What a Slide Projector Taught Me About Painting!

What a Slide Projector Taught Me About Painting!

By Ed Bertolet

Sometimes lessons about painting can come from surprising places. In this case the lesson came from a slide projector.

Years ago, at my first plein air event, the week’s paintings had been hung under a white canopy on panels located on an outdoor patio next to the restaurant where artists and collectors had been assembled for a dinner and an auction.

I, and many others, had spent our time prior to dinner looking at the paintings displayed outside. A lot of good work by an impressive group of artists. 

We subsequently enjoyed our dinner and waited anxiously for the auction to begin. The event sponsors had elected to show slides of the paintings rather than having us milling around outside.

As the slide images of the work were projected, I was startled to see that they looked so much better than the actual paintings I had observed just an hour ago before dinner! Was it my imagination? Was it the fact that the dinner and wine had changed my perception of the work? Something was going on and I was at a loss to figure out what it was.

Curiosity and my persistence in solving this riddle led me to an answer. And the answer revealed something that led to my painting better pictures!

Here is what I discovered. By showing the work with a slide projector two things happened that helped make the paintings look better. 

First was a reduced value range created by the ambient light in the restaurant and the limitations of the brightness of the projector bulb in slide photography. There were no extreme darks, or brilliant lights. Most artists (myself included) rely too much on contrast (which is one of the strongest elements in painting), and this error was naturally mitigated by showing it with slides. No dark in the painting was below an 80% and no light was above a 15%. This created more “unity” and made color an even more important player in the painting.

Second was the fact that the natural warm color of the projection screen and the warm color of the projector bulb were added to every color in the painting, bringing them into better color harmony.

These two things made such a difference in making the work look better that it made a big impression on me.

So now, when out painting, when discipline allows, I try to reduce my gamut of values and not rely so heavily on contrast. And I try to use a “mother color” — a premixed warm color that I add a little bit of to all my mixtures, whenever I can.

I can think of two artists whose work embodies these two principles. One is Glenn Dean, who uses a greatly reduced value range to great effect as his wonderful color harmonies are enhanced by the reduction of contrast. The other is Scott Christiansen, who developed a palette of premixed colors by Vasari that are so harmonious because they all have a touch of yellow in their mixtures.

So be on the lookout for insights into making better paintings that may come from surprising places.

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