Colour is hard. Let’s just get that out of the way first.
If it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be so many competing colour theories around – both the useful ones and the ones that, at times, border on the ridiculous. There also wouldn’t be so many arguments about colour on art forums. And there’d be a lot less frustration in artists’ lives – and less bad paintings.
One of the most basic challenges of colour is being able to match the colours you see. In fact, I think it’s the most basic challenge, so it’s the one I’m going to address in this post, with a useful little exercise in colour matching.
Before I go any further, I should make clear that there are some colours that you simply can’t match. And some you can but you’ll really struggle with. Sometimes, a colour is just difficult to judge. With very low chroma colours (i.e. colours very near to grey) it can be extremely difficult to decide what the hue is.
Why being able to match colours is important
If you can’t match colours, you’ll really struggle to be able to paint realistically.
But more than that, the practice of trying to match colours as exactly as you can develops your sensitivity to colour. Many of the colours we see are much closer to grey than we think, and they can create incredibly beautiful and subtle harmonies.
In this post, I hope to show you one way you can simplify the job of matching colours. It won’t necessarily make it easy, but it should make it less difficult, and it will certainly make it more possible for you if you struggle with matching the colours you see.
Why is it hard to match the colours we see?
There are lots of possible answers to this. I don’t pretend to know all of them, perception is complex. But here are the main things that derail our efforts to match colours, in my experience:
- Our propensity to label colours mentally by the local. We call something white even though it appears perceptually as a dark grey. Check out this post for a little more on that.
- Various esoteric colour theories and obfuscating dogma that have grown up over the years (warm and cool etc) just throw us off without getting us any closer to understanding colour. Instead of being able to think clearly about colour, we tend too often to think magically and romantically about colour.
- The romantic names of our tube colours really don’t help. Madder lake. Burnt Sienna. Naples yellow. Raw umber. They just don’t give us any useful information about the hue of our tube colours. I’d rather they called burnt umber “really dark orange” because that’s what it is.
- Often, it’s difficult to judge the colours we see because they’re in the context of other colours, surrounded by other colours that affect our perception of them.
- When we paint, we often have our palettes in different light to our easel, and different again to the light our subject is in. So you might mix what you think is the colour you see of, say, a lemon, on your palette, only to find that when you place it on your canvas, it’s entirely too light, or too dark.
- The limited value range of our materials. We generally can’t get near the value range we see in the world with paint, which means that even if we manage to match a local colour, we’ll have to do some serious translation to be able to paint the colours we see. More on that here.
It’s a wonder we manage to get even close to the colours we see, given all that.
Too often we get into a kind of hunt-and-peck approach to matching a given colour, get something we think is somewhere near (although often is nowhere near at all) get frustrated and stick what we have on the canvas, thinking it’ll be close enough.
Chances are, it won’t be. And the thing we’re painting won’t look real. Or pretty.
A better approach
If we want to really develop our sensitivity to colour, I think there are two things we need to do
- Find a practical, effective approach that circumvents as many of the issues above as possible.
- Practice it until our eyes ache and we’ve worn a hole in our palettes from all the mixing we’ve done. Sorry. But I didn’t say it was going to be easy. Just that I was going to try to help you get better at it.
So I’m going to give you my version of the first one. It works well for me. I hope it will for you.
The second one is up to you.
The Three Dimensions of Colour
This whole thing hinges on the idea that there are three dimensions of colour:
- Hue: Whether the colour is red, yellow, blue, green etc
- Value: How light or dark it is, i.e. whether it is closer to white or black.
- Chroma: How bright it is, or how far it is from grey. A colour with low chroma is very close to grey. A colour with high chroma is far from grey – the colour of an orange, say, is high chroma.
Yes, I’m talking about Munsell.
If you’re trying to match a colour, thinking about and dealing with these three dimensions separately greatly simplifies your task. Here’s how I generally approach it:
- Pick a near starting colour. Pick a tube colour that is at least near to your target in terms of hue, if you can. It’s generally better if it’s higher chroma, too, because it’s easier to reduce chroma than to increase it.
- Match the value. Now take that colour, and either darken it or lighten it until it’s the same value as your target colour. Don’t worry about anything else, just match the value. You’re generally better off darkening a colour with a lower value version of the colour you have. If you’re trying to match an orange colour, say, you might start with cadmium orange and then darken it with burnt umber. Because burnt umber is orange. If you darken it with black, you’re effectively adding purple-blue so you’ll drastically affect the hue and chroma as well. If you need to lighten it, use a lighter version or white.
- Check the hue. You can generally see, if you’re fairly close, which direction around the hue wheel you need to move your colour in order to match the hue. If you’re matching an orange, you might need to swing it more towards red, or towards yellow. In either case, mix up a colour of the same value as the colour you have, and then mix the two together, bit by bit, until you hit the hue. It’s really important that you keep the value constant, or you’ll have to start again!
- Check the chroma. If the colour is too high in chroma (which it usually will be) you can reduce the chroma with a neutral grey of the same value. Again, it’s really important to keep the value constant, or you’ll be back to square one. Once you have the chroma right, you should be really near. Chances are though, that your hue will have drifted out a little by now, and you’ll need to adjust it. Don’t settle, adjust it. Get as close as you can. It’s in those last, fine adjustments that you really stretch your sensitivity. Pushing yourself beyond your usual is what helps you grow.
Do this for even a few different local colours, and pretty soon you’ll notice your sensitivity to colour growing. You’ll also start to learn some interesting things about your tube paints: most usefully, what hue they are. Here’s a few that might surprise you:
- Ivory black: Purple-blue.
- Raw umber: Yellow
- Burnt umber: Orange
- Burnt sienna: Orange.
Because this stuff is easier to see than to read about, I recorded this little demo the other day. I’m trying to match the local colours of some leaves. And talking whilst I do it. Which frankly, I struggle with.
But hopefully, it’ll go some way to demonstrating how thinking about colour in terms of those three dimensions can help you get closer to a target colour with less fuss.
In this video, I actually started with lower chroma versions of the colour and had to mix higher chroma versions to bring them up. I recommend you do it the other way, start with high chroma and bring them down. But either works.
If you’re used to thinking about colour in terms of hue, value and chroma, there won’t be anything new for you in this video. But if that idea is new to you, you might pick up a more effective approach to colour matching.
Here’s the Munsell hue wheel. It’s slightly different than the one we learned at school based on primaries and secondaries. But it works fine.
Have a go at this. Choose some local colours around your house, or some flowers, leaves, anything. Then try this exercise a few times. I think you’ll be surprised by how much you learn from just trying to match a few.
The great thing is that the skill you develop with this simple exercise will translate directly into your paintings, with time. You’ll find it easier to judge what colour it is you’re seeing. You’ll find it easier to match it. And – at least I’ve found this – your enhanced sensitivity to the subtleties of colour will help you to create more beautiful and less vulgar harmonies in your work.
Try it and see.
If you do, and you’re struggling with a particular colour (that happens to me now and again, too) email me and let me know. We’ll see if we can’t get closer to it by putting our heads together 🙂
Best wishes, and thanks for reading,
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