Beyond Red & Green

‘Tis the season and I can’t help but notice the dynamic duo everywhere I go:  Red and Green.  When you see the two together it’s usually a garish in-your-face-buy-me-now red paired with a holly-jolly-where’s-my-credit-card-green.  These two colors are the harbingers of Christmas and begin to appear in your local Walgreens just after Halloween.  After Thanksgiving they make their full-blown sneak attack to the tune of “Last Christmas” by Wham.  The red and green of Christmas Present has less to do with a holly branch or a Douglas fir, rather it tugs on those nostalgic heart strings towards a sign that reads “Sale.”  Ok ok…I’m the first to admit that working retail for 15 years has made me jaded around the holidays.  I do confess that a small flicker of joy remains for those two colors.  Let me get down off my Christmas soapbox for a minute so we can dive into two of my year-round favorites…

trees color 3_small

Red and green are a familiar set of complements and there are plenty of reds and greens out there to choose from.  Let me let you in on a little secret:  Quinacridone Burnt Orange and Green Gold are out of this world!  Not your obvious complementary pair but a glorious team nonetheless.  These unique, hidden gems simply dance together on the canvas.

Can colors vary between brands? Yes. Each company will have their own formulas, milling processes, where their pigments come from. Green Gold is a color that definitely varies from company to company. Personally, I use Golden brand’s Green Gold because of its extreme intensity.  I consider one of the most effective ways to understand a color is by examining the range of mutes it creates.  In the color study above you can see the beginnings of an exciting array of browns.  I tinted the colors with white to see what kind of highlights they create.

I really have to hand it to whoever came up with the name “Green Gold” because it is truly a treasure among colors. Transparent, luminous, and heavily leaning towards the yellow side of the spectrum, Green Gold is an awesome color choice when adding energy, electricity and warmth to a painting.

Fall Trees
Fall Trees

Of course, what is a color without its complement?  In the case of Green Gold, its complement would be red. Quinacridone Burnt Orange is a rusty autumnal red with the same luminescence and transparency as Green Gold. Both are modern colors and they complement each other beautifully.  If you are familiar with my teaching style you’ve heard me emphasize the importance of a “limited color palette” (more blog posts on this later!).  This Fall Trees painting practices just that with a specific emphasis on the red and green complements.  Being a loud and proud color nerd – I am happy to spend hours on end exploring the nuances of color relationships and seeing how I can apply that knowledge to my painting process.

The holidays come and go but these two colors make appearances on my palette year-round.  Perhaps it’s the background noise of “Ben Hur” or maybe its a bit of undigested candy cane speaking but I’ll leave you with this:

“Twas the night before Christmas and inside the house

I stood by my easel in a paint-covered blouse.

The canvas looked festive with colors so bright,

Happy painting to all and to all a good night!”


Every once in a while a commission comes my way and I’ll get really jazzed up about the subject matter.  A gal was flipping through matted prints of my acrylic animals during my last show.  After a while she showed me a photo of her pup, Viola.  I’ve always wanted to paint a French bulldog – I mean, how can you not love that face?  We exchanged information and I was crossing my fingers that she’d commission a painting.  I was excited to get a message from her later that day saying “Start!”

Getting readyI am notorious to take forever and a day to complete commissions so it was quite unusual for me to begin gathering materials as soon as I got her message.  From the photo she sent I selected my colors and prepared my canvas.  The only question I asked her was “What is Viola’s favorite color?”  Our animals have favorite  snacks, sleeping spots, tv shows, windowsills to sit on and music to sing along to.  Of course they have favorite colors!  Viola’s favorite colors were soft pink, purple and a touch of peacock blue.

Materials:  12″ x 12″ deep canvas, decorative collage paper, red colored pencil, matte medium
acrylic brushes: very small round, 1/2″ wide bright, 1″ wide bright
acrylic paint:  dioxazine purple, Pthalo blue, titanium white, yellow ochre, cadmium red light.
I always get my materials from University Art Center in San Jose – shop local homegrown businesses and keep our art supply stores around for the long haul!

STEP 1:  I covered my 12″ x 12″ deep canvas with a variety of collage paper in the pink family and glued them in place using matte medium.  Matte medium is a wonderful glue and sealant in addition to being a superb painting medium.  I then stained the collage paper with a glaze of dioxazine purple and Pthalo blue.  I also made sure to cover the sides of the canvas at this stage for continuity.  When everything was dry to the touch (which only takes a few minutes) I sketched Viola with my red colored pencil.

STEP 2:  Dioxazine purple and Pthalo blue make a lovely violet.  Using this combination I blocked in the shadows and darks in varying degrees of saturation.  Viola’s eyes being the darkest point in the painting begin to establish them as a focal point.  I use the matte medium to increase transparency where needed.

STEP 3:  Now I add the highlights by mixing yellow ochre and titanium white.  During these beginning stages I am using my 1/2″ wide brush to keep the brush strokes loose and bold.  It’s so much fun to get the paint on the canvas that sometimes I start to get lost in the details.  By using a bigger brush I can keep myself on track.  I am a sucker for complementary colors – I just love how the yellow and purple play off each other.

STEP 4:  One of the many things I preach in my classes is “Change your water!”  I use a big water bucket so I need to go to the sink less-often.  It’s funny though, changing your water is a refreshing way to clear your mind for a few moments away from your painting.  I’ll usually change my water before I begin the next phase of my project.  In this case, before I flesh out the muscles and the detailing the rest of the fur.  P.S.  STILL using the 1/2″ wide brush…

The final touches…Here is where I use a hint of cadmium red light.  This is a powerful, warm red and I use it sparingly in her ears, nose, around the eyes and in her toenails.  Now I use my smallest round brush to mix a variety of muted tones to add detail.  I am such a fan of using “limited palettes” as my color schemes.  You can’t help but have color harmony if you limit yourself to a few select colors.  I can easily jump between color combinations and tweak by increasing one color or another.  Here are some examples:
Etcetera!  Etcetera!

In my mind, the eyes are the most exciting element in any portrait, animal or human.  They are my dessert and I like to save them for last.  I’ll know the painting is complete when the eyes are perfect.  The highlight is vital – placement, intensity and color all have to be thought out.  If the highlight is in the exact center of the pupil the painting can look like a bad family photo before red-eye was autocorrected.  If there is no highlight then the subject tends to look a little zombie-ish.  I take my highlights very seriously.  With Viola’s eyes finished I add a flourish of a bow for personality and composition.


When I unwrapped her for my client I could see a wave of emotions on her face.  She held my hand and said, “It’s her!”  I’m so glad that I was able to paint this pretty little girl and capture her personality.  Thanks, Viola, for being as adorable as you are!