Colour Strategy …and when to shoot the big guns

Colour is, and should, be a life-long pursuit for any artist. Its use, makes, or breaks, any artwork. Very often less is more, and colour could often be amplified by its absence

No other artist is in more peril and mortal danger than the pastellist. Such is the allure of the candy-coloured sticks, like sirens, they often misguide ships to founder on to the reefs. Too many artists succumb defencelessly to the danger of high chromatic colours – poppy reds, chilling blues, caterpillar greens, blinding yellows, they all welcome the sailors onto hidden sandbanks. 

Pastel makers too fall for this spell. You can easily tell between a seasoned manufacturer and a new contender – look at their colour ranges. Go for makers that have bothered to invest heavily in greys, earths and muted colours. There is a good reason for this…

If one wants to see the gross abuse of nonsense excess colour, go no further than the typical supermarket shelf. A charade of obscene coloured products all vying for attention, only to get none other than stressful eyeballs.

Colour is a vast subject to discuss. Its use is exactly at par with a chess game. The pawns are the greys, the bulk of the moves, followed by bishops, knights and rooks (earths and muted colours), and finally the candy King and Queen – occupying small but strategic moves. 

I try to play my paintings in a bit of a chess manner, plenty of pawns for a sacrificed Queen. 

Some artists seem to get away with murder time and again, they splash carnival from start to finish in a successful way. These successful candy-tossers are few and often have exhibitions that hark the memory of the supermarket shelves, when numerous canvases are sharing a wall.  We cannot aspire to such perilous adventures unless we are confident that we will prevail. 

Anders Zorn (1860 – 1920) is a very special artist to look up to for colour usage – he uses no real bright colours, except for one red. Yet his work is colour. He makes green and blue out of nowhere, and brilliant yellows from earth ochres. It’s all a matter of placement and wise use of an ultra restricted palette. Where one colour sits to the next, and on to the next; one pawn move after the other can make the pawn as powerful as a Queen. 

It is an interesting exercise to limit one’s colour selections of what pastel sticks will participate in the painting in progress. Once the selection is done, the colour trays carrying your pastel stick collection, should go back into their dark drawer. The selected pastel sticks should be chromatically proportional to that of the chess pieces. 

Pastellists need a rather vast array of colours at their disposal, but only to have the luxury to choose from.  For example, a set of 15 sticks for a specific piece, and then a totally different 12 for the next, and so forth…Restricting colours prompts a harmonious feeling in the painting that the viewer instantly picks up unwittingly. 

Using colours strategically must not be confused with using high-chroma colours sparingly. Make no mistake, strategy is not economy. Strategy is the product of wisdom, observation and experience. It can only be gained through painting and more painting, studies of artists you admire, going to museums and exhibitions, discussions with fellow artists and art teachers, books and articulated online blogs and articles. Colour usage has no hard and fast rules. 

Ironically my biggest colour teacher was my decade of shooting Black & White film photography (way before I waded into pastels). I had my own darkroom. I shot film, developed it and printed it myself. Working with black and white transforms any artist’s views on colour like never before. It’s like exhaustive training for the 100 metres race with a pair of lead boots on, and then you remove them on the eve of the race.  The pastels are my sprint. 

I encourage everyone to dig deep into his and her pastel journey, it’s a fantastic and very personal medium that can be used in the most versatile of latitudes… just use colour wisely. 

Poseidon's Irk by Henry Falzon.
Poseidon’s Irk- pastel 50 by 65cm – only 7 pastel sticks were used in this piece, 2 ‘oranges’ and 5 ‘blues’, carefully selected from the artist range of about 300 different shades. The paper is a dark blue pastelmat.

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7 Responses

  1. Я согласна с Генри, цвет это очень важно для художника. Самое главное, чтобы не подвело чувство меры, Спасибо команде Юнисон за знакомство с новыми идеями и мыслями талантливых художников!

  2. Dear Henry – As an English teacher, I can only applaud your use of metaphors to convey such interesting, and important, comments about colour. Lovely thoughtful piece (and I love your work!). Thanks very much.

  3. I love this article, thank you for sharing. I’m amazed that such a beautiful painting as yours was done with only 7 sticks. It is stunning.

  4. Hello Henry! Thank you for that insightful blog here! I love the colours used in this painting (maybe I’m a biased “Malteser”missing the homeland and the blue sea) I too love photography and can relate to your black and white developing days which I too did at Uni in Malta, it helps gain perspective. Thank you for being so frank regarding the supermarket shelves! Less is definitely more! I shall endeavor to remember this in my pastel art journey. Greetings from Ireland 🇮🇪

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