Geometric Planes in Painting

Armand Cabrera

Have you ever noticed that even though some artists have painted areas of light and shadow in their paintings, their pictures still seem to have no unifying sense of light? That is because they have incorrectly painted the planes that make up the objects in the painting.

Planes, as they pertain to painting, are one of the most essential concepts for creating a sense of light and space in your work. Planes help create the illusion of form. It is the ability to correctly identify where the planes are on a form and their angle to the light that helps to make a successful painter. Whenever you see a plane change, you must also change the hue, temperature or value to record it. Imagine the facets of a diamond. The flattened areas are planes. By observing the way light changes on these planes, you can create a believable form.

When painting the landscape, the idea of planes still applies. Think of the earth as a large, horizontal plane. Trees and buildings would be upright planes and hills and mountains would be inclined planes. We know that light from the sun falls in parallel rays. When this light falls on different objects in the landscape, it is the direction of the light in relation to the angle of the plane of the object that determines the brightness. When the plane of an object is perpendicular to the direction of the light—that place is the object’s brightest point. It is the consistency with which you paint this relationship that creates a unifying sense of light in your work.

The outdoor painter has the added challenge of atmospheric recession and the suns movement across the sky. As the sun moves, the angle of the light changes…and changes the way it interacts with the scene. This is why it is imperative to lock in the essential divisions of light and shadow as quickly as possible when painting from life.

Color Theory Basics Part I

Armand Cabrera

Color is hinged on value. To have good color, you must have accurate values. To have accurate values, you must get the correct relationships between the colors and values right. Colors and values seen by the human eye are hundreds of times greater than what is available in your pigments. Because of this, you must get the differences correct.

EXAMPLE: For measurement, we will use a value scale of 10 places, where 0 = black and 9 =white.
Let’s say all the things you see in the sunlight are at a range of 6, 7 and 8 on the value scale. All the shadows are at a range of 3, 4 and 5. Therefore, all the colors in the sunlight or shadows must be in their respective value range–including white and black.
So…white in the shadow cannot be lighter than a 5 on the value scale.
Black in the sunlight can’t be darker than a 6.

It’s futile to copy the color you’re seeing unless you compare it to every color around it. To compare something, you must first have something to compare it with, right?
I always start with the thing I ‘m sure of…so if I am sure of the color and value of the sky, I start with that. If I’m sure of the color and value of the grass, then that will be my starting point.
I then evaluate all my other colors and values to my initial choice.

So how do you make the range of different colors you see in nature fit into the limitations imposed by your pigments? This is where you can use the other aspects of color to show the variety of your scene without compromising the value differences.
The other aspects of color are saturation, hue and temperature.

When faced with a slight change in value, see if you can use a hue change or temperature change to capture it. Save your value changes for the great division of light and shadow.


Armand Cabrera

Brushstrokes carry a message whether you will it or not. The stroke is just like the artist at the time they make it. All the certainties, all the uncertainties, all the bigness of their spirit and all the littleness are in it.
~Robert Henri

Brush Calligraphy is the stylistic application of your paint.

The paint is applied without overworking it once you have laid it on the canvas. Brush calligraphy can be instinctive as an outgrowth of your style…or an intentional approach to strengthen the composition and design of your painting. Brush calligraphy shouldn’t be haphazard. In other words, a conscious approach to your brush application is always preferable to an unconscious one. Effective brush calligraphy is often a valuable way of intensifying passages of interest and design overlooked by many artists who restrict their thinking in terms of color and value.

Many times, a small sketch has more life than a larger studio painting because of brush calligraphy. The quality of a stroke you make with the flick of your wrist on a small painting becomes a challenge to reproduce on a larger scale because the effort of your whole arm is needed to gain the identical outcome. When you consider the relationship between the size of the stroke, relative to the size of the canvas, you will understand the challenge when using a large brush with adequate paint for the result you wish to accomplish.

Paint strokes are not just about direction or size…they also encompass the thickness of the application. When thicker passages of paint are applied to a painting surface, you create a sculptural effect. The combination of these effects takes your painting beyond the idea of reproducing what you see. Brush calligraphy offers the viewer layers of interest beyond the initial two dimensional image and the ability to render it. A purposeful approach to brushwork makes a painting a forceful statement.

Color Theory Basics Part II

Armand Cabrera

Atmospheric effects on color
Colors do not just gray as they move away from the observer, they also change temperature, hue and saturation. You cannot get good color without paying attention to all these shifts.

Colors reside in a natural place on the value scale; this spot is where the color is at full saturation. If you look on most tubes of paint they will tell you what the value is for that color. If I look at the colors of my palette the values are , Ultramarine 2, Cobalt 3, Alizarin 2, Cad Red 5, Cad Yellow 7, Cad Lemon 8, and Titanium White 10.

As things move away from you they lose saturation and they cool, how much depends on the angle of light and the atmospheric condition and other variables but this is an observable phenomenon. The contrast between the lights and shadows also diminishes.

This does not mean cool colors recede. A blue box and orange box on a shelf both appear as close. Ruskin proved this idea 150 years ago but people still repeat the ‘everything is blue in the background idea’. The best way to dispel this notion of things turning blue is look at white and yellow as they recede. White shifts towards red and so does yellow.

So if you have similar colors in the foreground and the background, then background colors have to lose saturation and they also cool which means they move through the spectrum. Depending on their value they will also lighten or darken with great distance. This is observable with all colors when compared to similar colors in the foreground. So forget about pure color everywhere, that’s wrong. Pure saturation everywhere has the opposite effect; it flattens the space.

Instead instead of pure saturated color, focus on clean color and its relationship to similar colors in the scene. Clean color means a discernable color family in relation to other color families.
Remember compare lights to shadows for the overall effect; then compare shadow to shadow and lights to light within the effect to find chroma, temperature and value for the appropriate color note.


Armand Cabrera

Composition is one of the hardest things to grasp and is subject to more than its share of ridiculous theories. Even defining composition seems to cause controversy. There is formal composition, informal composition, dynamic, intuitive, and classical composition.

To help clear the field let’s start with the basic idea of what composition is. Composition is the placement of shapes of color and value within the four corners of the canvas. The goal is to focus your eye where the artist wants it to go. I submit the only thing you must remember is good compositions do this, bad compositions don’t.

To get the viewer to look where you want them to a number of tried and true formulae have been employed by artists for centuries. One of the oldest is based on the golden section or golden mean. This idea was used by the Greeks in their buildings. It is an observed proportion found in many natural things. Its mathematical ratio is 1 to 1.618. You can see it in the veins of leaves the volumetric curves of a seashell. It is repeated in division of your joints in your fingers and the ratio of the length to width of your hand.

The golden section is a perfect proportion and creates unity within a picture when applied.
The formula is AB is to BC as BC is to AC or the smaller is to the greater as the greater is to the whole.
There is even a sequence of numbers that relate to this concept, the Fibonacci sequence. The first number of the sequence is 0, the second number is 1, and each subsequent number is equal to the sum of the previous two numbers of the sequence itself; the first ten numbers look like this
An image of the sequence looks like this.

As you can see it makes it easy to decide how and where to place your center of interest. If you plot out the growth of the sequence you get a spiral. Secondary interst can be placed along the path to create movement throught the picture.

Some artists even go so far as incorporating the width of the frame as part of the design sequence. However far you take it, the golden section is a compositional guide that has stood the test of time.