One of my favorite portraits featured in The Artist’s Magazine last year is by Marvin Mattelson. Pat and Jennifer (oil, 40×44) is below, along with an excerpt from the feature article by Holly Davis on his work.
Within two years of taking up the paintbrush, Marvin Mattelson was creating covers for Time magazine, but his approach was intuitive. If something didn’t look right, he’d keep repainting the passage until he’d resolved the problem, but a systematic color-mixing methodology eluded him. “I bought every book on painting I could find, but was frustrated by what I considered the lack of a logical approach,” says Mattelson. “Things like relying on cadmium colors to paint flesh, using complements to gray down colors, referring to color recipes and, in particular, using relative ‘warmth and coolness’ as a compass for color made absolutely no sense to me. These methods all seemed terribly ambiguous.”
By way of example, Mattelson describes a typical color-mixing episode using what he considers the illogical, yet commonly accepted methods: “You mix a color, and then you have to make it lighter, so you add white. White has blue in it, which makes the color cooler, so you have to make the color warmer. You make it warmer and then the color becomes more chromatic so, to bring it down, you add the complement. The complement makes the color darker so you have to lighten it. It’s absolutely insane. I refer to this as ‘circuitous color mixing.'”
The first glimmer of a solution actually came early on when Mattelson was selecting a paint brand. One line, Liquitex Modular Color System, stood out from the others. Rather than name the colors after pigments (such as ultramarine blue or veridian green) or giving them ambiguous descriptors (such as pine green or canary yellow), Modular Color System named its colors in terms of hue and value (such as value 8 yellow or value 3 blue-purple). This approach was based on the Albert H. Munsell color system, which relied not on relative determinations of temperature, but on clearly defined gradations of hue (color), value (lightness and darkness) and chroma (brightness or intensity).
Mattelson also heard other illustrators speak of the late Frank J. Reilly, who had taught at the Art Students League from the 1930s to the 1960s. Apparently, Reilly had addressed many of the questions that plagued Mattelson. Not until 10 years into Mattelson’s painting sojourn–20 years removed from his formal education–did Mattelson find a mentor in John Frederick Murray, a former student of Reilly’s. For three hours a week, Mattelson would meet with Murray, who would re-create Reilly’s lecture series. This evolved for Mattelson into life painting and the transition to oils.
“What attracted me to the Reilly program,” says Mattelson, “was that at its core lay Munsell.” Mattelson received confirmation for using neutral grays rather than complements to desaturate colors and for sidestepping considerations of temperature. “When I mix a color, rather than say it’s too warm or too cool, I address it in three different dimensions,” says Mattelson. “I look at the hue and I say, ‘Is the hue correct? For example, if it’s a yellow, I compare my mixture to the yellow I’m painting. On the color wheel, yellow can go only in two directions–either yellow-green or yellow-red. Yellow can’t go more toward blue. So that’s one dimension–hue. Then I consider value. Should it be lighter or darker? And lastly there’s chroma or intensity. Do I need to increase or decrease the saturation?”
Mattelson found that not only he, but also his students, quickly became efficient at mixing colors by this method–a surefire sign that he was on to something. ~Holly Davis
To read the full article, “Getting Real,” download The Artist’s Magazine (April 2012), and while you’re there, don’t miss these resources and tips on color theory from Courtney Jordan. Bonus: see more of Marvin’s luminous portraits at ArtistsNetwork.com.
Color me happy,