BACK TO BASICS: COLOR

In a fall post last year, I spoke about the importance of value in the hierarchy of a painting’s success. Color was the third item listed:

1. Drawing
2. Value
3. COLOR
4. Edges

In this post I’ll briefly share a few thoughts on color. Before anything gets discussed about color, let me give two caveats:

1. Though color delights and has huge emotional impact, it really is the frosting on the cake; value and drawing are the cake itself. Far too many people jump into color without a proper foundation.

2. There are as many ways to do color as there are people. There’s not one right way. There are a lot of ways to do it wrong, but while some prefer strong color, others tend towards muted. Both (and a lot in between) can be right.

There isn’t time in a blogpost to cover all of the basics of color, and no one wants to read pages of color blather anyway, so the following are a random smattering of thoughts on color that have made sense to me over time. They are in no particular order of importance, and are not absolutes:

• Find the dominant value shapes in a composition, and then look for the subtle changes of temperature within those shapes. Almost never does a plane not have a subtle temperature shift of some type (sorry for the double-negative). Look at a white wall sometime: it will be warmer with bounce-light towards the bottom, cooler towards the sky, really blue at the base where weeds or bushes block the bounce-light, etc. These subtle shifts are what give things life and reality.

• Color really is all about context, about what a color is next to. For example, sometimes making something feel more red is about making everything else less red, rather than trying to add more saturation.

• Limits help color harmony. More colors on a palette doesn’t equal better color in a painting.

• Blue is the coolest color, and orange (blue’s complement) is the warmest. The warmer a scene needs to be, the more it shifts to orange, not yellow or red.

• Mix a light violet (Ult./Aliz/White) and use it to turn forms as opposed to using gray (b/w) (I learned this from Lipking). This is dependent on light conditions of course. The idea is to basically use the sky color (the indirect fill light, not the direct light) to turn planes away from the light.


• Mixing a little bit of each of the primaries in each mixture will give things more naturalism and harmony (not in equal proportions, obviously). This isn’t always true, but surprisingly often it is.

• Nature has a lot more red in it than we think.

• Deep shadows are almost always warm. (i.e. the holes in rocks, the deepest parts of tree shadows, etc).

• Humans are mostly very warm objects covered with a translucent cool colored skin. The earth is that way too — a giant mineral ball with a scattering of cool colored plants. Thus the warmth is going to show through in the gaps.

• To subdue greens, use red or drag some pink subtly over the top.

• Use complements to control saturation (i.e. cut a green with a red, orange with blue, etc)

• For stronger color harmony, decide on a dominant color and mix it into everything. The choice of dominant color is based on the overall light temperature for the chosen time of day + the emotional mood I want to convey. For example, in a dusk scene perhaps I’ll mix in a little bluegreen with everything but desaturate it to be more emotionally subdued (see attached example).


• Use juxtaposed temperatures to give things excitement (i.e. color charm). I’ll often paint a base layer warmer, for example, and then drag slightly cooler paint over the top (after the base layer has dried).

• One color can be a strong accent, but not two, generally (or else they compete). For example, if the barn is red and you want to push that, don’t make the grass and sky the same strong saturation, or it will be too much. Again, choose the main actor and then everything else sings harmony to that.

• Mixing up piles of paint helps prevent the inevitable thinning down of already weak mixtures. Doing so ends up giving muddy color because we are often too lazy to mix up more and thus keep adding more thinner to stretch it.

• The strongest color is generally found in the mid-tone/transition– i.e. where a shadow turns into light. Pushing color transitions allows for more muted color in the light while increasing the feeling of brightness/intensity. This isn’t just a trick, it happens all the time in nature.


• Generally, on location, I need to add 10-20% more saturation so that it reads correctly once indoors (where it isn’t being blasted by natural light). Otherwise my paintings tend to feel dead once inside. This also helps me to have a clearer idea of what I saw once using it for reference later on.

• When confused about a color on location, just do a little ‘finger wedge’ to isolate it and break it down into the three basic components of Hue, Value, and Saturation and trust what you see. Some people use a cardboard or plastic viewfinder for this. I tend to lose those things so I just use my fingers.

• And finally, if you’ve read down this far, I’ll give you the real secret to improving color sense quickly: MASTER COPIES. When I give this assignment to students, I have them do the first few by printing out a physical photo of the painting they want to copy, and then dab bits of paint on it as they are doing the copy to exactly match the color. This trains the eye to get over preconceptions about color and usually helps them realize just how much red is in the environment and how muted most of nature really is. Sometimes I’ll do these in oil or gouache (or even in three-value grayscale), but it really is one of the only ways I know to try on someone else’s color sense and understand new ways of seeing. Do them small, do them quickly (set a timer), and do a lot of them.

Happy Painting!

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