How do you make a subject or a shape look three-dimensional? What is the effective strategy to painting a subject round? How many colors do you need to accomplish this? Have you ever thought about how many different colors you need to create a convincing sense of volume?
We painters work on a two dimensional surface, yet many of us like to make a subject look three-dimensional.Perhaps, you have a ripe red apple you want to paint or a billowing storm cloud? Or you want a boulder to convey its mass and that nose to bend.
Our flat surfaces – canvas, board, paper – present a challenge and many of us love this technical challenge of creating a sense of three-dimension. I know this is something I like to project in my paintings. It is our job to persuade the viewer that we are painting a subject round.
Line and iconic shapes – such as an apple or a daisy – can play a role in creating a sense of form because our brains know these shapes. We have a visual dictionary that automatically identifies them. However, line alone is not convincing to the viewer. We have to manipulate them to believe a subject or shape is three-dimensional by using different colors.
Referring to the next drawing I tried another tactic and I added a cast shadow line to the original drawing. This creates some sense of dimension, yet it still reads flat. This is often used in cartoons.
Three Steps to Making a Subject Three-Dimensional
Step 1: Identify the light source and where it is coming from. Take a moment to identify from which direction the light is coming. (Tip: If you don’t do this, the viewer is confused and confusion is not convincing.)
Why do I need to know this? Because it tells me where the light side of my subject is and its subsequent shadow side. I also know that the light side of the subject is of a different value and intensity in color than the shadow side. In this apple example, the light source is coming from the upper left corner.
Step 2: Identify the shadow side area of the subject. The shadow side of the subject is on the opposite side from the light source. It is darker in value and less intense in hue.
Given this information, we know we need two colors. Are two colors enough to create volume? No they are not.
The key phrase in the beginning of this article is “convince the viewer.”
Step 3: Identify the half-tone or half-light on the subject. Ask yourself, “Do you want to make your subject/shape reach right out to the passerby?” If so, then you need a third color to make the bridge between the light and dark sides. This bridge color is called a half-tone by some, others refer to it as the half-light or the base color. If you want a convincing sense of form, then a bridge color is necessary.
How often have we painted a tree trunk, a nose or an abstract shape we want to look three dimensional yet only used two colors? Are we painters lazy or in too much of a hurry? Perhaps we assume the viewer understands a subject has form, yet assumptions are usually get us in trouble. The half-light makes the subject look like it is bending. It is indicated by area #2 in the drawing below. Area #1 is the light side of the apple, whereas area #3 is the dark or shadow side.
How many colors do you need when painting a subject round?
A minimum of three different colors as indicated. This is true for any style of painting. The colors conveying the light side, the half-light and shadow side are necessary. By the way, I don’t consider white highlights as the third or fourth color.
The apple example below shows a strategy to painting a subject round.
- In area #1, I applied an orange-red;
- in area #2, I applied the red base or bridge color;
- in area #3, I painted in a darker and less intense red.
More examples demonstrating a three-dimensional subject:
In the cropped image of one of my watercolor floral paintings, you can see how the leaves bend because if my use of three or more colors (and even in the dew drops). Whether your style is to blend your colors or not, implementing this concept creates more compelling images and convinces your viewers of a sense of dimension.
In the next set of photos, you can see how I made my subject look round in different styles of painting and subjects. The pear is painted in watercolor and I blended the three different colors. The middle photo is a cropped image of one of my abstract paintings “Floating Winds.” The right image is an oil study for a lilac painting. I did not blend the colors as I did in the pear, instead I used strokes of paint. In all of these cases, I mixed my three different colors BEFORE I began applying any paint.
Finally, I thought you would enjoy seeing how I used more colors to create a sense of form on a white object. For this queen chess piece, notice how the warm colors of yellow and orange (the light source side) move into the cooler colors of pink, purple and blue. This adds more drama, interest and beauty.
Have I persuaded you that you need to use at least three colors to make a subject look three-dimensional? As per the apple above, adding more light and dark colors can even be more persuasive when painting a subject round.
A Color Mixing Challenge: Paint a round subject you know well. Then paint it two more times while pushing your selection of colors. Paint a background around your subject to see what happens. Let me know how it turned out.
As you peruse art magazines or walk an art exhibition, take an extra moment to notice how an artist approached painting a subject round. Which subjects/shapes are more convincing and compelling to you? Why? How many different colors did it take for them to create that sense of three-dimension? Does it convey more emotion or interest?
Gratefully and Colorfully yours,
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