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Etienne Delvarre: Teaching color to 21st century painters

In the series of articles devoted to teaching color, this week I welcome Etienne Delvarre, an Infopreneur painter.

While we haven’t met yet, our virtual paths have crossed several times. We belong to this community of self-employed people who want to share their knowledge, their passion. More precisely, we are infopreneurs, driven by this desire to be useful to the greatest number, thanks to the tremendous leverage of the internet and social networks.

Also, we have mentors in common, whether to advance our respective entrepreneurial projects, or to develop our content. Indeed, we hold in high regard the sites of Bruce Mc Evoy and David Briggs who divulge their scientific knowledge to artists, while practicing, the first one watercolor, the second more specifically oil painting.

Etienne Delvarre: “Suspension point”, airbrush and brush work (© Etienne Delvarre)

Interview with Etienne Delvarre

Thank you Vinciane for inviting me to your blog devoted to color. It is the right moment because I have lots of things to share with you. 

Etienne, in what context do you teach color?

Color is a vast field… Many are fascinated by it ! Moreover, I think that everybody likes color in one way or another.

We live at a time when color is omnipresent. Wherever we are, we see it and we can never get enough of it. But paradoxically, it remains mysterious and unknown. For lots of people, dealing with color, understanding it, naming it is either a gift or an exceptional talent ! Even for painters for whom it is a priori the field of predilection, color keeps its secrets.

I, myself, a painter in the artistic field, I used to ask myself many questions such as :

  • Why can’t I make all the colors I want with the three primary colors ?
  • Why don’t painters and printers use the same primary colors ?
  • Why do there exist so many different chromatic circles, and which is the right one for me ?
  • Is there a method to find the shade you are looking for when you mix colors ?
  • Why is it so difficult to create harmonious color matches when you want to paint a picture ?

It is through my own experience as a painter, its technical and esthetic challenges that I have finally found answers to all these questions and this has taken me years…

To teach color in the context of artistic painting is therefore a logical progression of my experience. But what really decided me, is an increasing demand from my airbrush students, who admitted to me that they encountered difficulties with mixing colors. When they prepare their mixes, they don’t understand why all their shades become dull and grey.

In a mix of paints, colors quickly become dull and grey.

Sometimes they also find a shade which they like or which corresponds roughly to what they want, but they do it in too small quantities and they can’t manage to reproduce it identically to make up what they are short of. When they are faced with this problem, it is very frustrating.

Ultra-realistic airbrush painting

Moreover, some of my students want to paint in an ultra-realistic style, which lends itself to the technique of airbrushing, which I teach. But for me, to reach a good level of realism, mastering mixes and the understanding of color play a major role.

Why is it important to teach color to painters today ?

In my opinion, each painter is called to find a greater freedom of expression thanks to color. It is a deep desire for all painters, even the most frightened.   

As you know, color affects deeply emotions and sensitivity. But I think that, just as the form, color is above all a tool in one’s artistic development. Learning the art of mastering colors is therefore a way of giving yourself more means of expression. It allows you to enrich your works with something that touches the audience’s heart, in their emotions and sensitivity.

So I think that teaching colors to artists is a question that doesn’t need to be raised : there is a great need and a great desire for it. The true question is rather to know WHAT to teach about color in the artistic field. 

For painters seeking training today, the difficulty is to hear everything and its opposite about color. Nothing is really adapted to their situation, to their real problems or to their concerns. Either you talk to them about a theory of colors, which doesn’t work, because it dates from the Renaissance and is totally out of date, or one teaches them colors from an Information Technology (IT) point of view, which is well suited to “digital painting”, but not at all to painting made from pigments.

Colors in painting and digital colors do not work in the same way.

In the midst of all that, they find that they do not know which tubes to choose in order to create their palette of colors. They are lost in the multitude of brands, references and fancy names given to the colors by the paint manufacturers. Neither do they know how much color to put in their mixtures ; they try to find a way and finish by being discouraged and doubting their talent. The worst thing is that the only thing they can still hold on to are vague notions of color mixing that they were taught in elementary school! They think it should be easy and they find out that it’s not easy at all, so they lose confidence in themselves. 

To speak plainly : not only do I think that it is important to teach colors to artists, but also that it is urgent in the 21st Century that painters adopt a new theory of colors ; a theory which will enable them to mix colors effectively and how to harmonize them with each other.

What are the 3 most fundamental points of your teaching and how do you see this as a new theory of color?

Yes Vinciane, I really do intend to direct my students and all those who are not in the classical education towards a new theory of colors, especially adapted to painters.

The particularity of this theory is specifically that it is not only theoretical but also very practical ! A painter cannot limit his knowledge of color to theory alone. He needs to practice because he works above all with the material. As Bruce Mc Evoy says : “Learn color with your eyes and your hands rather than with abstract thought.”

So, here are the 3 main stages of this new approach :

Stage 1 : Obtain more colors with fewer tubes of paint.

More colors with less paint tubes

The first stage is to increase the number of colors in your palette, whilst at the same time reducing the number of tubes of paint necessary to achieve them.

