt umber, and use a little cad red and ultramarine to push it darker and warmer or cooler. Often you’ll see a warm reddish purple. The cool dark is often a greyish purple – something like burnt umber and ultramarine.
▲ The three mixes above blending into one another from light and warm to cool and dark
Obviously the way you apply the colours and blend them (if at all) depends on the medium. So, for example if you’re working rapidly in watercolour on stretched paper, the colours will blend naturally as they run into one another.
In fact the greatest challenge when trying to paint a figure rapidly in watercolour is that of preventing colours from running into one another.
Often you’ll be unable to leave the paint long enough to become sufficiently dry before putting in the deepest shadows. But if you put very dark paint on to the edge of a light area, the darks will spread through the lights to sully and darken them.
So the tendency is to lose contrast as the darks lose their impact, and the lights darken, and for the colours to become murky.
However, despite these challenges, you’ll be surprised by what you can achieve in even a fairly short session. With the right type of paper, colours can be lifted out and adjusted at a later stage in such a way that the drawing is developed while its freshness is retained.
▲ Watercolour figure study using mixes above
Text and images © Nicholas Ferenczy November 2010