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Book Review: Capturing Radiant Light & Color by Susan Sarback

Updated on August 18, 2009

Cover: Capturing Radiant Light & Color

Capturing Radiant Light & Color in Pastels and Oils by Susan Sarback, cover scan.
Capturing Radiant Light & Color in Pastels and Oils by Susan Sarback, cover scan.

The Colourist Method

If you're wondering why all my book reviews of art instruction books seem to be raves, it's simple. I started doing reviews of my favorite art instruction books. That's what the series is. It's all the books I learned the most from, use the most, go back to often, study and actually do some of the exercises from them. I probably have over 200 art instruction books on my shelves, it's one of my favorite topics.

I'm just doing my reviews favorites first, or sometimes newest favorites first. There are some old classic favorites I'll get to later on in the series that I've bought multiple copies because I wore them out. So if you're looking for the wicked wit panning bad books... maybe I'll get into doing those for "Fiction to make you think your Nanowrimo Novel is ready for publishing with no edits." It wouldn't be the same series. 

Susan Sarback is a Colourist painter. The tradition started with Henry Hensche and before him there are some obvious visual connections to Monet and other Impressionists who painted light in wild, beautiful, vivid colors that nonetheless read true -- yet shimmer with the entire spectrum to give an impression the world is full of beauty. The kind of beauty that serious painters live with every time they open their eyes.

This book is about full-color seeing.

There is a book by Hensche on painting that's horribly expensive and hard to get. Susan Sarback has taken this subject and made it easily comprehensible to expert, intermediate and even total beginners in oils and pastels. If you just got a nice oils set for your birthday or the holidays and aren't sure what to do with it yet, this book would give you enough of a start that if you read it, studied and did the early exercises your first paintings would be colorful and pretty enough for reciprocal gifts.

I discovered the Colourist Method in a class on WetCanvas.com by Charlotte Herczfeld, aka Colorix. Charlotte is a student of Susan Sarback and produces incredible Impressionist paintings -- click on her name to see her website and her gorgeous work. She's Swedish and she paints still lifes and landscapes that brim with color as much as Susan Sarback's. 

Ms. Herczfeld's class, Exploring Soft Pastels: Colourful Still Life, is still available to read on WetCanvas in its entirety. It's a very long thread packed with information and examples of various students' work including mine. It's free to read and Charlotte's explanations, including her shorthand description of the four stages of the Colourist Method, are a useful addition to the book. Work backward from the end to the last Index post to find the specific posts that have her short form instructions, color wheel and exercises, some, like the block studies, are directly from Susan Sarback's book and workshops.

This class literally opened my eyes. I learned to see color differently, as big a shift in how I perceive the world as learning to draw human portraits was.

Before I could draw portraits, I recognized people by hairstyle, eye color, whether they had glasses, general complexion. I could not recall faces easily and I judged appearance to a large extent on whether they were in fashion and part of my subcultures. After drawing portraits, I wound up living in a world that had no ugly human beings. Only interesting faces that show people's lives and attitudes and personalities as easily as if you read their biography.

Full-Color Seeing was a perception shift like that. Now a pile of garbage shimmers with color, a crumpled bit of paper towel is a wonderful thing of complex shadows and hues, my cat sleeping on the windowsill is absolute beauty. A half-used pencil is gorgeous. So one of the things this book may do for you is by opening up new ways of seeing color, make your life happier. The more you paint in these brilliant colors, the easier it is to see them in all the drab dull brown things like dried leaves and unglazed pottery too.

I always wondered how painters got that impression of having the full spectrum in a painting of a brown and green landscape with haystacks in it. Impressionists completely fascinated me. What were they doing? How did they get pink into it? How did it turn out to be olive green and brown and also the entire spectrum?

Charlotte's class and this book by Susan Sarback have a wonderful answer: the Colourist method. A painting is created in four stages from pure bright spectrum colors. To do any of the exercises, you'll need to make sure you have a full spectrum of bright colors. You may need a few extra colors in oils or pastels depending on what you already have, but student pastels sets always have the spectrum brights and so do many brands of the more firm square-stick pastels like NuPastel or color Conte.

The first stage establishes color masses. If you get the color right, you will also get the value right by matching the color. The second stage modifies the color till it's accurate for those masses. The third stage finds color variations (which include value variations) within the big masses. The fourth stage refines the painting and adds details.

This also means that you won't spend as long finishing the painting as you would if you worked on each section of it in close detail across the paper. I was surprised at how rich and detailed Colourist paintings come out even when I start from very simple beginnings. The method not only enriches color vision and light perception but it's a shortcut to good powerful accurate rendering of three dimensional forms. 

Of course I came to painting from drawing and I learned to draw accurately without learning to sketch first, so any method that involves working loose to detailed in that order always seems like it goes fast compared to something like Prismacolor realism. Still, the Colourist method gives a lot more results for much less time than many other types of pastel painting and the results are wonderful.

The cover painting by Susan Sarback is a good example of a refined painting done in a Colourist style. If you like pastels or oils, your studies will come out a lot like those in the book. However, if you use other mediums, the principles and method can still be applied. I might actually try a Colourist approach in Prismacolor realism sometime.

I have already tried it using more muted colors on a pastel painting and come to see that even without super bright colors in my palette, just choosing the closest equivalents in tints and neutrals gives a rich powerful result.

Waves on Rocks

Waves on Rocks, Yarka soft pastels on Colourfix sanded pastel paper by Robert A. Sloan
Waves on Rocks, Yarka soft pastels on Colourfix sanded pastel paper by Robert A. Sloan

Color choices, realism and brilliant colors

Even though my Yarka pastels don't include all the bright colors, using complements next to each other made this painting come out brighter and more spectrum brilliant than it would've if I'd done it before taking Charlotte's class and reading Susan Sarback's book. Using blues and greens in the red rocks in their shadows makes them jump and makes the light seem warmer. Using warm pale colors in the surf makes it more lively when it's highlighted.

There are examples of seven different ways of handling color in the introduction to the book. Of them all, Full Color Seeing is the richest and also in another way the truest.

If you've ever wanted to try Impressionism -- this book will get you to paint the light in true color and enrich your works in any medium far beyond what you thought you could do.

I tried to set up an Amazon link on the title, but for some reason it's refusing to show it, only a related book by her just on oils. Click on it though and you'll probably be able to get to the Amazon listing for my  book, which has pastels as well. The widget isn't giving me the right search for some unknown reason. But if you follow it to get to Amazon, I'll still get the commission, then search on title again under Books.

Amazon carries this book used and new

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