From My Library: An Amazing Book on Color and Light for Artists

From My Library

An Amazing Book on Color and Light for Artists

Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter by James Gurney

As I was reviewing drawing assignments submitted by my animal anatomy students I realized that many of them shared the same weakness—light and color.

I told these students, as I have told many students over the years I have been teaching, that the key to making animals look realistic is light, shadow and an understanding of color.

My mind went to a book I keep at hand in my studio; Jim Gurney’s Color and Light” A Guide for the Realist Painter, published by Andrews McNeel in 2010. Setting aside Leonardo’s notebooks on light and shadow, this is my favorite book on the topic. Part of the reason is that Jim approaches the topic a lot as Leonardo did. He doesn’t just accept things as they appear. He digs under the surface and explains why.

Gurney’s book is over 200 pages long and has no fewer than 80 chapters on specific topics ranging from “Indoor Electric Lighting” to “Sunbeams and Shadow Beams.” The book is visually driven with each “chapter” presented as a spread with images demonstrating the principle being discussed with a couple of hundred words of text. In other words, it is light reading. But the little that Gurney writes is concise and to the point; it tells you what you need to know and he shows you the rest using examples from his prodigious output along with examples from past masters.

Take as an example Gurney’s chapter on “Separation of Light and Shadow.” He compares intervals of tone between the deepest shadows and the brightest highlights to intervals between musical notes. He shows with photographs (one of himself) how our perception of color and tone varies depending on lighting conditions and surrounding colors and tones. The spread is graced with a beautiful painting of a dinosaur that looks like you can reach into the image and touch it.

Gurney’s advice is not constrained to looking at light and color in paintings. He packs the book with lots of down-to-Earth practical advice. For example, a section on paints and pigments includes the chapter, “Charting Pigments,” in which Gurney lays out how paints not only have the qualities of color; hue, value and chroma. They also have qualities that determine how physical paint works. These include transparency, drying time and compatibility with other pigments. These are things that can only be learned through experience, which Gurney has plenty of and, thankfully, is willing to share.

I know Jim Gurney. I had the pleasure of working with him on many commissions I gave him when I was Art Director at National Geographic Magazine. He is an extremely kind and modest human being. He would never claim to be a modern master. But believe me, Jim’s work and his book are proof that the spirit of Leonardo da Vinci is alive and well.

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