Colour and depth


Lisa Yuskavage Outskirts (2011) oil on linen 218.4 x 304.8cm

In the middle section of Outskirts, and in several other paintings, Lisa Yuskavage creates depth and hazy light by putting a visible light source in the background (in Outskirts, a low sun) and silhouetting objects in the middle and foreground (trees and a hill on the right, the back-to-back children in the centre, the kneeling girl on the left). Distant objects show as lighter silhouettes and closer objects as darker – but still richly coloured – silhouettes, all in the Green-Yellow-Orange-Red-ish part of the colour wheel.


Lisa Yuskavage Outskirts [Detail] (2011) oil on linen 218.4 x 304.8cm

I thought this might be a fun effect to try painting, creating silhoue from my imagination. I was also thinking of this painting by van Gogh, and of Josef Alber’s studies of colour (something I definitely want to learn more about).


Vincent van Gogh The Old Tower in the Fields (1884) oil on canvas on cardboard 35 x 47cm

Study for Homage to the Square: Departing in Yellow 1964 by Josef Albers 1888-1976

Josef Albers Study for Homage to the Square: Departing in Yellow (1964) oil on fibreboard 76.2 x 76.2cm

My idea was to try for a similar kind of depth, but using colour very simply, mostly straight from the tube, differentiating depth by working round part of the colour wheel (Purple – Red – Orange – Yellow) from front-to-back (foreground – middle ground – background) using the colour’s natural tendency for yellow to be lighter and red / purple to be darker. I think the sun is Lemon Yellow Hue or Chrome Yellow Hue, the sky definitely has Cadmium Yellow Hue in it, the middle ground figure is Cadmium Red Hue and I don’t remember how I mixed the murky colour of the spade and mound in the foreground, but it isn’t the purple I originally had in mind.


160719a (2016) oil on paper 24.5 x 35.5cm

As a first effort, it’s effective enough to keep me interested in experimenting more. I invented the contents of the picture as I went along, and on reflection I’m surprised by how much narrative seems embedded in this combination of arbitrary objects.

In Yuskavage’s Outskirts an unseen light source, whiter than the sun and coming from the right, illuminates the upright figure in the foreground left. Parts of her hair, cardigan, torso, socks and surrounding flowers are not silhouetted nor reduced to the ambient background colours of Green – Yellow – Orange – Red-ish, but are modelled and show their own colours, including white, blue and cooler pinks (I’m winging this, so forgive me if my colour-blindness is causing me to see things differently from you).

I tried making another painting, this time with a visible blue light source in the foreground and a yellow sun in the background, so that front-to-back the colours went round the colour wheel, Blue – Purple – Red – Orange – Yellow. This effect didn’t really come off, but it’s close enough to encourage me to try similar exercises in future.


160719b (2016) oil on paper 24.5 x 35.5cm

Then today I saw this back-lit Vuillard, with a wonderful use of Pink – Orange – Yellow in the same configuration. Definitely there is more to explore in this.


Edouard Vuillard Elegant Lady (1891-92) oil on cardboard 28.4 x 15.3cm


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