There’s a pervasive idea in painting that colour can’t be learned. That you either get colour, or you don’t.
If you’d asked me whether that was true a few years ago, I might have been tempted to believe you.
I struggled and struggled with colour. I felt that there was some special knowledge that I needed to learn. I knew intuitively that being able to match the colours I saw would mean a huge leap forward in the quality of my painting (although when it finally happened, I was still surprised at how much difference it made) but I didn’t know where to start.
Colour was my single biggest frustration.
Then, whilst on a workshop in the US, I happened to meet a very highly skilled painter, one who had already learned more about colour than most artists will in their entire lives. He gave a talk abut an approach to colour he used that Changed everything for me.
He didn’t teach me anything about colour theory, but one evening, when we were all in a bar after one of the workshop days, he gave me a list of assignments to work through, and told me how to approach them. I wrote them down in my notebook. I still have it.
That artist was Graydon Parrish. He’s an incredible painter, and he’s also very generous with his knowledge. He’s made huge contributions to the education of realist artists and to the growth of contemporary realism as a whole. Listen to his interview on the Suggested Donation podcast if you want to find out more about him.
I owe Graydon a huge debt. He gave me the tools I needed to teach myself about colour. He started me on a journey into the nature of colour that I’m still on, one that continues to lead me to being able to paint with more and more beautiful and natural colour.
So I want to pass on to you as much as I can of what I’ve learned so far on that journey. I want to try to give you the tools you need to start your own journey, whilst avoiding some of the many pitfalls associated with learning about colour.
What I love most about this approach to colour is that it’s extremely practical. There’s very little theory involved, if any. You don’t need to worry about complements, warm and cool, any of that. It’s all about finding out what the colours of nature really are, and then learning to match them.
Learning Colour is NOT DIFFICULT
Skill with colour can be developed like any other skill, as long as you’re prepared to commit to some practice.
I don’t mean just painting pictures, that’s not practice. I mean practice like learning to playing a musical instrument. You can’t learn to play music by reading about it, or arguing about it on forums (as artists love to do with colour). You can spend a lot of time reading about historically accurate interpretations of a piece. You can learn about the theory that went into creating the harmonies. But ultimately, if you want to learn to play a piece, you’re going to have to commit to sitting down and practising it.
Most of us have learned to drive at some point. We didn’t do it by exclusively reading books or by arguing on drivers’ forums (if indeed such a thing exists) about the finer nuances of clutch control. By all means spend lots of time learning about how internal combustion engines work. Read driving manuals like they’re going out of fashion. Ultimately, if you want to learn to drive, you’re going to have to get behind the wheel and practise.
Painting is no different. It’s a set of skills to be learned through practice, and that includes colour. So there’s no complex theory to learn here, no esoteric formulas. Just a few simple, practical steps you can take on your own that will:
- Extend your knowledge of what can be achieved with your tube paints
- Develop your sensitivity to colour
- Show you which colours are outside the range of paint, and which you can mix
- Teach you more about the colours you see, the actual colours of the world
Colour can be learned, and it’s not particularly difficult to do so.
You already have all the materials you need to learn colour effectively right now. You have tube paints, a palette knife and a palette, right? Good. Because I’m going to show you how to use them to learn more about colour than you will if you read every colour theory treatise ever published.
The Real Colour of a Rose
Should never crave the rose – Anne Bronte”
Here’s an example from the real world:
I use Munsell extensively to help me develop my skill with colour. Just recently I made a small painting of two roses. I’m showing you this example because there’s something interesting about the colour.
When I first saw these roses, I thought of them as pink. But they’re actually orange, yellow and green.
Here’s a closer look, so you can see the actual colours better:
Here are the colours I used Munsell to judge and premix before I started painting:
The colours of the rose petals are on the left. Those near greys at the far left are very low chroma green-yellows. They appear grey in the painting, but only because they’re so low in chroma, as many natural colours are. But getting the hue right – and making sure it was constant from shadow to light – was crucial in making the rose petals look more natural.
Next to those green-yellows are the subtle, high value oranges that made the roses look pink. I mixed them with cadmium orange and cadmium yellow, and a lot of titanium white.
Knowing what the colours really were was a big help when I came to mixing them. They were still hard, because they’re so low chroma, so close to grey, and very light. We’re it not for the Munsell chips, I doubt I could have done it. But by mixing oranges and yellow-greens, I came very close to the actual colours of the roses.
How to Learn More About Colour
Ok so here it is. I’ve got three really simple colour exercises for you.
Each of these exercises should be done using a technique called bracketing. Here’s a video showing how to use bracketing to match a local colour accurately:
(This video is from my Mastering Colour online course, so some of what I say in the video will be out of context – but the method of bracketing is demonstrated there).
