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Pops of Color and Shades of Gray: Color Theory with Chin-Cheng Hung

Chin-Cheng Hung giving a live pastel portraiture demo at the Savannah College of Art and Design, 10/04/19

This past weekend, I had the privilege of studying pastel portraiture under Professor Chin-Cheng Hung, a pastel life drawing master. Hung graduated with an MFA in Painting from SCAD in 1999 and fell in love with the medium of pastel. He was the first artist to tackle monumental pastel life drawing, and has decisively perfected it. Over the course of this two-day workshop, he shared countless nuggets of wisdom, and opened my eyes not only to the myriad possibilities of chalk pastel, but to key aspects of color theory that will deeply inform my work going forward. Among the many insights Hung provided over the course of the weekend, his comments color value and on pastel chromatic grays clicked for me in a way that will enable me to bridge the gaps between painting and drawing, grayscale and color.

Pastels are drawing heaven for painters. I realized this when I first got my hands on a genuine set of Sennelier oil pastels…intoxicatingly rich, pure-pigment sticks loaded with juicy possibility. But I had never taken a deep dive into soft pastels (which are made with chalk and gum arabic and differ from oil pastels). When I had dabbled with them in the past, I could always sense that I wasn’t unlocking the true potential of the medium. Hung’s live demonstration on form, color, observation, and application unlocked the secrets lying dormant in these sticks of pigment: they are the painter’s drawing medium, every bit as much as oil pastels, and they allow for some really exciting explorations of color theory.

Some of my oil pastel work: Study, Poured Honey (2019) Oil pastel on paper, 5" x 5"

As I attended a primarily conceptual university for my BFA, I didn’t have much exposure to advanced color theory in undergrad. I’ve long had the basic vocabulary – primaries, secondaries, tertiaries, complimentaries, analogous color schemes, et cetera – and over the years I’ve developed my color sense through observation, experimentation, and practice, but I’ve never received an intensive course that gave me time to boil these lessons down to concentrated studies. Through Hung’s demonstration, I received a crash course in color that proved each principle in real time. Color temperatures and informed layering took on a whole new level of meaning as Hung created laid down exciting “color pops,” boldly using blues, pinks, and greens in ways I’d never dreamed possible, let alone precisely correct. Hung explained that matching values is more important than matching colors; if you have the values right, you can play around with any colors you want. (He mentioned the work of Margaret Dyer, a pastel artist who has a firm grasp on this principle: the skin tones embrace all the colors of the rainbow while still convincing the eye.)

"If you have the values right, you can play around with any colors you want." - Chin-Cheng Hung

Pastel work by Margaret Dyer

A particularly important moment of realization came for me when Hung layered soft pink and green to create chromatic gray. In the past, I’ve “made do” with mixing chromatic grays for painting, but I’ve largely kept my understanding of gray separate from my use of vivid color. My grayscale works thus far have been achromatic (as my In Memoriam Illustrated Series), so while they are conceptually married to my colorful works, they are separate visually. I’ve avoided using grays out of fear of muddying the waters of my paintings, but chromatic grays present a wonderful opportunity for adding complexity to my sunset color palette.

In my recent and upcoming works, I’ve been exploring the concept of a sunset/sunrise inspired color palette as a metaphor for transition – the moments between light and dark we experience in our lives, and how these fleeting but beautiful moments shape us. However, until recently, I’d only been thinking of these transitions in literal black and white terms. My drawings have explored light and shadow in charcoal, while my paintings have been firmly planted in prismatic color. But there are shades of gray beyond those we encounter between black and white, and they hold great potential for the expression of subtle emotion. Faded memories with a tinge of color, departed souls who leave behind flickers of feeling…chromatic grays embody these concepts.

As I continue painting transient moments and transitional memories (Painting Studio) and drawing poetic reflections on hope and loss (Drawing Studio), I now hope to consider the lessons demonstrated by Chin-Cheng Hung. I’m looking forward to a quarter – and a lifetime – of diving ever deeper into the blended realm between painting and drawing, and the endless, marvelous shades of gray that dwell there.  

"Chromatic grays are like magic." - Chin-Cheng Hung

I've created some color breakdowns of Chin-Cheng Hung's work with special attention to chromatic grays and sunset tones and included them below:

The site from the University of West Georgia proved helpful in my extended research:

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