This is an excellent opportunity to review the notion of primary colors, which is often badly understood by painters. In fact, the choice of the 3 colors to start from conditions a lot the shades which we can or cannot create. The entirety of the shades created by the mixing of several colors forms what is called a gamut.

It concerns a zone that is defined as more or less wide within which can be found all the shades which it is possible to create and beyond which one cannot obtain certain colors.

The zones within the circle correspond to 2 different gamuts according to the colors used as primary colours.

Whatever the technique used, oil, acrylic, or water paint, a painter is limited by the gamut based on the colors he chooses for the starting points of his mixtures. It is essential to understand that and however few people realize what that implies at the level of the results obtained. 

For example, is it possible to obtain a beautiful deep violet from classic primary colors (i.e. Red, Yellow, Blue)? No ! If you try from a highly saturated red like Pyrrole Red and a blue such as Ultramarine Blue, you obtain a dark grey tending towards mauve. But not the fine deep violet sought. For painters who simply seek to apply what they have learnt, this result is seen as a failure.

However it would be enough for them to approach the trio Cyan-Magenta-Yellow for this experience to become satisfactory. By mixing a Phthalo Blue and a Quinacridone Magenta, they would obtain the beautiful deep violet that they want. When you use the right primary colors, all of a sudden our eyes light up ! Instead of failure, the experience becomes a real piece of magic.

You can only obtain a beautiful violet on the basis of primary colors close to Cyan and Magenta.

It is only by mixing carefully your tubes of paint that you can enliven the colors of your palette whilst extending to the maximum its gamut. Expanding your range of colors means working with brighter colors from the onset.

This first stage even requires adopting a new chromatic circle including what you so rightly call : extra spectral hues (see this article and that article), especially Goethe’s purple called today as “Magenta”. Including Magenta in the chromatic circle totally changes the way in which it must be constructed !

Nowadays, most artists use the Johannes Itten’s circle. It is so entrenched in artistic education that no one really dares question it. However, this circle is not highly accurate from a scientific point of view. It is not in line with 21st Century discoveries concerning our visual perception, neurosciences and the laws of optics.

Magenta doesn’t figure in the Johannes Itten’s circle.

For example, neither Cyan nor Magenta are present in this circle whilst the trio Cyan-Magenta-Yellow is the one which allows you to obtain the widest gamut.

Stage 2 : Finding the perfect shade without spoiling any paint.

How to reproduce this shade in paint?

The second stage is to plan the achievement of one’s colors by adopting a strategy of mixing for each one. A specific shade resembles no other. Each color is defined by a hue, a luminosity and a saturation. A painter must be able to modify these 3 axis in order to obtain a precise shade.

The color mixtures that interest us follow a law of physics called subtractive synthesis. This law is the basis on which printers have worked and become masters in the art of mixing colors with precision. There is a lot to learn from what they have discovered on this subject. In fact, they have an experimental approach : instead of referring to abstract “knowledge”, they start from the result they want to obtain and they deduce the right quantities to get there.

In painting, the principles are the same.The important thing is to always know where you are going from and where you are going to. Once you have the starting point and the end point, it is sufficient to trace an itinerary between the two and to stick to it.

But first of all, you need to dispel the “mirages of color”. These are optical illusions, which our brain permanently creates without our knowing. There is for example the relativity of colors, which is a natural tendency which we have to adjust our perception of color according to the context it is found in, rather than seeing it for what it really is. The Adelson chessboard is a good example :

The Adelson chessboard shows the relativity of colors. The colors A and B are the same whilst in their respective contexts they seem different.

To see the color as it is, without the influence of other colors around it, you need to trick your brain in order to “lay it bare”. You can then define it more easily, then adopt a “mixing strategy” adapted to get close to it.

In my method, the mixing strategy functions thanks to what I call  “pigmental mapping” : it is a map which represents a selection of pigments and on which you can trace the lines of mixing to find the way towards the desired color.

Photo and painting

It is very useful when you are working from a reference model (like a photo) and you want to reproduce all the shades of the model in an identical way.

Stage 3 : Creating eye catching harmonies of colors.

Create captivating color harmonies

The third stage, is to enthrall everybody with color matches which hold the attention.

Once you know how to produce all the colors you want, you learn to choose a group of colors which is usually coherent. This is the whole question of harmonies of colors in a picture.

When you talk about color harmonies, you may well think that it is a completely subjective field, limited by no rules and which merely depends on the tastes of each of us. This is wrong !

In truth, independent from the symbolic and psychological aspects of the color, there are precise rules to balance visual contrasts. By using artfully these visual contrasts, you can create an infinite number of color harmonies which the eye will perceive as being pretty, balanced and satisfying.

Here the chromatic circle plays the role of a real compass of the colors which always shows us the road to follow.But take care in choosing the circle to create color harmonies… As a chromatic circle has as its main purpose to establish relationships between colors, you have to be very demanding about the correctness of its representation, otherwise you will find yourself with combinations which do not work from an optical point of view.

When you create color matches, it is the optic that is aimed at and nothing else. A chromatic circle in accord with the laws of optic ideally places visual complements opposite each other. Visual complements are the pairs of colors which create on our retina the most powerful contrasts.

