How to Make Colours Look Even Brighter

How does the artist make a sunset appear brighter, a stroke of lightning more brilliant? The secret is how colour are placed in context. Smart juxtaposition of one colour against another could make a given colour look dull or bright. But what is this trick of making colours appear brighter than they actually are?

When Red Is not Red

How to Make the Sun Appear Bright in Painting

Take any colour and place it alongside another colour and it will be given certain characteristics. Red will appear more dazzling if placed alongside any colour within the opposing segment on the colour wheel – in this case, blue, green or violet. Similarly, place this colour against one with a contrasting tone and the appearance of red will appear brighter. As can be seen in the diagram, red against black appears bright as the black provide tonal contrast. Place red against a similar colour, such as orange and this dazzling effect is subdued. This is because red and orange are harmonious colours. In other words, they are placed on neighbouring segments of the colour wheel. Red against grey appears dazzling, but not to the degree as red against black, as the two is similar in tone. Notice also that the red appears darker against the grey than against black.

Creating Vibrant Colours in Painting

This principle can be practiced with other colours. Green can be made more dazzling by placing it against red or any colour containing red, such as orange, maroon, pink or crimson. Green will not appear so dazzling against blue or turquoise.

When it comes to painting subject matter, placing contrasting colours against one another will create focal points if the rest of the painting contains subdued or harmonious hues. This can be seen in my painting of the leopard. As can be seen, the blue spots appear to shimmer against the red. Because the two colours are similar in tone, they appear to oscillate against one another.

Monet’s sunset works on the same principle, where subdued colours are used for the rest of the sky, but bright colours used for the sun itself. If this bright colour mixture was taken out of context and placed on a white background, the colour would not appear so bright. The same trick can be used for painting lightning, aurora borealis or a moonlit scene. The more extreme the contrast, the more brilliant or dazzling the colours will appear to be. Bright Colours not Garish Colours It is good practice to work on a toned ground in order to obtain a more accurate portrayal of colour’s tone and hue. Working on a white art surface will make any colour appear darker than it actually is. For this reason, I will apply a thin layer of an earth colour onto the art surface first (this might be burnt sienna or burnt umber). This underpaint, also known as an imprimatura, can also be grey, brown or neutral.

However, you can experiment with different coloured imprimaturas, which will provide contrast and shimmering effects to a painting. A painting featuring a multitude, of greens for instance a forest scene, will appear dazzling if placed upon a red imprimatura.

Manipulating Colours in Painting

Some knowledge of which colours are complementary (opposite) and which are harmonious (similar) in painting will help create dazzling effects in paint. As can be seen, placing red against blue or any similar cool colour will make both colours appear more brighter than if the two colours are similar in hue.

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