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White (?) Christmas

One of the most challenging things to paint is a subject with a lot of white. White is generally perceived as the absence of color when in fact it is really the sum of all the colors of light. In fact, it is sometimes not even considered a color because it doesn’t have a discrete wavelength in the visible spectrum, and it's not included on the color wheel. White is the lightest value and is considered achromatic, which means it does not have a hue. It is the tofu of the color world. Just like the bland bean curd that takes on the flavor of any seasonings added to it, white always takes on the color of the light, shadow, and surrounding colors that reflect into it.

For that reason, painting white objects is a great way to learn more about painting color harmony. It is one of the most challenging colors to paint accurately. Everything is different when painting with the mysterious color of “white” — values, shadows, creating warm and cools — they’re all different than you might think.

How to paint something that is white may seem easy at first, but white creates a unique problem. Values do a lot of the work in a painting (usually while color is stealing all the credit). "Value" is how light or dark something is on a scale from white to black. To paint a subject that is white, you need to give yourself room to add values. How? To allow yourself room to create the values, you first have to tone down the “white” we perceive the object to be so that it is something darker or less bright. Normally, to darken a color, you add its complementary color, but since white isn’t on the color wheel it has no complement.

So, that leaves two choices:

Claude Monet painting: Woman with a Parasol
Claude Monet, Woman with a Parasol, Oil 1875

1) Add black. While this is a highly effective way to dull down white, it creates a gray. And not a fun gray (totally a thing), but a dull lifeless gray.

2) Add color. All color is darker than white. Which means any color will work to darken a white. There is a lot of room to play here! 

The truth is, convincing whites in a painting are actually quite colorful.

For example, look at all the beautiful colors in this “white” dress painted by Claude Monet. He truly was a master of color!

Here are two examples of my work with a white subject where you can see that the “white” is not really white at all (click either image to view it larger).

The current work in progress on my easel is a beautiful white camellia. The challenge, as you can see, is that what we know to be white can’t really be represented using white paint. Oh, it has white in it, but in art, white is almost never actually, well, white. So, how do you create the illusion of white with depth and dimension in a painting? You have to make every part of the “white” be a combination of highly diluted colors. Each and every part of a “white” flower has some other color mixed in. It’s a delicate balancing act because while adding pure white pigment to a color makes it lighter, it also reduces its vibrancy and brightness.

work in progress of painting of a white camellia flower highlighting various colors in the white areas

Shadows on white are generally a bluish-gray or violet. Areas that are brightly lit on a white subject are generally infused with a golden yellow or orange to warm it and make it appear brighter. And, everything is tinted by the colors that surround the white object. So, in this flower that means there is actually a bit of green in pretty much all the whites too.


It is important to remember, the reason we can see objects is because of light. If a white vase is set in a windowless room with no light source, it would not be possible to make a painting of it because you cannot see it. If you place a candle next to it, there would be soft lighting with a yellow-red cast with blue-green shadows. If you place a daylight LED spotlight next to it, there would be a bright blueish light with distinct orangey shadows. Fill the ceiling with fluorescent lights and there would be a flat greenish light. In each of these instances you would need to make a different painting with different colors. The vase stays the same, but when the light changes the scene changes. This is why learning to understand the colors in the light help determine the colors in the “white” (and all the other colors). This is the key. For me, painting is about capturing moments of light.


Bonus: Last year I wrote a post about painting blacks (you can read that post here).


Happy holiday from my studio. I hope you have a happy and "white" Christmas!



In other news...

Photo of Barbara Teusink painting a red dahlia painting and cover page to article

The latest issue of the online magazine, South Carolina Voyager, featured yours truly as a rising star! Click the image above or this link to read the article:

Merit Award!

At the Fairfield County Arts Council “Anything Goes” show my piece “Not a Hare Out of Place” received a Merit Award. This show includes a great collection of art and artists so this is a nice bit of recognition. Huge congratulations to all the winners! And, a very grateful Thank You to Michael Story for selecting my painting for an award!

The juror said "This painting has a very clever title that suits it so perfectly. The detailed earth tone color of the hare is flawlessly rendered. Those warm hues contrast nicely with the cool, soft-focused colors in the background. A skillful and realistic rendition!"

This piece is currently available.

painting "Not a Hare Out of Place" hanging above a coffee table with a vase and lamp


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