Bring Out Your Red

Flowers are an irresistible lure for artists. Who can ignore their seductive colors and intriguing shapes, just begging to be captured on paper or canvas? Certainly not Judy H. Taylor of Piedmont, South Carolina. Taylor’s watercolor Indian Pinks reveals her excitement about the beauty of flowers set against the cool backdrop of foliage.

What really stands out here is her drawing ability. She has successfully untangled the myriad shapes in the background foliage, which requires significant skill. For variety in the foreground, she has selected flowers in various stages of bloom. The flower that’s cropped by the left edge tells us that this is just a partial view of an area; because the picture includes three whole flowers, our eyes can complete the picture.

In attempting to portray the vivacity of these red flowers, Taylor’s attention to shape variety and her skill at drawing set this painting off to a great start. Creating a strong value structure is another important part of the puzzle in making a good painting. To this end, Taylor has established three very clear layers of foliage plus the background, which is hard to do with so many complex shapes. But there could be more values within each layer to make them a bit more interesting. The same is true of the red flowers.

Art Principles At Work
Providing contrast for excitement. To create an engaging and appealing painting, a strong value structure is a must. Value refers to the relative lightness or darkness of a color; it’s black and white, and all the grays in between. A high-key painting is in the white- to middle-value range, while a low-key painting falls in the middle to dark range. A painting that hovers around the middle, lacking either extreme of dark or light, can be a bit flat.

In the case of Indian Pinks, moving toward the darker extreme makes the most sense. Using some dark blue-greens in the background and the farthest layer of foliage would create more contrast and visual excitement. The next layer could be two values of green and one value of blue-green, and the closest layer could stick to the green values plus a green tinged with white and/or yellow.

Recognizing color temperatures. Colors can be warm or cool, ranging from the sunniest yellows to the frostiest blues. The warmer the color, the more it will come forward in a painting, while the cooler colors will recede. So using the cool, dark blue-greens in the two most distant layers of the leaves will really push them back and add depth.

In adding lighter, warmer greens to the closest layers, it’s important to vary the value and temperature even within each leaf. Keep in mind that the most distant leaves would have less detail than more forward ones. And the leaves closest to the focal point—here, the blooming flowers—should have the most contrast and detail. Since the flowers are the most important feature of the painting, they should have the most of everything: value contrast, temperature contrast and detail.

Righting the reds. Reds can be very tricky to paint in any medium. The problem is that if you lighten red using white, it turns to pink. So it helps to broaden the definition of “red” to include all the colors on the color wheel from yellow-orange to blue-violet. They all have some amount of red in them. While you certainly don’t have to use all these colors, this gives you more to choose from than just red and its values.

Using a range like this has the additional advantage of bringing color temperature back into play, which also helps to create the illusion of light and depth. Red-violet and violets in the dark areas of Taylor’s flowers and a glaze of a warm yellow over the light areas could really make them pop. (Though if more than just a little yellow-orange is used, the objects can become too orange rather than red.)

A photo or other reference may not show all these colors, and they may not even have existed in the original subject. So it’s up to each artist to use what she knows to go beyond what’s in the reference, whether it’s color, value or temperature. Use your artist’s eye to look past reality to create an extraordinary painting. So remember this the next time you want to paint juicy, exciting reds. It’s what having artistic license is all about.

Lessons Learned
Taylor has created the beginnings for a wonderful painting. With a broader range of values and temperatures, and an expanded view of “redness” for her flowers, the entire painting could really come alive. Because Taylor does her initial drawings on tracing paper, she could even try a version of this painting by transferring the image to a new piece of watercolor paper (if she’d rather not rework the original).

Taylor has a great attitude toward painting that will no doubt serve her well as she continues to improve in her art. She continually asks herself, What’s the worst that can happen when I paint a picture? Can I handle that? As she knows, the answer to that question is that it may go into the trash. But when that happens, she just starts again—a little bit wiser.

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