Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida
Under the Awning, Zarauz, 1910
Is this white?...
Is this white?...
Most painters use the subtractive method to mix the color they see and then often add white to the color to lighten it. When they do so it not only lightens the color it also makes it more neutral. The more white that is added, the more the neutral the color becomes, and, as a color becomes more neutral it becomes more susceptible to the temperature of the light that illuminates it. (This is true for both the actual subject and the painting.) In addition, your perception of this neutral color becomes increasingly effected by any other color in close proximity, or the color you were just looking at. (An effect that occurs entirely within your eye called the Law of Simultaneous Contrast.)
And interestingly, white is as neutral as a color can get!
Is this white?...
Just to complicate things further... Even if we were able to surround an absolute white with a perfect neutral gray in the hope of objectifying our color perception the white would still appear to have a color cast. There are other things that cause the retina to bias a neutral towards a hue: some of it is physiological, some of it is neurological, and some if it is cultural. In other words, our perception depends upon our biology and expectations.
Is this white?
Maddening, isn't it? If there is no such thing as a pure white – or to be more precise, we humans are not equipped to perceive such a thing – then what is the observational painter to do in this nutty situation?
Here are all the whites you just saw placed next to each other.
Believe it or not, from upper left and clockwise:
3% magenta, 3% cyan, 3% yellow, and 3% black.
It is the presence of hue - even the tiniest amount - that is important here.
Not how light or dark they are.
Here are some guidelines for how to paint white:
1. Look for distinct cool and warm whites. They often there to some degree. They either exist in your subject or your retinas is generating them. Doesn't matter which one is correct. Just paint what you see.
2. Speaking of seeing, look for whites which display a reddish, orangish, yellowish, greenish, bluish, or purplish cast. This doesn't mean the hues will be obvious. They won't. But every white will have some sort of bias towards a primary or secondary hue. So don't paint white straight from the tube.
3. Placing patches of reddish, orangish, yellowish, greenish, bluish, or purplish white in close proximity to each other will make a viewer aware of how much they differ. It will also imbue your paintings with an incredible sense of light and please the eye.
4. Often, the white you are looking at isn't as light as you think. If the white is surrounded by a dark then you will perceive that white as being lighter than it is. (This is an expression of the Law of Simultaneous Contrast again and it often tricks a painter into dotting a canvas with too many highlights.)
5. The temperature of the light illuminating your subject and canvas will modify your perception of the lights more than it will the middle values or the darks. If you are seeing warm lights then you should be seeing cool darks. And vice versa. (It's the Law of Simultaneous Contrast again.)
6. Assigning an incorrect temperature to a white can make the surrounding colors appear muddy, or, it can make the surrounding colors look chalky. This can often see in poorly controlled flesh tones.
7. If you set your painting's middle value range too high it will make it impossible to articulate any subtleties in your highlights. If you are having trouble differentiating your whites stop fiddling around with them and lower your middle values. Then go back to the lights.
8. Think like a French Impressionist: don't paint the colors your see – paint the color effects you see.
9. A basic housekeeping rule: Keep your brushes clean when mixing your whites. Whites are easily polluted by what is already in the brush, be it a pigment or solvent. Try mixing your whites with a palette knife and then applying them with a brush without stirring things around.
10. If anything in this post confuses you collect a few white objects and set up a still life. Use a white sheet for a backdrop and arrange the objects so they overlap. Use natural light from a window or set up outside on a table. Now paint the whites as you see them and look for differences. First observe the warm and cool whites, usually separated by light and shadow, and then the hues of those whites. You will understand everything and nothing will ever be the same again.
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