Use a Viewfinder: three examples

How To Use A Viewfinder To See Colour

I’ve just returned from teaching two different still life workshops to members of the Southwest Florida Pastel Society (SWFPS). I had an amazing time with a bunch of committed artists who were warm and friendly, and who put up with my insistence on them doing thumbnails! Naturally, I encouraged them to use a viewfinder to help with these. (You can see some of their fantastic work at the end of this post.)

One of the most frequently asked questions was, “I can’t see what colour that is. How can I see the colour?”

Most often this question was related to seeing colour in shadows (both form and cast shadows) or dark areas with no obvious colour. Generally we think of the colour in these areas as grey. Plain old grey. But remember, grey is a combination of the three primary colours – red, blue, and yellow – in varying proportions. So a grey may be bluer, or yellower, or redder. Even knowing this, it still can be difficult to “see” which way a grey leans. 

So I told them about a nifty way of doing this. It comes down to a tool you may already have: the View Catcher Viewfinder. Do you have one of these? It looks like this:

I carry mine everywhere. It’s such a handy, small, light, durable tool through which to view the world. It not only helps with selecting what to paint and how to format that view (eg square, vertical, horizontal), it also helps you to draw. (To see more on this, check out this earlier blog with accompanying video.)

The other thing this viewfinder does is to help you see values AND colour!! I touched on both of these in the blog afore mentioned but I’m going to try and show you more about the colour aspect here.

As you can see, the viewfinder has a hole (some have two). The viewfinder itself is a neutral grey colour that’s midway on the value scale. So, as a tool for checking values, it’s great. Just look through the hole and see whether what you’re looking at is lighter, darker, or the same value as the grey of the viewfinder.

Okay. But what about seeing colour?

Take the viewfinder and look at the colour you’re undecided about. Then ask yourself the following questions as you look:

– Is it red?

– Is it blue?

– Is it yellow?

By asking these questions as you look, you’ll generally find that you will respond with ‘yes’ to one of them. Remember you’re looking at greys but the positive answer tells you which way that grey is leaning – towards red, or towards blue, or towards yellow. If you still don’t come up with a positive answer, move on to the secondary colours:

– Is it green?

– Is it orange?

– Is it purple?

Really, it works like magic!!

Let’s look at a few images to see what I mean. The camera doesn’t pick up the nuances and so I encourage you to do this in real life, but this will illustrate how to use a viewfinder to help see colour.

In each of these three sets, I’ve set up a colourful piece of paper to reflect some colour onto the setup. (Unfortunately, I was doing this on a cloudy day which means less light and colour reflected onto the objects.)

Look through the hole at the centre of the viewfinder and compare the similar areas in each set. Can you see how they change? And more importantly, can you see the colour? As you look, ask yourself the questions I listed above.

Use a viewfinder – Set 1

Use a viewfinder – Set 2

Use a viewfinder – Set 3

You can see that in some cases, the colour in an area hardly changes but in others, depending on the colour of the reflected paper, it does. A reminder that the camera doesn’t do this colour spotting very well so these images aren’t quite what they are in real life. Also, the day was overcast when I photographed and that affected the brightness of the images. All this to say, that when you use a viewfinder to see colour, it will appear more clearly than what you see here. Still, this gives you an idea of how to use a viewfinder to reveal colour.

I’d love to hear if this has been helpful so please leave a comment. Do you use a viewfinder to see colour? What are the other ways you see colour?

That’s it for now.

Until next time,

~ Gail

PS. Here’s a link to the ViewCatcher Viewfinder. I highly recommend it!

PPS. Here is the work done by many of the students in my two workshops in Naples, Florida!! (Remember many of the pieces are unfinished, and some have been cropped to fit, yet still they show their strength!) So proud of them all!

9 of the 12 students in my first still life workshop: Turn Simple Objects Into Stunning Paintings. Loved what they did!!
10 of the 13 students in my second workshop about how to paint glass and metal. Awesome work!

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32 thoughts on “How To Use A Viewfinder To See Colour”

  1. I love your blogs and enjoy them so much. They are always very informative.
    I am struggling with trying to decide what I should do next. My take away today after reading this blog and pursuing some of the imbedded links is to do some thumbnails to help me decide. I am such a beginner and I sometimes intimidate myself with bad thumbnails, but I won’t get better if I don’t do them.
    Thank you for all the information in your blogs and website. It is always appreciated.

    1. Thank you so much Glenda. I LOVE knowing my blogs are helpful!
      Yes, I am a HUGE believer in the power of thumbnails. By doing them, you can first begin to familiarize yourself with what you’re looking at and really begin to ‘see’ it. You can then quickly try different compositions as well as different formats. And then, so importantly, you can create a simple three-value map from which to work from. It keeps you on track as you paint because it sure is easy to wander off! (Others do a four-value thumbnail but I learnt with three values and now prefer that.) Why not set up a free 15-minute call with me? We can have a quick chat to help you calm any intimidation or fears you have. Just click here to set up a time. Really, I’d love to chat!

      1. Thank you for the offer of your time. December is rather hectic so I would rather set this up in the new year. I will be in touch and I keep watching for a workshop that will work for me as I would love to attend one sometime.

