October figure study. “Andre.” Oil on panel, 18” x 24.” Sally Fama Cochrane.
Color study, approx 4” x 4”
If you’ve ever been to a life drawing class, I’m sure you’ve heard the word “gesture” a lot. A drawing with good gesture will show clearly the “intention” of the pose, no matter how simple — that is, where the weight in the body is placed, the direction of any motion or twist, the lines of energy, etc… No matter how good a model you have, they will shift slightly during the session and you will have to pick among the variations positions a pose that looks like it has coherent intention. For example, in a standing pose it is often better to emphasize the contrapposto if you can see it.
But I’ve been thinking recently that we could also talk about the “color gesture” of a painting. Just as you have to pick among variations when the model moves, so does color shift — both with changing blood flow to the skin and as our eyes adjust while staring into the colors — and we have to choose a coherent color scheme that “says” something: that isn’t simply an optical mishmash of copied colors the moment we happen to look at each little patch, but that is a unified description of a surface.
I’m trying to do this more in my paintings by doing little color studies before starting the painting (the bottom image is the small color study I did for this pose). Here, I tried to capture how there were two basic local colors of the model — what we would think of as his “true” skin colors: a dark, cool blue-black around his joints and hips, and a dark reddish brown on his limbs and torso. This reddish brown became more light orange as it faced the light source, a deep purple before it turned into shadow, that purple was echoed in a lighter value as a dusty blue highlight.
Just staring at the model for 20 minutes, you’d notice that the colors aren’t stable like this at all! We really have to choose what colors we see. We think human flesh only changes when we blush, but it’s so much more dynamic than that!