Here are the three exercises:
Exercise 1: Match the Local Colours in Nature
Just as I did with the lemon, choose some random objects, some high and some low chroma, and match their local colours. It’s autumn as I write this in the northern hemisphere, which means that there are lots of opportunities for this with fallen leaves.
Exercise 2: Match Some Really Difficult, Low Chroma Colours
I described above how difficult I found it to match the colours of those roses exactly. Very low chroma colours can be extremely tricky, because it’s difficult to ascertain the hue. Use the bracketing method shown on the Lemon video to match some very low chroma (i.e. close to grey) colours. Match them exactly.
Go for the value first, then the chroma. Any hue discrepancy will be obvious to you, and you’ll be able to see which direction your colour needs to travel around the colour wheel to get closer to your target.
Exercise 3: Match The 10 Highest Chroma Colours in the Munsell Student Book
Of course, you need a copy of the Munsell Student book to do this one, but you can get hold of it for a reasonable price second hand if you look on Amazon. It’s well worth getting hold of a copy. I have the second edition and it’s fine. It’s up to the fourth edition now, but the latest editions are more pricey.
This book has little colour chips for the highest chromas they can print with matte finish paper chips for each of the main colours on the Munsell hue wheel. Matching them exactly isn’t easy, you have to keep your mixes very clean. You may struggle to match them all. That in itself will show you the limits of your tube paints.
Here’s an example of me matching one of them, using bracketing again:
That video is also from the Mastering Colour course.
Why These Exercises Work
These exercises, simple as they are, exemplify some of the features of effective practice methods: They’re focused on a very specific skill. You’re not having to worry about composition, drawing accuracy etc – all the things you have to worry about when you’re actually making a picture. You’re just concentrating on a single, simple skill. So you’ll develop that skill much more quickly.
You have immediate feedback on how well you’re doing. Checking your mix directly against your target colour shows you very clearly whether you’ve got it right or not. If you haven’t, keep trying. Watch out for mistakes you make repeatedly and take action to correct them.
You push yourself beyond your comfort zone by challenging yourself to match the colours you see exactly. Repeatedly going for the same tube colours is unlikely to teach you anything new about colour. Pushing yourself will.
Forget Colour Theories and Get Your Paints Out
There’s certainly no shortage of theories about colour that you can spend forever getting wrapped up in (and arguing about, if you’re happy to spend your time unproductively).
The traditional colour wheel, with its primaries and secondaries, can be pretty misleading, since it doesn’t relate to the real world. It suggests that from the three main primaries – red yellow and blue – all other colours can be mixed. Which of course isn’t true, as you’ll know very well if you’ve tried it.
You may also come across other colour theories purporting to be based on more accurate primaries, sometimes from the world of printing (cyan, magenta and yellow) or based on the wavelengths of light or even the colour receptors in our eyes. But they’re no more useful than the traditional wheel since you still won’t be able to mix all the colours you need from those colours.
The theory of complements related to any colour wheel is particularly pernicious, in my view. It holds that mixing a colour with its opposite on the colour wheel (any colour wheel, choose your favourite) will result in neutral grey. It really wont! If you want to waste a lot of time, you can prove this for yourself. But I think there are more productive ways to be spending your time, quite frankly. I’ve seen arguments about this on painting forums that have gone on for literally weeks. Life is short and learning to paint well is hard enough as it is. My advice would be to stick to proven, practical, empirical methods to teach yourself with, and leave the esoteric theories to those more interested in debating that painting.
What I recommend you do is get your tubes out, grab a palette knife and get busy on your palette, matching some of the colours you see. Stretch your colour matching skills. Deepen your knowledge of your tube paints.
How this will help you at the easel
If you do enough of this, over time you’ll develop a mental model of the range of colour you can achieve with paint.
- You’ll be able to judge colour more accurately
- You’ll be able to reach target colours more easily and quickly
I believe that the single most important skill to master in colour is mixing. If you can reliably judge the colours you see, and then mix them accurately, you’ll already be streets ahead of most learning artists. You’ll know your tube pigments and what can be achieved with them, and you’ll learn a huge amount about how colour is in the natural world. For a realist painter, I think that’s very important knowledge to have.
Because when you feel the paint under your palette knife, when you see the unexpected changes in hue, value or chroma that the paint you add to your mix makes, when you really nail a colour of great subtlety from the world around you, you’ll realise that esoteric colour theory is a diversion at best. What matters is the amount of palette-hours you put in, and how you use those hours.
Free Colour Mixing Webinar
If you’re interested in seeing me run through those exercises live, I’m giving a free webinar this Thursday at 1PM pacific time, 4PM Eastern time, 9PM UK time where I’ll demonstrate each one and answer any questions you might have about them – or anything to do with colour. If I can help you get better at colour, I will.