Frank Webb: Fearless Color

To give my paintings added visual interest, I sometimes begin a new work by applying an underpainting of abstract shapes. This works because the transparent nature of watercolor allows underlying layers of paint to remain visible enough that they modify the layers of color that follow. To make this work, I begin with light, middle values of transparent color. If the painting will ultimately be dominated by warm colors, I use a cool underpainting. Conversely, if the final painting will be predominantly cool, I start with a warm underpainting


San Remy (watercolor, 18×24)

The design of the picture is, for me, the subject of the picture. Thus I turn my back on the scene and rely on a small sketch that translates the visual raw data into the special language of art?my shapes, sizes, tonal values and colors. I select my color intuitively, with little or no regard for local color. My aim is to make a personal statement. I try to be economical in my color choices?why hatch out more colors than are needed to make the statement? Why use four values when three will do? Economically used, each color will count as a force, whereas too many colors blunt the impact I?m after.


China Camp (watercolor, 18×24)

One of the fastest ways to unify a painting is through color dominance. This doesn?t imply that you have to limit your palette–it simply means that one hue occupies more territory than others on your painting surface. If you?re in the midst of a painting and realize that you haven?t established a dominant color, you can still save the piece by making it predominantly warm or cool.

The process of abstracting a subject revolves around accentuating certain qualities which are present in a subject while eliminating others. A painting is abstract to the degree that it departs from nature. To be cohesive, the degree of abstraction should be consistent throughout the work. For example, if your shapes, lighting or values are taken straight from nature, then your color shouldn?t depart too far from the same level of realism. On the other hand, if your values and shapes are more creative and idiosyncratic, then you have the latitude–and a responsibility–to do the same with your color.

Erin Kate Ryan was editorial intern for The Artist’s Magazine.

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