        1. Wonderful Glenda. Just let me know when you can squeeze in a short call. I’m here to help.
          And hopefully one of these days I’ll see you in a workshop 🙂

  2. Gail, thank you so much for this new informative art lesson, I appreciate it very much! I’m happy to find out that the ViewCatcher is available in Europe too.
    When I paint from photos and need to “identify” a certain color, I often cover the rest of the photo or turn it upside down, so the object will only be an abstract blotch of color. It helps. 😉
    When it comes to comparing and evaluating colors, I always thought it must be against White (being neutral), but I guess you would say Gray, right? (I hope you understand this question…) Well, another lesson learned, thank you!!

    1. Hi Gabriela, I’m so glad you can get hold of a ViewCatcher viewfinder in Europe!

      I love the way you see colour – thank you for sharing it. Covering everything else is acting the same way the viewfinder does. That method is a bit trickier though when it comes to seeing colour when working from life. I find the whole in this viewfinder helps isolate an area away from everything else.

      You can certainly use white as a comparison but I find using the mid-value grey of the viewfinder makes it a bit easier as you aren’t coping with the stark brightness of white. It’s, in a way, easier to look at and see the colour. You can also see its value relative to the mid-value grey. Hope that helps and is understandable!

  3. Thanks, Gail. This is very useful. I have used the viewfinder to help with composition and determine colour, but not for tone and shadow colours. Can’t wait to see for myself how this works.

  4. Thanks so much for the article on the viewfinder. When I saw it I said to myself “Hey I have one of those!” Sure enough I dug it out (I had put it away and had forgotten all about it.) and now I’ve had fun testing it out. It is now front and center on my painting desk. 🙂

    1. That is so funny Diane! I’m happy to hear you could lay your hands on it (and it wasn’t too far buried!), and that it now has a prime spot in your painting world. Ahhh how far this lowly tool can rise 😀

  5. I’ve become a great believer in thumbnails since following your blogs Gail and now I’ve dug out a viewfinder that I already had, but *blush* haven’t used before. I like the idea of using the small holes to focus on which colour and shade to use, I’m going to make my own in a mid tone grey card.

    1. YAYYYYYYY!!! Love that you are a thumbnail fan!
      Glad you’ve dug out that awesome tool and will put it to good use. It’s also great for comparing values as well as seeing colour. And yes, do go ahead and make your own with mid-value grey.

  6. I have a viewfinder that has a red tint to it. Haven’t tried to use it yet, but will, after reading your very informative post. Some time in the future, I’ll order the viewfinder you’re describing and try it out. I’m such a beginner that I really have trouble seeing relative values, so anything will help. LOVED the students’ work — the metal and glass work seems really hard. Like the others, I appreciate your blog and all of the work that goes into it.

    1. I think viewfinders are so helpful in so many ways. I do like the Viewcatcher because of the added bonus of being neutral mid-value grey and the wee hole. And believe me, everyone has trouble seeing values – we are made to see colour!! Just keep at it and slowly slowly, it will become easier.
      So glad you like work by my Naples’ students. I think they should be proud of themselves!!
      Thank you for your appreciation ruth. It really is my reward!

  7. I bought a viewfinder from Jerry’s recently and in a rush of doing other things, put it in a drawer, where it was promptly forgotten…..will be pulling it out….! Sometimes, when doing work from photos, I have trouble distinguishing between some olive greens or browns, etc,….I’m thinking this will help!
    I’ve gotten SO much from your posts…..Thank you, Gail…

    1. Glad to hear you’ll be digging out that viewfinder Curt. It really is a handy dandy tool!! And yes, I think it will help even when working from photos.
      And thank you so much for your appreciation – it makes me smile inside and out 🙂

  8. Hi Gail, hope you all had fun, to answer your question, yes I have a view catcher, and a color… ? home made, that we did from listening to You tube, I did this to be able to paint outside, which I did not do yet, here snow is here early this year. But yes they are good helpers to see colors. Thank you for your interesting blog, and newsletters, People should definitly try it ; -)

    1. Thanks Lyne! Super you already know the value of viewfinders and I hope your encouragement will motivate others to try using one.
      (Sounds like you are not a plein air in the snow person – totally get that!)

    1. Hi Gail. Wow, these posts are dated 2018 so maybe you won’t even get my note….but….I really think I must have colour blindness in some way b/c I could not tell the colours from your Viewcatcher photos above.
      It would really help me if you told me what the answers are so that I can maybe see correctly…..
      thanks. L Holmes

      1. Hi Linda,
        Okay, this may not be the answer you want but there is no right or wrong answer. The intention is to get you to take time to look and see. Compare and contrast. Say the words, red, blue, yellow, and see which one “feels” right. What does your gut/intuition say? Say and feel!

  9. I have been through several of your tutorials trying to catch up with you. The info you are sharing is invaluable. On my way to get a viewfinder and a value card.
    Loved the info on thumbnails. They finally make sense.
    I think l can now stay current and still see what I have missed. IGNITE is definitely worth it!

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Gail Sibley

Artist. Blogger. Teacher.

My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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