How to Push Color Forward and Back

This abstract 12x12 pastel uses the concept of pushing colors forward and back to create depth. It works with representational art all the time to create depth, but it should also work as well and abstract art and I will prove it by the time you reach the end of this post.

I use the term Saturation to represent the purer color or values. Art books use value to represent the movement of a color value from pure to muted with whites or grayer versions of color. After selecting my values (colors), I used variations of those colors (values or saturation) to interpret the lights, darks, and middle gray tones of the notan sketch below. Abstractions are fun and by the end of this post you too might find out why once I do the big reveal at the end.

As you can see from the thumbnail three-tone notan sketch, this is merely an abstraction with darks, lights and a highlighted piece of paper in the lower right quadrant of the sketch. I used music to create the notan with no thoughts of anything other than moving the pen and pencil to something in a single song that I focused on. In this case, probably the rhythmic section of the melody.

Flattening out the Dark and Light Areas to Copy Design

Below you can see how after picking the colors (values) blue, violet and red, then I mushed them all together to try and create a value study or interpret the notan into something with the start of the colors I wanted (the blue is a very pale blue that almost looks white in the image). You can see that the color doesn't move in and out but only allows for the design to show. In case you are wondering, I used the Steelyard balance scale as a design, one of Edgar Payne's designs. There is a weighted mass left with lighter masses on the right, balanced over a pivot point, the pale blue fulcrum point.

Proving This Abstract Can Be Representational

I promised proof of pushing and pulling colors in an abstraction can be a technique used in representational art. Slide back up to the top of this post and think what if I title this piece "The Last Toehold of Winter Snow" Go back up and look and see if you can tell that this could be a representational piece -- I'll wait?

Not quite convinced? Can you see just a bit how the snow kind of lays flatter and comes forward and back onto what looks like a hillside in the forground? Go back up and check it out. Can you see how the lightest reds go back from the brightest, more saturated reds, and could be thought of as distant tree lines meeting a light pink skyline? Do you see how the darker silhouette trees of the middle ground go up and get lighter as they are shaped by light as they rise; then they get darker as the light is less and absorbed by them nearer their bases?

By controlling the color saturation or color values the eye moves in and out in three-dimensional rather than just around the piece's flat surface. Landscape artists do this all the time and so should abstract paintings. The colors cannot just exist on a vertical plane but must move the viewer back and forth within the frame. I still call this an abstract landscape, but it moves like a representational piece.

Sharing What I learned As My Proof

  • Titles can create illusions. Without this title, this work was what it started out to be, an abstraction

  • Even abstractions need to move the eye back and forth, not just around the 2-D flat surfaces

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