Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Queen of Colors-Black

 Renoir's Self Portrait
Picture courtesy of A Polar Bear's Tale
Robert Genn, the fabulous Canadian painter and raconteur, gives us his wonderful comments on the color black. Many Impressionists would not allow the color on their palettes. Yes, Renoir, after studying art in Italy later in his career, had a change of heart about the important characteristics of this magical color and its properties.

"Renoir declared, "I've been forty years discovering that the queen of all colours is black!" What he meant was that black works as a darkener because its near chromal neutrality does not sully the colour it grays. While scorned on a few snooty palettes, black is the loyal friend that helps make other colours look more brilliant than they are. Wise artists do not say derogatory things about black.

The essential blacks are lamp black, ivory black and Mars black. Lamp black is a pure carbon pigment made by burning oils and collecting the soot from flues. It's one of the oldest manufactured pigments. Ivory black, originally made from burning real ivory, is now a bone byproduct of the slaughterhouse. Mars black, one of a pantheon of Mars colours, is an iron-oxide product that in many ways is more stable than the other blacks. It does not effloresce, maintains total integrity in oil and water-based media, and, to my knowledge, is the only paint that's magnetic.

Black inks, Indian, Chinese, etc., are carbon derived and go back to the dawn of writing and drawing. Cuttlefish ink, used by the early Romans, is an impermanent anomaly. Japanese "Sumi" ink has a tradition of nuance and refinement. Ralph Mayer says, "The connoisseurship of sumi amounts to a cult."

Give black a chance. A challenge is to work with only black and white for a day. After a week one begins to feel the brilliance of black. As seasoned artists have found out, if it works in black and white, it works.

Try the method of grisaille--a monochrome painting executed in shades of gray. Used as an under-painting, grisaille was first popularized by the Northern Renaissance artists. These days, using bright white grounds and a range of grays, full value can be had by glazing with acrylics or other media. In painting, black is mother of learning.

Best regards,

Robert Genn

PS: "Black and white are absolute. They express the most delicate vibration, the most profound tranquility, and unlimited profundity." (Shiko Munakata)

Esoterica: Payne's gray, a composite pigment, endures, well-loved on many palettes. Depending on the brand, it's made from varying combinations of blue, black, red and white permanent pigments. Payne's gray is the black of preference for the timid soul." RG

Renoir's painting Young Woman Reading a Fashion Illustration

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

An Exhibit, 'Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938

Rene Magritte's work is unsettling to many, but the current exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago may be worth seeing because it is so large and fascinating.

A review of the exhibit by Lisa Marder, art expert, follows:

"I was privileged recently to see the exhibit, "Magritte: the Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938" at the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibit was organized by the Art Institute of Chicago; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the Menil Collection, Houston, and runs through Monday, October 13, 2014. If you are in Chicago or can get there, I recommend seeing it. For a fascinating, interactive preview of the exhibit, go to (This is fascinating, if this link does not work, type in the address in your browser. There are so many images to see, and includes x-ray views of earlier ideas redone in some of the works!)

Rene Magritte (1898-1967) was a 20th century Belgian artist known for his Surrealist works. Artists help us to see the world differently, some by showing us what they see, some by showing us what they imagine or dream, some by reflecting ourselves back to us. Surrealists explore the human condition through imagery that extends beyond the limits of reality and enters the realm of the subconscious. Magritte's main goal as an artist was to make the viewer see differently by using odd and surprising juxtapositions of familiar objects at varying scales, by deliberate exclusions, and by playing with words and meaning, as in one of his most famous paintings, "The Treachery of Images," which is a painting of a pipe below which is written "Ceci n'est pas une pipe."  (English translation: "This is not a pipe.") The works in this exhibit display a visual tension that is transmitted to the viewer.
The Art Institute of Chicago's website reads, "Throughout these seminal years, Magritte used displacement, transformation, metamorphosis, and the 'misnaming' of objects as well as the representation of visions seen in half-waking states, consistently unsettling the balance between nature and artifice, truth and fiction, reality and surreality.  His images, then and still today, force us to question the nature of appearances - both in the paintings and in reality itself."  Through sometimes disturbing imagery, Magritte's work draws us to see the mystery in the ordinary.  He paints identifiable objects in a manner that is almost photorealistic, but compels us to take notice and look deeper by carefully rearranging reality into jarring juxtapositions and by selectively omitting things and confounding expectations. 

Walking through the darkened intimate warren-like spaces of the exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute, one feels as though one is "discovering" each painting one by one, heightening the sense of the mystery, and compelling the viewer to linger and ponder the meaning of it. In combination with Magritte's paintings, the experience is powerful, and even unsettling. It is almost a relief to exit the exhibit and to re-enter the "real" world. 

“Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.”  - Rene Magritte

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Pets in Portraits

LONDON.- A little known painting of three Elizabethan children containing what may be the first portrait of a guinea pig has been uncovered by the National Portrait Gallery, London, during the making of its exhibition Elizabeth I and Her People (10 October 2013 - 5 January 2014), The portrait depicts three unknown children aged six, seven and five with a beige, brown and white guinea pig, cradled by the little girl at the center of the group. It is possibly the earliest-known depiction of this animal in a portrait. Popular in Europe as exotic pets, guinea pigs were introduced from South America by Spanish traders.

 In an exhibition richly endowed in portraits with animals, the youngest boy in this painting holds a small bird, probably a finch, which was a particularly popular pet with children because of its striking plumage. Its representation in children’s portraiture may be intended to symbolize the Christian soul by association with depictions of the infant Christ with a goldfinch.

 The sitters almost certainly belong to a wealthy family of the nobility or gentry as they are expensively and fashionably dressed, whilst the skillful painting suggests that it is the work of an artist familiar with Dutch techniques. 

Portraits of children became popular among the nobility and gentry in the sixteenth century across Europe, enabling families to document lineage and fertility, and to capture individual likenesses, at a time when child mortality was high.

 The image reflects the growth in different types of portraits in this period, a major theme of the Gallery’s  exhibition, which is the first to look at the rise of new social classes in Elizabethan society. As well as the usual portrait staples of horses, stags and dogs, more exotic animal appearances in Elizabeth I and Her People include an elephant on a crest, a falcon, a ring decorated with a tiny depiction of a grasshopper and an intricate purse made in the shape of a frog.

 William Cecil, Lord Burghley, is shown riding a mule and the Queen herself is depicted with an ermine and, in the recently discovered Isaac Oliver postcard-sized portrait of Elizabeth I and the Three Goddesses, with a peacock. With of over 100 objects, including accessories artifacts, costumes, coins, jewelery and crafts, Elizabeth I and Her People will include not just portraits of courtiers, but also intriguing lesser-known images of merchants, lawyers, goldsmiths, butchers, calligraphers, playwrights and artists – all of whom contributed to the making of a nation and a new world power. 

The exhibition showed how members of a growing, wealthy middle class sought to have their likenesses captured for posterity as the mid-sixteenth-century interest in portraiture broadened. Portraits of courtiers such as Christopher Hatton, Bess of Hardwick and Elizabeth Vernon are joined by explorers such as Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher, ambassadors such as Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, financiers such as Thomas Gresham and poets including John Donne. Elizabeth I and Her People was curated by Dr Tarnya Cooper, the National Portrait Gallery’s Chief Curator and its Curator of Sixteenth Century Portraits. She is the author of A Guide to Tudor and Jacobean Portraits (2008) and Citizen Portrait – Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite, 1540–1620 (2012).

Friday, July 11, 2014

James McNeil Whistler and Color

This was the first painting purchased by the Louvre by an American painter!

James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1834-1903) is one of my favorite artists because he was an experimenter, like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. His life was colorful and certainly out of the ordinary.

An American by birth, he attended West Point Military Academy and was released after his artistic wiles caused problems for him and the administration. He obtained a job as a cartographer with the U.S. government and was fired from his job when his cartoons on the edges of maps were discovered. He was educated in France and lived as a painter and etcher in London for most of his life.

The body of his works present a wealth of tonal harmonies and is of particular interest to interior designers because they focus on soft shades rather than specific hues, using whitened and grayed colors in cool and warm tints.

Whistler's style stirred considerable notoriety in his day. In 1877, the art critic John Ruskin denounced Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold---The Falling Rocket. Ruskin accused him of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler took him to court. The attack was directed less at Whistler's color sense that at his broad, scumbling brushstrokes and evanescent forms merging in and out of the background that foreshadowed Monet's Water Lilies by nearly fifty years. Whistler is considered today as a subtle colorist skilled at exploring luminosity and tonal variations; his palette is not at all shocking. Some art historians claim he is the first "modern" artist.

In a lecture in 1885, Whistler described looking to nature to create his harmonies: The lessons which Nature presents to the artist alone are of quite a different character. He looks at her flower with the light of one who sees in her choice selection of brilliant tones and delicate tints, suggestions for future harmonies."

