How to Master Color Techniques for Amazing Acrylic Paintings

Acrylic Artist, the top art magazine dedicated to working acrylic painters, profiled Ana Schmidt in the Winter 2016 issue. After spending time with Schmidt there was more to her story than would fit in the pages of the magazine so here’s more of her story! Discover how Schmidt sees, interprets and studies color when painting, and how you can master color techniques, too! 

Acrylic artist Ana Schmidt's colors.

Acrylic artist Ana Schmidt’s colors.

Q: Ana, your paintings are incredibly detailed. Where we see shades of tans and browns are you seeing more colors that create the final color appearance?
I spend some time almost every day at my easel exploring the way shapes and colors relate—this enables me to make each painting better than the one before. I ask myself questions such as: what color is the shade of a building under artificial street light or next to a green tree in front of orange graffiti? When you think such things over, you begin to understand color. The approach to the colors of a painting must always focus on their relationship to one another. I’m constantly judging how light or dark an object is next to another, how warm or cool and how powerful the color is. Although most grays have all primary colors in them, the primaries are rarely in the exact same amounts. Under north light, the lights will be bluer and the shadows warmer, while the opposite is true under a warm spotlight. If a color looks muddy, it’s probably because it’s the wrong temperature.

Q: What’s the benefit of using a limited color palette?
First, you must keep looking around the whole painting to make sure you have the color lined up. All the great painters worked by trial and error—all of them made adjustments as they worked. My palette is really limited and I build a painting through a long series of careful judgments, so that the surface takes on a richness of details and textures. The limited palette unifies the surface and gives it a clear authority. Going slowly and carefully—observing the subject as abstract shapes—helps to keep my paints workable.

Q: Talk about your process when you are exploring an area or scene to paint.
Painting is about observation and understanding how to translate what we see through the language of paint. Our job as an artist is to study the shapes, proportions, values, edges, color temperatures and textures that nature and man provide, and utilize them to convey what we feel and thinks. It’s similar to what novelists do in inventing characters and scenes based on real people and events: Reality provides the raw material and artists shape it into an art form.

First I focus on the underlying structure of the image I have chosen to paint, simplifying it to make a more powerful statement. I often apply the rule of thirds in my composition, and pull edges and shapes in these horizontal and vertical divisions. I make sketches and then decide if the subject might best be painted in a long horizontal shape, a square format, a tall vertical or a standard rectangle. Just a few lines are all that will be needed to make those judgments. I often place objects so there is an asymmetrical balance around the center rather than sticking the focal point directly in the middle.

The next step is painting in the basic values. Many masterworks are built primarily on three values. It’s important to group lights and darks in an aesthetically pleasing way. Afterwards, working with the color of a painting will be easier. A limited palette unifies a painting and ensures better color harmony, and it produces nice grays that allow adjacent higher chroma colors to pop off the canvas.

Q: What about local color and how you manipulate it? How do you decide what to keep and what to change?
Everything we see in nature or in a man-made environment is relative, and everything we paint is based on comparison. Sometimes I will mix the exact color I see on my palette and then transfer it to the canvas without altering it. Other times, however, I find that bits of color layered on top of another color—allowing the first to show through succeeding applications—create beautiful nuances that cannot be achieved any other way.

In my graffiti paintings, color, atmosphere and light grabbed my attention. With those paintings I began with a color that seemed completely different than the local color and ended up with a more pure version than what was initially observed. When using cool light, you have to know that according to scientific law, shadows will be warm. Having a sure understanding of this allows an artist to paint with almost any color. Even if it’s not the exact color match, as long as the temperature is correct a painting will look believably lifelike.

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