My Color Theory
© Keith Ferris 2011
B-17 Mural Nose, right, illustrates the receding color and value with distance.
In my sixty-four year career, I have used ink line, lamp black and water, premixed grays, water
color, gouache and finally oils on canvas, which I very much prefer today. The evolution through
those materials paralleled the nature of clients and their advertising and printing requirements.
Without benefit of an art education, mine was on-the-job training approach with my learning
curve a natural progression from line, to black and white tonal illustration, to two-color
illustration and finally to full color art.
Since my life has been immersed in aviation, my goal was to create the greatest sense of depth in
my works no matter which medium I was using at the time. This involved mastering first, linear
perspective, then tonal perspective and finally, color perspective, which I was to learn later that
all occur simultaneously.
An example of using all three colors in "high chroma" for the work.
After almost ten years of working in line and tonal media, I was finally required to create two color
art for clients.Two color art required the combination of black and white tonal media with any one of the three primaries approximating the printers’ inks (Process Colors), which are magenta, yellow and
cyan. I was soon to realize that by introducing portions of Phthalo Blue (which approximates cyan) as
part of a basically black and white tonal painting I could introduce warms and cools not available
in a simple black and white tonal painting. For example, an unpainted aluminum aircraft reflects
all the color around it. The sun is warm which requires a white edge merging with a gray edge to
blue gray reflecting the sky, lightening to the reflection of the horizon. Below this the gray would
have no blue at all since we are reflecting the warm colors of earth. The gray, which would
appear cool by itself, would turn warm when surrounded by cool blues. To my amazement, I
found that a gray (with no blue included); a pure white; and a pure blue insignia; appeared to be
Red, White and Blue. So, contrasting warms and cools became very important tools in
controlling depth, even before I tackled full-color painting.
Fighter Pilot Heaven
An example of warm/cool and yellow/green color combination.
A valuable part of my self-induced education was to early-on serve for 16 months as a stripper
and opaquer in an offset lithography house. Color art would be separated by filtered photography
into four negatives representing the varying levels of each of the process colors, plus black,
which will combine to create the color. These negatives would in turn be screened to dots sized
to represent the proportion of each color needed when combined by the press on white paper to
match the colors in the art. My job was to strip these negatives onto flats, each representing one
of the colors, registering one above the other. The screens had rotated the dots for each color so
when superimposed, they would not fall on each other, but next to each other, in circles on the
future white background. The eye observing the reproduction would average these combined
varying sized dots of color with their white background to the colors seen on the original art.
When it came time for me to tackle full-color painting, I already had the three primaries
approximating the process colors in hand. It seemed to me that if the press could faithfully
reproduce original art on paper, I should be able to combine these colors with white to create the
necessary color in a painting.
An example of using blue as the primary color in the work.
As a stripper and opaquer almost 60 years ago I had noted that all three of the process colors
were always in every color reproduced on paper.
As I experimented, I found that an equal amount of all three colors combined without any white
appeared to make Black. The introduction of white to this mixture should make a neutral gray.
It rarely does until some of one or more colors is added. However that first introduction of white
results in either a warm or a cool gray, sometimes a bluish gray, sometimes a brownish or olive
gray. We are finding that we are now controlling color and warms and cools. The further you
reduce the amount of two of the primaries in the mixture, the more towards the pure third
primary you have moved.
An example of three-color warm/cool greys.
So we can indeed create most needed colors to create a harmonized painting with all of its cools
and warms. I found that the introduction of actual black into the palette deadened the whole thing. Creating black with the three colors allows warm and cool blacks, compatible with all color in the
painting. So what has evolved for me is a simple mixing of all three colors in continuously changing
combinations to create my paintings. I have found that it is simple to recreate a color by this
method since all color is a combination of the three.
An example of this simplicity is demonstrated by the attempt to introduce a cool reflection into
olive drab. You cannot simply add blue to achieve this. But with the three color process, you can
simply reduce the amount of red and blue in the mixture to achieve the bluer cast.
Since we are dealing with aviation subjects, the great distances involved force us to work in
Solo Over the Numbers
Demonstrates unpainted aluminum, low sun, much reflected light, and the red-orange of those days.
Careful control of hues transitioning to grays is imperative. Lighting in flight involves reflecting
light from directions all around the aircraft forcing careful control of warm and cool light with
every brush stroke. It may be only my own experience, but I find a palette of multiple tubes of
paint very difficult to control with this reflected light impacting all colors on an aircraft. I find it
much simpler to control all of these elements simultaneously by creating all color by combining
selected primary colors. The reduction of saturation and value of a local color with distance is
accomplished by continually adding the two colors making up the complimentary color, plus
white, to progressively reduce saturation and tonal value with distance. This holds very well for
aviation paintings, perhaps not necessarily so for the landscape painter dealing with all of the
greens and earth colors.
I use a basic palette of Titanium White plus Quinacridone Red (for the magenta); Cadmium
Yellow: and Phthalo Blue (for the Cyan) for my paintings. NO BLACK
This palette has worked well for me and made possible some very successful aviation paintings.