Yellow Reveals October

posted in: Painting | 9

We have painted with yellow for at least 50,000 years. The evidence lies in ancient caves from Chauvet to Altamira to Lascaux. The meaning of  a color shifts between epochs and cultures, for the great Khans of China yellow was the imperial color (huang), for Cleopatra it was the color of seduction, for Romans it was the color of gold. Their recipe for a yellow gold pigment called orpiment used arsenic. This popular pigment was used reliably through the Renaissance with warnings from Cennino Cennini  in his artist’s handbook (Il Libro dell’ Arte) of 1396 to be careful not to point your brush in your mouth when using this pigment. Yellow has been used in its older Ochre forms since the cave paintings but, a good bright yellow or lemon yellow that lasted was illusive until the 19th century.

Many plants provided a yellow pigment especially saffron and the bark from trees in southeast Asia giving artists gamboge yellow. Indian dairymen fed their cows mango leaves to generate a yellow urine which would be dehydrated into small cakes of Indian yellow.  All three of these yellow pigments are made synthetically today. By the early 19th century chrome yellow was available. A brilliant yellow (which along with Gamboge) was favored by J.M.W. Turner.  Unfortunately, it too proved to be fugitive over time. In the latter half of the 19th century cadmium yellow was introduced allowing vivid autumn paintings by Impressionists.  The power of yellow  lies  in its sensation of brightness. It registers as brighter than any other pigment in our eyes. The after-image color of yellow (color complement) varies between violet and blue depending upon the redness of the yellow therefore, to get a brighter yellow artists have long placed a blue or blue violet next to it which fortifies the effect of both colors.

In my following examples I have landscapes of Autumn. The oldest is  Claude Monet’s forest scene. The yellow notes suggest the reflectance of sunlight on leaves ( example 1). The brightness of the yellow helps to push the darker tree forward. Monet was an early adapter of the new cadmium yellow as was Van Gogh. Next are two American Impressionists, John Henry Twachtman and Ernest Albert, both painting (like me) in Autumn in Connecticut and both rely on the complementary color effects of blue and yellow ( example 2 and 3). The next 20th century use of an October tree is by Georgia O’Keeffe. She also patches in bits of blue to amplify the yellow of her tree (example 4).

example 1. Monet oct13,21,monet, claude, forest fountainbleau, early 1870s

example 2. Twachtman oct13,21,john henry twachtman,october

example 3. Albert oct13,21,ernest albert,autumn day, ct1915

example 4.  O’Keeffe oct13,21,o'keeffe, spring tree no 1

In my next step-by-step presentation  I begin with a photo I snapped this week in a nature preserve (example 5) . As you will see I only use this photo as point of departure for my yellow October painting. Next I start with a blue/brown unfinished shoreline painting which I see has potential as a substrate for an October woodland painting (example 6).  Next, I rotate the painting and begin to match the red/browns on the bottom (example 7). In examples 8 and 9 I continue the painting’s development by  loose applications of  yellows blended into the darker bottom area. I  delete select areas to suggest tree trunks reflecting light. In the last example (10) I continued extending a stone wall in and out of shadow and I continued to model variegated light on the tree trunks.  I further intersperse patterns of sunlight in the upper back area to suggest the presence of a hillside tree line.

example 5. the photo.oct13,21,devils den october

example 6.step one oct13,21,step 1,devils den october

example 7. step two oct13,21,step2, devils den october

example 8. step three oct13,21,step 3,devils den october_edited-1

example 9. step four oct13,21,step 4,devils den october

example 10. step five oct13,21,step 6,devils den autumn, oil on aluminum, 24x24_edited-1

9 Responses

  1. F.X.

    Hi David:

    Like your use of old unfinished work as template for new…Brilliant!
    How did you pull out(delete) those sections you mentioned in example #9? Also I didn’t see example #4 of O’Keeffe’s painting mentioned in the post? Thank you for the inspiration.

    • david dunlop

      Hi F.X. I appreciate your encouraging comments. I pull out areas of wet paint either with a paper towel on my fingers, oil on a brush, oil on a paper towel on my fingers, a small spatula or squeegee. I demonstrate these techniques on our dvd instructional series which is available on this our website here…there are also limited examples at Youtube under David Dunlop videos.(not sure if that’s one continuous word or not). I edited the blog again after your response and inserted the O’Keeffe. Best, David

  2. Fredric Neuwirth

    My PC crashed. I just bought a Mac I will comment when I know how to use it!

  3. Connie Simmons

    Great blog, David! Loved the repurposing of older canvases – we all have those lying around. Your writing reminded me of the story of European viewers who saw an exhibition in Europe of American landscape paintings by Jasper Cropsey, which were filled with vivid autumnal yellows and oranges. Those viewers who had never seen a New England autumn thought that his paintings were too bright and unreal – until they actually visited the United States in fall!

  4. Anders Knutsson

    Many of my abstract painter friends find yellow “difficult” and perceive it as weak. I have also found that (predominantly) yellow paintings that I’ve seen on the screen disappoint in reality. They lack the luminosity of the lit-from-inside computer screen .

    • david dunlop

      Hi Anders, Thanks for your reply. I will point to the extensive and luminous use of yellow by Richard Diebenkorn, J.M.W. Turner, Pierre Bonnard. Egon Schiele, and Wayne Thiebaud as artists who have all effectively and persuasively used yellow as the principal bright color of many of their paintings. Best, David

  5. Judy Cline

    The history of yellows is interesting. I always wondered why we colored China yellow on the school maps. The O’Keeffe painting is superb.

  6. Kathleen Barnes

    Great art history and painting advice. I love reusing an old painting as I happen to have a few of those bloopers around. Tell me, do you have problems with pentimenti, especially where you are using a lighter value over a darker value? I have had ghost images rise pretty quickly when I have attempted this previously.

    • david dunlop

      Hi Kathleen, You’re right. It is often difficult to apply a lighter color over a darker one to get a bright effect. That’s why I put the brighter colors first and try to reveal them later. or, when painting over an image try overlaying a white first then, place the brighter color(yellow) on top. Thanks for your pentimenti question. Best, David

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