Fred Fixler: Notes on Gouache Painting

The following essay is valuable not only because of its content—which is first rate. It is also worthwhile for the insight it gives us into Fred's amazing, forceful personality.


by Fred Fixler (edited by Norm Nason)

© 1987 Fred Fixler & Norm Nason. All rights reserved. This text may be freely copied for instructional purposes, but not reproduced for profit.



To begin with, I don't want you people to do anything with edges in your portraits. I want you to start out with the poster look, and work for that without smoothing anything out. I don't like smoothed-out color.


Who can say what color flesh is. It can be any color in the value area of 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being black and 10 being white. Flesh is a grayed color, not a pure color. It can be green, it can be blue, it can be anything accept a vivid color. For example, if flesh looks gray-blue, it must be a moonlit scene. There is no such thing as a flesh tone.


The first thing I have to teach you is how to take such a flesh tone and go from its lightest light to its darkest dark. Now, I don't mean the colors that come out of the tube, I mean the color that you're using as a flesh tone. As an exercise, take some color from the palette. Mix a "flesh" color, a grayed color of some kind. Then learn to do value studies, taking that color from light to dark in ten equal steps.


As I said, don't use colors straight from the tube. Those are pure colors that you use to mix with. Never use them straight from the tube. Nothing is that color, anyway. Look around the room. Do you see anything that isn't some form of grayed color? Nothing is pure tone. Everything in the room is a grayed version of one color or another. If you never learned anything else in this course—if you left right now—you would have gotten your money's worth knowing that there are no pure colors anywhere.


Sometimes, in commercial work, you'll have a client who says that they want their package to stand out, that it's pure red. So you paint it pure red because they want it that way and against the other grayed colors. It stands out like a sore thumb, but that's the only incident where such a thing would be done.


Now I know that you're all straining at the bit to get to the portrait work, to do Aunt Minney's portrait. But people, you have to first learn to take a color and find its darkest value through its lightest value. You must do that as an exercise many times over before you can ever handle the portrait work. Really learn to do that. I know you're all going to argue that a shadow doesn't really go that dark, that it is influenced by reflections and bounce lighting and all that. But that's not what we're talking about here.


Contrary to any belief, you do not make a color lighter by simply adding white. That's the last way to do it. The simplest way to prove it is to take a color and add white to it, then mix more white to it. As you continue to do that it becomes whiter, yes. But it shifts into a cool color. All colors, when white is added, become cooler. You have to compensate for the effect of white and warm the color up with a little yellow or some other light-warm color. Yellow itself is sometimes too light, so you might start with a grayed yellow, to kill the blue. Try yellow ochre.


As I have said, there are no flesh tones. Flesh can be any color: greenish, bluish, reddish, etc. Faces are many colors, in all areas. When you're making value studies from 1 to 10, start with a grayed color and make a consistent value change all the way down the line. If the jump from one value to the other is equal to one half of a tone, then they all have to be on half of a tone. They must all be the same chroma, and the same hue.


Say we have a tan color (tan is the hue). It's from the yellow family and it's value is from that family. Say it is approximately the eighth value. The chroma is also from the yellow family. Because this is our point of departure, it is the highest intensity of this particular chroma. When you add gray, it becomes very low in chroma, barely identifiable as a color. It's a warm, yellowish color, but very low in chroma. You have to understand these properties of color. Whatever color you pick, all the colors in your value studies must have the same intensity. They must have the same hue, the same chroma, and vary only in value. Say we have a hue of yellow green. You must keep it yellow green, keep the same chroma (the amount of yellow and green). Only vary the value, from lightest to darkest.


In mixing, if you find you have too much chroma, you can reduce it by adding it's compliment or by adding one of the shades of gray we have in our palette. That brings the chroma back into line. Remember, in gouache painting our colors are going to dry a little lighter than they appear when wet.


If you learn to do value studies—practice this patiently, tenaciously—it will greatly facilitate your portrait work. You have to get this first. Really work on it so it becomes second nature.


When you have one of these grayed colors, and you need to cool it, look around for a dirty cool to do it with. Don't go to a pure color, for that will botch things up. And don't make a spectrum that goes from a cool light to a warmer dark. Keep the spectrum all cool, or all warm, consistently throughout the 10 colors you put down. Don't start with a color that is too gray, or too dark.


Learn to do this and your painting will improve one thousand percent, I'll guarantee you. Learn to understand value and progression. For instance, the color on the shadow side of a red box is still red. It doesn't change just because it's in the shadow. In neutral light you'll see that the shadow side of the box is indeed red. Of course, it would be nice to be able to use the Impressionist's colors: reflected light, fill light. But first you have to learn to handle the progression of values.