Monte Dolack: Color, Light and Landscape

Publisher’s Note: A version of this blog first appeared in the Great Falls Tribune.


After many years of painting with both oils and acrylics I find myself viewing the world and especially the landscape in descriptive terms of the colors on my painting palette.  For example: a Naples-yellow autumn wheat field with hints of yellow ochre resting beneath a pale cobalt blue sky with soft titanium-white cumulus clouds with light violet grey undersides.

For hundreds of years painters had to obtain and grind all of the colors they used from earth and organic raw materials. These were mixed with binders such as egg yokes, gum Arabic and various kinds of oils. With the advent of paint in tubes in the nineteenth century artists begin to lose touch with the connections of where and how color is made.

The prominent colors of the sun drenched cote d’azure in the south of France are Yellow and Blue. Vincent Van Gogh was drawn to this light and color, which beckoned him from the somber gray north of Europe.  In Van Gogh’s last painting, Wheatfield with Crows he saw the bright violent yellow wheat fields and tempestuous blue sky in terms of emotional isolation and passion. Colors convey emotions and memories as well as sensation.


Wheatfield with Crows, 1890 by Vincent Van Gogh. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Van Gogh also required intense yellow paint to embody the brilliant sun he observed in the south.  The paint the artist used to render light waves comes from many sources, both conventional but also unusual and even bizarre. The pigment he needed to recreate yellow for his paintings came from various sources. Yellow ochre is one of a series of clay earth pigments that are mined and sometimes baked and ground to a fine powder and mixed with a binder such as oil. They also include sienna and umbers and are found throughout the world in many tones and consequently have been widely used by many cultures. More surprisingly the brighter Indian yellow Van Gogh needed for his sun comes from the urine of cows that have been fed mangos.

Sacre Bleu, a French term of astonishment refers to Mary, Christ’s mother who is usually portrayed in a blue dress. Historically the pigment that the sacred blue is made from is obtained from a rare and hard to find gemstone, lapis lazuli. Most of it comes from a single area in Afghanistan where it has been mined for over 6000 years. In our modern era we have access to ultramarine blues synthesized using hydrous zinc phosphates but for thousands of years the Lapis lazuli blue was one of the most sought after and valuable colors in the world, especially for European religious and iconic paintings. It remains one of the most dangerous and difficult as well as beautiful and seductive pigments to obtain.

For hundreds of years red, the color of blood has been obtained from the crushing of the tiny cochineal insects that live on prickly pear cactus in southern climates in both the old and new world.

Flathead Moon big

Flathead Lake Moon by ©Monte Dolack.

I lay out the colors on my palette in a color wheel format using a warm and a cool version of the primary colors of red, yellow and blue.  I also use a three earth tones as well as opaque titanium white and transparent zinc white. As time goes by there are more and more colors available to the artist but I find myself using fewer colors and mixing more tones from the basics.

The well known Canadian wildlife painter, Robert Bateman modulates primary colors by “throwing a little dirt in it” or adding a small amount of a complimentary color, such as mixing a bit of green into red. This keeps colors from being too bright and unnatural.

Many artists over time have been drawn to parts of the world where the colors, light and culture merge with the landscape. The attraction of the West’s landscape and native cultures can be seen and felt when viewing the 19th and early 20th century works of Moran, Church, Bodmer and Russell. The colors of the grand landscapes and native people they recorded and witnessed transformed the way a new nation thought and dreamed about the west.


To see more of Monte Dolack’s artwork, visit his Gallery or check out his website.


A native of Great Falls, Monte Dolack grew up surrounded by the same sweeping vistas and big sky that inspired Charlie Russell. His love of Montana and passion for the West’s diverse landscapes and wildlife are evident in the images he creates and the commissions he undertakes.

His best known early works – wild animals wreaking havoc in human homes – comprise his “Invaders Series,” exploring the myths of the West and how we view our relationship with our environment. The irresistible appeal of these images helped build Monte’s national reputation and continues to attract collectors.

A love of the natural world, combined with his exuberant curiosity and travel experiences, has shaped the content of Monte’s imagery.  Blending mythology, technology, and elements from nature and the landscape, his work is infused with a sense of humor and irony.