He was a devotee of Japanese art, and his palette was influenced by the soft tints of the ukiyo-e prints that began trickling into western Europe after Commodore Perry dropped anchor in Tokyo Bay in 1853. Above all, Whistler accurately captured the fashionable, delicate tints and off-shades of mauve, green, yellow and white praised in Gilbert and Sullivan operas as "greenery-yallery" or "cob-webby gray" that were replacing the brilliant Victorian maroons, purples and blacks in women's dress toward the end of the 19th century.

It's the birthday today of the artist best known for a painting of his mother: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, born in Lowell, Massachusetts (1834). His most famous painting was titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871), but it's more commonly known as "Whistler's Mother." It's a portrait of Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler in a black dress, seated in profile against a gray wall. When Whistler's scheduled model didn't show up for a sitting, he decided to paint his mother instead. (Written by Garrison Keillor)  

For more information on this colorful artist's life, see Wikipedia. To see more of his art, see the site:

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Power of Red

Robert Genn, Canadian painter extraordinaire, teacher and philosopher added to my knowledge on the color of red. It's tie to miniatures was a surprise. Indian Red and Chinese Red are among the reds available in watercolors. There are probably more, and if you know of another, enlighten me.

Cochineal is a red dyestuff extracted from the blood of a beetle parasite on prickly pear cacti. Formerly used to make carmine and scarlet lakes, it was first imported from Mexico into Europe in 1560. British army uniforms were dyed with it. Permanence aside, it's still in use today. As a colourant for Cherry Coke, beetle blood is known as "Colour Additive E120." Processed meats are full of it. (Read labels! BBL)

The English artist J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) didn't understand or even care about the fugitive nature of early reds--his sunsets are not what they used to be. Unfortunately today, in photo-litho reproductions, red is often the first printer's ink to fade.

Cadmium sulfides and selenides are the basis of most of the modern artists' reds. The process of manufacture was invented in Germany and the various cadmium pigments became popular with artists after the First World War. All the cadmiums are dense, opaque, brilliant and permanent. Most cadmium colours are cut with barium-based pigments. These are less powerful in tinting strength. Pure cad reds are the top of the line.

Artists' reds win the prize for the most names. These include vermilion, madder, scarlet, cerise, persimmon, sanguine, cinnabar, rouge, crimson, carmine, geranium, ruby and rose. In colour composition red is the most reliable colour surprise. Practically every work of art can benefit by warming with red. Red washes or scumbles give life to dull works. Red is charged with emotion and promise. Red speaks for heroism and bravery, honesty and patriotism. Red is also the red badge of courage, redcoats, the thin red line, red sails in the sunset, and a jolly red nose. My love may be like a red red rose, my sins, as well as my politics, may be red. Red is also red tape, red ink, red wine, red lips, red blood, red earth, red barons, red barns, red hearts, red thoughts and red herrings. Red means anger, fire, storms of the heart, love and war. Even women can be scarlet. More than any other colour, red is loaded for action.

Best regards,


PS: "Cochineal red is a holy blight, a noble rot where the treasure is rubies." (Victoria Finlay)

Esoterica: One of the earliest man-made pigments was red lead. The Romans called it secondarium minium. In the Middle Ages monks employed "minium" in illuminated manuscripts. Through the Latin verb miniare ("to colour with red lead") we have the modern word "miniature," which originally had nothing to do with small size.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014


This powerful color has such a strong personality!

Directions below on how to "tint it down" in an orderly fashion! 

Color Mixing with Tones of Red

There are so many ways to to mix and change color! Today, I wanted to concentrate on red. Red can be changed to make all types of colors since it is one of the three Primary colors. Red can vary in hue from orange-red to violet-red. It ranges in color from very light pink to dark burgundy.

Color mixing is one of the things I love about paint. So many possibilities to explore...

The colors that I used for this storyboard are the Amy Howard One Step paint colors in Shaw Red and Metropolitan Gray.
How To: 
Amy Howard At Home Shaw Red One Step Paint
I used 50 percent of each color to create this color story board
Starting with my straight color first
Mixing my colors half and half
Story board mixing 
Each one half I continued to cut in half
*Be sure to measure each color mixed to know how to achieve it again.

I love to look on Design Seeds to see their color palettes and inspiration
Stiltskin Studios, one of retailers, has begun to mix her One Step Paint colors!
These antique books all range in color but I love seeing them together in this composition
Even fur!
Beautiful old building in Italy has a red-orange tone
With fabric, I think it works very well to work with a range of color
You can find color inspiration everywhere. I especially find inspiration for color in nature. I take photos of flowers, birds, etc. and use those as color combinations later in my design work or color palette for a piece of furniture.
Amy Howard