When White Isn't White
So you want to paint a snow scene. Or a fluffy little white bunny rabbit. Or a floral still life featuring magnolias. How do you get depth and highlight into it? How do you get any interest in it? Doing a monochromatic work is a challenge, but in white, it is much more so!
Well, fear not! We will discuss this problem - right now!
First, we have to realize that white, indeed, is NOT white. If you are going to paint snow at any time in the future, this time of year (January) is usually a great time to get a closeup view of it, especially if you live anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line. If you live anywhere that snow doesn't happen, you can get some very white fabric like a sheet or blanket and put it outside in the yard (you just don't get the same effect under indoor light). Now observe whatever you have in front of you that is white. To keep it simple, I will refer to it as snow from now on. Be sure to observe your snow at different times of the day to get different light on it. The effect will be very different at 9 AM than at 4 PM.
Look beyond the obvious. Peer deeply into the shadows. Notice the depths of color. Really LOOK at those shadows. Depending on the surroundings, the shadow areas can range from deep greys through purples and burgundys to, perhaps, deep browns.
The middle ground areas will have the same hues a little lighter. Only the highest of highlight areas will be white. The light will glint off of the surfaces in the highlight areas and may be white.
Most often, when painting a snow scene, I use greys and lavender-greys. The purple tones convey the cool feeling of cold weather and are pleasant to the eye. Usually the purple tones will be repeated in the mountains, trees, bushes and buildings or whatever may be the subject and/or focal point of the painting. Also remember to have an accent hue in at least three spots. This might be some touches of orange, burgundy, and/or vivid green. Don't get carried away with the accents. Too much will divide the attention of the viewer and distract them from the subject of the work.
Snow will also reflect the colors of objects around it. If there is a red hat sitting on it, you will see a red halo or shadow. Take this into consideration when adding objects into the painting.
The same basics are true with flowers or anything else white.
Most often, a flower's throat will have some deep beautiful greens. This can vary, too, by whatever the natural color the center of the flower is. I will often use rich, deep burgundys in addition and for shadowing where petals overlap each other. That's because I love those tones, but your favorite colors can be used, depending on the surrounding colors in the work. Just like for snow. Reflect the surroundings. Be sure to have your accents. But don't try to get away with all white.
For flowers, you will want some of the darkest tones in the throat of most flowers. If the petals curve, the height of the curve will be white, but a middle value would be used on the ends of the petals, making them have a curve downward. Be sure to have the overall value of the petals vary as you work around the flower.
In other words, petal #1 is under petal #2, so overall, it is a little darker than #2. Perhaps petal #3 is on the other side and also above #1, so #1 doesn't get much light and may not even have any white on it at all. It's lightest tone may be a very light pink or grey. I have found it helpful to actually number the petals in a flower in order from darkest to lightest, then paint them in that order so I can do the darkest first, working up to the lightest.
Some past articles you might find helpful are here:
Using Value In Your Painting
Monochromatic - One Color At A Time
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