Hoping to produce fine color harmonies without taking into account visual complements would be like hoping to do without light to see colors.

The main visual complements

Once these visual contrasts are correctly placed, you can start to work without fear of making a mistake of appreciation.

There are two main strategies you can adopt :

1- Creating a strong contrast to stimulate the retina to the maximum (and hence the interest of the viewer) on a precise subject.

2- Minimizing contrasts by juxtaposing relatively similar shades. This approach helps color transitions in a gentle and natural way.

These two main strategies can be used in turn in the same painting.

Do you want to elaborate on a specific point in your teaching that would be helpful to beginners?

Yes, of course Vinciane…

There is just an important point I would like to talk about concerning the mixture of pigments. It concerns a little known rule. However its application would avoid much anguish for painters who are beginners. I explain it to my students when they complain that they get colors which are dull and grey. It relates to the subtractive synthesis, it is called : the saturation cost. 

What is it ?

Well, it is a basic principle : when mixing paint, the further the colors are from one another on the chromatic circle, the more you reduce the saturation of the shade obtained, i.e. its liveliness, its brightness. In other words, the more you mix different pigments, the more the mixture turns grey-black. Some shades which are next to each other on the chromatic circle will have a low saturation cost, whereas shades opposite each other will have a maximum saturation cost. Understanding this principle allows you to always control the saturation, the liveliness of your shades.

Moreover, you need to know that :

  • The colors Cyan – Magenta – Yellow produce a very low saturation cost. This is why this trio is considered optimal as a trio of primaries. 
  • The colors Red – Green – Blue-violet produce a very significant saturation cost ; this is why any mixture containing one or several of these shades quickly turns to grey-black.
The saturation cost

From a more scientific point of view, one could define the saturation cost as the opposite of the additive synthesis. 

In additive synthesis, beams of light colored Red, Green, Blue-violet produce white light ; whilst in subtractive synthesis, the mixture of these same 3 colors produces a total darkening, close to black. To avoid this phenomenon, you need to choose the most saturated paints that are available on the market.

The 2 systems of color mixing are perfectly coherent

Would you have two or three books on color to recommend?

Just like you, I have read a lot of books on color, moreover my bookshelf is full of them ! All of them helped me to understand something particular on this subject.

But the ones that made me progress the most were books that, in one way or another, made me change my point of view or question what I thought was taken for granted.

As the airbrush painting class is given in French, two out of the three recommended books are in French, the language in which I read them. But the good news is that they seem to be all available in English too!

1. “Colours” by Ueli Seiler-Hugova,

The first book that I would advise, is the one which opened my eyes as to the importance of placing Magenta in the chromatic circle. The French title of the book is translated as : “See, live and understand colors” by Ueli Seiler-Hugova, published by Triades. It is a book from 2008, which suggests small experiments to understand the Goethe vision and the birth of colors in our visual system. Goethe is the first to have explained the color phenomenon as being a meeting between light and darkness. It is an extremely pertinent approach which is still relevant today. 

So, if you don’t want to read the “Theory of Colours “ by Goethe in its entirety, you can always read “See, live and understand colors” to get the basics. Although I cannot be sure that the contents is exactly the same, it seems also available in English under the title “Colour”.

Books by Ueli Seiler-Hugova; on the left: the French version, on the right, the English one.

2. “ Colour, a visual history ” by Alexandra Loske

The second book I recommend to your readers is called “Colour, a visual history” by Alexandra Loske published by Tate. This large book of 240 pages is recent, it was published in 2019. It is a beautiful book, lavishly illustrated, which gives a picture of the different discoveries made about color throughout history. It also covers the multiple systems of the classification of color as well as tools invented by artists, scientists or industrialists. It even mentions a historical figure I like a lot : Jacob-Christophe Le Blon, who lived at the time of the Renaissance and who is the precursor of four-colour printing.

Colour, A Visual History, by Alexandra Loske

3. ” Color and Light ” by James Gurney

The last book which I liked a lot is called : “Color and Light” by James Gurney published by Andrews McMeel Publishing. James Gurney is an American painter-illustrator. He is the creator of the imaginary universe “Dinotopia”. His book “Color and Light” is a compilation of tips and advice drawn from his long years of experience in fantastic painting. He is one of the first painters to point to the failings of the traditional chromatic circle.

Color and Light, a Guide for Realist Painter by James Gurney

Where can we go to know more about your approach or to take advantage of your teaching ?

Up to now, my teaching was solely to my students in airbrushing. Gradually, I came to realize that this knowledge was not limited to the field of airbrushing. That is why I am in the process of adapting my entire method to make it accessible to painters, whatever the technique they use, oil, acrylic, water painting, etc. It should be ready by the end of this year.

This method will only be available in French at first. Nonetheless, if I received a lot of inquiries from English speaking people interested in my program, I would consider a full English translation.

Your readers can simply let me know of their interest by using the contact form on my site.

Thank you for inviting me to talk about my passion and my work on color. I will ensure that I keep you up to date with the development of this marvelous adventure.

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