How To Choose Colours

I like to create a colour unity, but I also like to experiment.  These are some of the actual methods I have used to choose the colour schemes in my paintings:

Choose only Primaries – use only the primary colours.  You can add white or black or both, but your primaries are your primaries.  Fortunately, there are many blues, reds and yellows on the market, so this isn’t as limited a choice as you might at first imagine.

Choose only Secondaries – a variation on the theme above, except that this time, primaries are not allowed.  You must choose purples, greens or oranges.  Again, there are many.  You may sneak pastels in (e.g. pale blue, pink and cream).

Choose only Tones – this time you choose a dark colour, a medium toned colour and a light colour.  It doesn’t matter which colour, but there has to be one that is dark, one that is medium and one that is light.  Photocopying a colour chart in black and white is a good way to see which of your paints has which tone.  With this colour scheme, you are really painting the shadows and the highlights, but because the colours can be anything, the results can be striking.

Choose only Pastels – in this colour choice, the rules are that all the colours must be of approximately the same light to medium tone.  This is a hard palette to paint with, because you effectively squash the darks and lights into mediums, but the effect can be very reminiscent of a Monet.

Choose only Earth Pigments – this takes a little bit of study, but choose pigments that can only be obtained by mining them from the ground, rather than being synthesised in a laboratory.  This includes the umbers, siennas, oxides, ochres, titaniums, etc.  You are permitted to use root based dyes (madder).  This can be very effective if you then break the rule and introduce just one strong synthetic colour, such as a Phthalo Green, for example.

Choose only Fluorescents – why not?  The result is amazing!

Ask the Model – I have been known to ask the life model what her favourite colour was and then built a colour scheme around that choice.  It makes you think on your feet.

Ask your Son, Daughter or Wife – Before I leave for art class, I often ask my family members to choose three colours or one each.  This is a strange and challenging method.  It works a treat, though.  People like colours they choose for a reason, even if you don’t know what that reason is.  It’s like an unconscious way of having them express their aesthetic preferences.

Copy the Colours of a Masterpiece – the old timers knew a thing or two about colour.  Copy.  Find a Matisse and copy the three or four most predominant colours.  Van Gogh is a good source for this game too.  Paint a landscape in the colours of Vincent’s Sunflowers.  It looks great!

Use Your Three Favourite Colours (or Four) – you have favourite colours for a reason too.  Indulge yourself and use them in your next painting?  Why not.  At least you will like the finished work, if for no other reason than it contains your favourite colours!

Visit Laura Ashley Stores / Ikea Catalogues – the people that design home furnishings spend a great deal of time and care choosing colours.  Skip the hard work and take their choices.  It also means your painting will match somebody’s décor 😉

Use an On line Tool – I love these things.  On line interactive tools to help you choose colour schemes.  Try them.  Click on the links…right now!  Do it!  It’s great fun!

Paintbox Lucky Dip – close your eyes and choose the first three or four colours you draw from your paintbox.  Try it.  The colours won’t bite.

Forget to Bring Black (or White) – just take them out of your box.  Pretend you aren’t going to need them.  It’s amazing what you can do with pastels or yellows, instead of white.  Black can be made chromatically from blue and umber or deep purple and green, or orange.  This is a fantastically fun thing to try.

Mix the Next Colour Starting With The Previous One – this is hard to pull off, but you can if you are careful to avoid mud mixing (actually, I must try painting a painting with ONLY mud mixes, some time 🙂 ).  I typically start with a strong yellow or something and add a brilliant red.  Then I can add white to both and a touch of purple.  There are all sorts of ways to go about this.  You get a great colour unity to your painting using this method.

Glaze Like There Is No Tomorrow – if you are an acrylic painter, get some acrylic glazing medium and make all of your colours thin, transparent washes of glaze.  Then build up your painting glaze by glaze, as if painting with transparent coloured cellophane on a brush.  You can even glaze over one of the colour schemes above to tone it down or achieve a colour unity, where before there was only contrast.  Glazing is a great way to paint shadows on your painting.

Watch CSI Miami – if you watch this show with a colourist’s eye, you will notice that every scene is a picture and the colours are beautifully graded and enhanced.  They must spend some time and money to get that look, because even the wardrobe that the main characters wear is colour coordinated.  Watch the show and note down some of the colour schemes in a scene.  Then try to recreate that scheme on your canvas.

Take One of the Rules and Break It – you’re allowed.  It hasn’t been made illegal (yet).

Colours are relative.  You see a particular colour differently depending on what colours surround it.  Contrast matters.  Colour shock and surprise matter.  Paradoxically, so does colour unity.  Go figure.

The sky does not always have to be blue.  Trees and grass do not always have to be green.  The most interesting rocks are not brown.

Have fun.

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About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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2 Responses to How To Choose Colours

  1. I am in awe. There are a rare few blogs that I spend time in.. yet each of your posts are thought provoking, inspiring, and very readable!!! Thanks, Michael, for the great place to pause and reflect!

  2. Pingback: Colour Composition | Creative Ideas for Starving Artists

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