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Did you know?
       "A warm color will make your subject
        advance, while a cool color
        will cause it to recede."

 

 
Home  Basics and Skills  How to Use Color in a Painting

    an example showing how colors can be echoed in your subject



How to Use Color in a Painting

  • Selecting your main colors
  • Using warm colors
  • Using cool colors
  • Using complementary colors
  • Echoing color




Deciding which colors to use in your painting can leave you feeling quite overwhelmed, especially if you are new to watercolor. A good place to start would be selecting which three primary colors you would like to use in your painting. Those three colors, a yellow, red, and blue, will give you a solid foundation to build upon.

Once your primaries have been selected, you can then select your workhorse and special colors that you would like to use in your painting.


Selecting Your Main Colors
  Where to begin, or how to start? I find the best place to start would be selecting which three primary colors you would like to use in your painting. Once you have decided which yellow, red, and blue to use, then you can move on to selecting what I fondly refer to as workhorse colors. These are colors that you find you use in the majority of your paintings. Last choice of color would be your special colors. These special colors are tube colors that are the exact color that you are using in your painting. Try to be sparing with your special colors, and select only a few. You can mix these with your primary, or workhorse colors to create variations of these colors.

 




a painting I did of a bed of tulips

Color Wheel for the Tulip Painting

diagram showing placement of colors
samples of each color New Gamboge
Permanent Rose
French Ultramarine Blue
Raw Sienna
Permanent Alizarin Crimson
Sap Green
Cadmium Yellow
Scarlet Lake
Winsor Red

Group 1.

Selected Primary Colors
New Gamboge   -   a warm, transparent, non-staining yellow.
Permanent Rose   -   a very cool, transparent, non-staining red.
French Ultramarine Blue   -   a semi-transparent, non-staining color, with sedimentary properties.

Group 2.

Selected Workhorse Colors
Raw Sienna   -   a cool grayed yellow, transparent, with granulating properties.
Permanent Alizarin Crimson   -   a deep cool red, transparent, and highly staining.
Sap Green (Holbein)   -   a warm grayed green, transparent, and non-staining.

Group 3.


Selected Special Colors
Cadmium Yellow   -   a warm yellow, opaque, and slightly staining.
Scarlet Lake   -   a warm red, transparent, and staining.
Winsor Red   -   a deep cool red, transparent, and highly staining.


Using Warm Colors in Your Painting
 
When you use a warm color in a painting, your subject will appear to advance. This works with colors from both sides of the color wheel.
 
Example  1.

Illustration showing three yellow tulips
 
In Example 1., all three tulips are equal in size, shape, and color. Nothing exciting going on here.
 

Example  2.

Illustration showing two red/orange tulips and one yellow tulip


In Example 2., the tulips to the left and right of the center tulip have been painted Scarlet Lake, a red-orange color located on the warm side of the color wheel. The two tulips now appear to advance forward and away from the yellow tulip in the center.
 
The stems have also been painted with a warm color, a yellow-green, which is located on the cool side of the color wheel. Even though the yellow-green is from the cool side of the color wheel, by mixing yellow in with my original green, I was able to warm the temperature of the green.

Using Cool Colors in Your Painting
 
When you use a cool color in a painting, your subject will appear to recede. This works with colors from both sides of the color wheel.
 
Example  3.

Illustration showing three yellow tulips
 
In Example 3., all three tulips are equal in size, shape, and color. Again, nothing exciting going on here.
 

Example  4.

Illustration showing two blue tulips and one yellow tulip

In Example 4., the tulips to the left and right of the center tulip have been painted Cobalt Blue, almost a true blue, located on the cool side of the color wheel. The two blue tulips now appear to recede backwards and away from the yellow tulip in the center.
 
The stems have also been painted with a cool color, a blue-green, located on the cool side of the color wheel. By adding blue to my original green, I was able to cool the green's temperature down, helping to set the stems back further.

Using Complementary Colors in a Painting
 
Using a colors complement next to a subject in your painting is a great way to enhance your subject, but you need to watch your proportions. For the complementary color to be effective, the amount needs to be either less, or more, than the color you are trying to complement.
 
Example  5.

Illustration showing a yellow tulip, and a violet tulip, both equal in size
 
In Example 5., both tulips are equal in size and shape. One tulip has been painted yellow, the other tulip has been painted violet. Although the two colors complement each other, they fight for dominance.
 

Example  6.

Illustration showing a yellow tulip alongside a violet tulip that is smaller in size

In Example 6., I reduced the size of the violet tulip, allowing them to now complement each other and no longer fight for dominance.

Example  7.

Illustration showing a yellow tulip, a violet tulip, and a red/violet tulip all varying in size

In Example 7., I painted the center tulip yellow, the tulip on the left a cool violet, and the tulip on the right a warm violet. By altering the size, color, and color temperature of the three tulips, they are now more appealing to look at.

Echoing Color in a Painting
 
Below I have painted the same three tulips and stems, but this time I painted one Permanent Rose, one New Gamboge, and one Scarlet Lake.

 

To create movement and harmony within your painting, add or glaze (which is a thin wash) an adjacent color from your surrounding subjects.
 
Example  8.

Illustration showing three tulips; a pink, yellow, and orange
 
In Example 8., all three tulips are equal in size and shape, and each painted a different color. Although harmonious in color, they appear stagnant and separated from each other.

Example  9.

Illustration showing the same three tulips glazed with an adjacent tulips coloring

By glazing only a small amount of color from the adjacent tulips, as shown in Example 9., I was able to create movement amongst the tulips. Your eyes now move across all three tulips effortlessly.
 
I also glazed a small amount of the tulips color at the top of each of their stems. By doing that one small thing, the tulips now appear more connected to their stems.




 
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