Art Unboxed

Art Unboxed Venetian Red

I remember watching an episode of a British show about art and seeing a painting with a distinctive red. This same red can be used both vividly and also very subdued, it’s a very versatile color. The color Venetian Red has been used by many famous artists including the Renaissance painters. They say it was named because it was mined for years in a quarry near Venice though the name was applied to it much later. This same red is famous for paintings, classic toy soldiers, and the uniforms of the British army during the American Revolution.

This would explain why it’s also known as English Red, Indian Red, Scarlet Ochre, and Prussian Red. The last one I find very ironic considering how much I also love Prussian Blue, but I think of Venetian Red and English Red when I see it. I remember seeing different paintings of British Monarchs with this red featured prominently.

I’ve said before my favorite reds are Christmas Red and Brick Red, and since both Venetian Red and Red Iron Oxide are variations of Brick Red, I would put them on my favorite list too. I will only touch on this as I went more in depth when writing the section In Search Of Red, but my base red is a strawberry red mixed with a red orange to make a standard red. This is because most reds I see in watercolor lean either to a pinkish or orangish red, brownish reds are also popular.

I mention this again to bring up another point relating to color language. Everett Raymond Kinstler said something once that I didn’t quite understand at the time. He explained that color was essentially its own language, “not to say something is too red or too blue, but what is its value.”

Some say value is another word for tone, the lightness or darkness of a color. Others will argue one refers to light and the other intensity. No matter which definition you favor, essentially I believe what he was saying is this. You can take the same color, place it beside a lighter or darker color, and the color you do not change, changes. It will be viewed as lighter or darker when it’s beside of a lighter or darker color.

This sounds hard to believe, at least it was for me until I saw it, but it’s true. Take a gray for example, place it beside a dark blue, then move it beside a light blue, and you’ll see a change. Think of it in relation o a bass singer, singer A sings low, but singer B sings lower. It’s not that singer A changes octaves, but that the two singer’s voices are relative to the other.

As w’e’re talking about red, it will will look more or less red beside of another color. This is as great a tool in painting as it can highlight a particular area the artist would like to direct the viewer to see. At times it’s more effective to change the color it is beside of than to change the color you are considering changing. Take a picture of Santa Claus for example, the red in his suit will look somewhat different beside a green tree than it will a blue sky or a yellow sunrise.

Another tool that it’s important is shading to add dimension to a color. Remaining with the Santa Claus example, if Santa’s entire suit is the same red, it’s going to look flat. Adding a darker version of the same color to certain areas illustrates not only light and shadow, but volume and depth.

An artist may refer to the term local color. Local color is the actual color of an object. For example a red Santa suit, but an artist will have some areas that are lighter on that suit, and others that are darker. Doing so reflects both light and shadow, and gives an image more of a three dimensional look to it.

All of this leads me back to Venetian red. It popped on the paintings I’ve seen, not only because of the hue and intensity of the color, but its relation to other colors, and the shading applied to it. When I was a child with my box of crayons I didn’t understand all of this, but knowing more about how to use color as a painter has greatly enhanced my work.

Art like music can be complex, but does not have to be complicated. It takes practice and understanding, all of which come in time. Often when we don’t at first comprehend a subject we may be tempted to discard it, or feel overwhelmed thinking we’ll never understand it, but that’s not accurate. Just as with any skill it can be learned over time and we should allow ourselves the time needed.

We will not learn it all over night, and that is part of the joy of the journey. You don’t have to be great at drawing the first or second day to get there. The same is true with painting, and the tone, value, and even the color combinations we choose. Unlike an ear for music, art is a very learnable skill. Some people will have some natural ability, others won’t, but both can become great at drawing and painting.

Things like learning about the individual colors can help. I’ve seen instances where a poor drawing can be improved through all the methods above, but also by simply changing the color of the item. At times changing the hue of an image, or going to a black and white version of the image can dramatically improve it.

While most painters research color, an artist whose primary focus is the relationship between colors is called a Colorist. If you think the definitions of value and tone were confusing, another school of painters are referred to as Tonalists. There are some different opinions on this, but i would explain it this way.

A Tonalist spends most of their time focusing on the colors that are in middle values (Colors in between the lightest and darkest elements of a painting). A colorist uses more intense color as the primary style of painting. Whether their focal point is a boat, person, or field, the color will be the star.

You would explore which one works best for you. A Tonalist and a Colorist may both use Venetian Red only in very different ways. However I’ve seen beautiful paintings from both types of artists that use colors in wonderful ways.

Before it was called Venetian Red, it was one of the shades of reds named Sinopia. This was often used as an underdrawing during the Renaissance. ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The line from Shakespeare comes to mind here which is a great application relating to color.

Learning the history of color isn’t about a deep dive into history, or to answer a random question on a game show. The practical application is that learning about color and its history of use, will help you to learn the different options available to you. Seeing your reds, blues, and yellows in a different light will help you visually express what you want to say with your art.

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