Thursday, September 20, 2018

Purple Shadows, Yellow Trees

9/17/18 Wedgwood neighborhood

Ever since my head exploded in Eduardo Bajzek’s workshop, I’ve been thinking about his graphite technique and trying to figure out how I can do it with color. As much as I love graphite – its material simplicity; its monochrome elegance; its incomparable richness when applied well – I always miss color when I use it. Especially this time of year when brilliant color fills the urban landscape, I can’t bring myself to use a monochrome medium.

Then again, I know all too well how distracted and confused I can get by color. As soon as I start focusing on hues and trying to match what I see to the colors in my palette, I forget all about values. And if there’s one thing I have learned over and over in every class I’ve taken and every book I’ve read on drawing, it’s that values are king. If you get the values right, a sketch will “read” properly, regardless of color.

1/26/17 photo reference
When I was taking the landscape drawing class in colored pencil last year, it was the first time I seriously studied how to use color to convey form and value. One of the most informative exercises we did was to use only three pencils to draw a tree (at left): a green for the mid-values; a warm yellow for the sunny side; a cool blue for the shadows. In the same way that Eduardo’s workshop helped me to see and understand values in a way I had not before, this tree assignment simplified color into three basic values. I felt enlightened.

Although yellow/green/blue is a natural palette to use for a tree (since optically mixing yellow + blue = green), I don’t think it would have mattered which three colors I had used. The enlightening part was that looking only at these three hues made it easy to “codify” the values in my mind. I looked at the reference photo of the tree, and wherever I saw light, I colored the tree with yellow. Wherever I saw shadows and shade, I used blue. Everything else was the green mid-value.

In later assignments when we could use as many hues as we wanted to, I often got confused when I was trying to indicate local color (the color I see on that rock) and the values (the difference between the light and shaded sides of the rock). I sometimes resorted to “codifying” the values as I did in the tree exercise: I’ll use this hue for the sunny side of the rock, and that hue for the shaded side. Eventually I would blend everything with numerous pencils so that it all looked more natural, but developing a “code” helped my brain understand it.

All those lessons working with photos have stayed with me on some cerebral level, but when I’m sketching on location, my very literal mind gets confused about local hues and values again. And yet when I use nothing but graphite on location, it’s much easier not to get confused. Black and white are already an abstracted code. I squint, I see the lights, mediums and darks, and I can get the job done with one pencil.

Thinking about all of this, I decided to play the codifying game on location, but to trick my pea brain, I tried to avoid literal hues. In the sketch at the top of the page, the small aspen really was a brilliant yellow, so I allowed my literal brain to start there, and then I continued to put in yellow wherever I saw light on other trees (yellow = light). I started to make the other trees green, but then I stopped myself and put their shadows in with dark blue and purple (blue/purple = shade). The result is somewhat garish, but I hope it “reads” accurately.

The next day at the arboretum, the light was brilliant on one of my favorite trees there, a decorative cherry (below). Remembering the yellow/purple complement I used on the street scene, I gave the combo another shot, using green for the mid-values.

My intention isn’t necessarily to continue sketching in abstract, non-literal colors, but if I can apply to urban sketching the same kind of codifying I taught myself while drawing from photos, maybe I’ll eventually figure out how to make the leap from monochrome to color without losing the values.

9/18/18 Washington Park Arboretum


  1. Thanks for a great tutorial on a complicated subject! Your trees are a great example of what you are exploring too. I’m looking forward to seeing the progression of your writing on color!

    1. Thanks so much, Cathy! I'm really excited by this exploration... it'll be my main focus this fall when I have so much color around me!

  2. Your process worked well for the last sketch of the tree!

    1. Thanks! It's a good tree for this exercise because of its well-defined shadows.


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