Art Unboxed

Art Unboxed Van Dyke Brown And Sepia

Even in art, especially with color, appearances are deceiving. When I first looked at a tube of Van Dyke Brown and placed some of it on my palette, I was not impressed. It resembled an amalgamation of a gray and a brown to me, and I didn’t appreciate all this color could do.

I was very wrong about it. The strength of Van Dyke Brown isn’t only on what it can do alone, but how it can be used together with other colors. One of my favorite things about Van Dyke Brown is that I can mix it with a black to make Sepia.

Now that I am more familiar with the colors and what they can do I deeply enjoy both of them. If you’re my age, or have an interest in painting at all, you may think of two people whenever you hear Van Dyke Brown. One would be Sir Anthony Van Dyke, for whom the color was renamed, and Bob Ross. Truth be told I associated Van Dyke Brown with Bob Ross before I associated it with Van Dyke.

If like me you’re also an amateur magician, you may think of a number of magicians who wore Van Dyke beards, also named for the artist. The colors themselves, while like we magicians are not magical, they are full of tricks. One of which illustrates how little I understood when first looking at Van Dyke Brown. The color pairs so well with grays and blacks for so many applications, but let’s take a look at trees.

I generally think of a tree in four parts. The initial form, the dark side of the tree, the local color or basic color of the tree in the middle, and a highlighted side in the direction of the sun. The percentage of the components will vary but they are the four building blocks of a tree when it comes to paint.

Illustrating a forest is much like painting a sky. Just as you wouldn’t paint a whole sky the same blue, you wouldn’t paint every tree the same brown. In both instances you would use shading, or other colors to accent the primary shade.

Some artists will use a number of different colors for the same trees, others may limit it to brown, white, black, and gray. Either way, you want the forest to both blend together, and to stand out. Many view brown as a supporting actor in a painting, but great films don’t only feature talented stars, they have strong supporting actors as well.

Van Dyke Brown and Sepia are both versatile and strong supporting actors in a painting. Staying with the forest painting example, suppose your focal point is a fox on a hill? If the trees don’t look right, the painting will suffer. The fox may be primarily a mixture of red and orange, but a brown can help to balance the colors out.

What is the difference between Van Dyke Brown and Sepia? While some will argue, for me Sepia is more of a brown black than Van Dyke Brown. In watercolor I mix Van Dyke Brown and black to make Sepia. One of the ways I use it is in tonal paintings. I would compare Sepia’s power in tonal painting potential to Venetian Red or what the classical artists referred to as Sanguine a reddish brown color.

Some will tell you not to use any convenience colors, to mix everything with red, blue, and yellow. Then they’ll say you also have to have white, so even then a triad is not really a triad. Others will say keep it to twelve colors, others twenty four, etc. My answer is this, learn to mix to broaden your experience and skill, buy whatever colors you choose, then find out what works for you.

After you’ve found out what does, you can either choose to discard the rest or to keep them on hand. There is not a blanket yes or no to this question, it’s only about what works for you. For example, my least favorite color to paint with is purple. I rarely use it, but when I do, there is a rich purple on my palette.

Painting rules are like recipes in cooking, there is room for adjustment. As with cooking a recipe has some basis on both science, and what has worked before, but it doesn’t mean everything else will fail. A yellow cake is wonderful, but so is a chocolate cake. Learn the basics, gain experience, then base your decisions on what you’ve learned whether firsthand or through others. Balance every opinion with the knowledge that it’s an opinion, even mine if you’re reading this.

There are some absolutes in life, but art is not one of them. It is subjective, and can be produced in many ways. Some can whittle a fox with a pocket knife, others use a chainsaw. Both can work, but one takes much more experience and care.

My wife says I can use a palette knife to paint and a clay knife to sculpt, but I can’t use either a carving knife or a chainsaw for my art, because I’m a klutz and she’s right. Both of us know my limitations, but I’m learning to do what works for me. An maybe one day I might actually get to pick up that carving knife or chainsaw, if I can convince my wife the fingers I cut off will be on the statue not myself.

For now I’ll stick to my palette knife. Van Dyke Brown and Sepia are much easier to shape than pine or cedar. Learning how to use these colors well will add to your mixing knowledge, use of light and shadow, and the believability of your subject matter. While their versatility goes far beyond wood, it will enable the viewers of your painting to see both the forest and the trees in a better light.

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