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Using color wisely

We humans love color, specifically complementary colors. Our eyes are naturally attracted to the contrast of the complements. Think about the energy created around complements red & green and how your eyes dance along the edge-

Below is one of my oil paintings done using a red/green palette

Notice all the colors are genetically related to red/green/ They are warmer and cooler versions of both colors, plus neutrals created by combining both colors.

This is not something I invented, it's been around for ages, and many artists use a complementary palette or split complementary palette system for their paintings. This falls under the category of color theory.

When I teach color theory classes, I encourage artists to make studies from black & White photos (or value sketch) using three different complementary palettes. These limited palettes help artists reduce the complicated scene into harmonious color blocks.

For example, here is an assignment from last week's Color Theory class where we took a B&W photo of the fishing shacks and converted it to complementary palette studies. This one is yellow/purple palette, which includes primary yellow, yellow-orange, and yellow-green, plus violet, along with blue-violet, and red-violet, also neutrals created by combining the two and black & white.

Here's another one using red/green palette. Note the pure red (flag), and reddish violet (brown-cooler version) and reddish-orange (rust on roof-warmer version) along with green (waves and sky) and yellow-green (light in water, warmer version), blue-green (distant shoreline and shadowy building, cooler version)

Here's the last study in orange blue palette, same drill, different effect.

Now why would I torture people with an exercise like this? Because a novice mistake is to throw every color in the box at the painting and expect it to make sense. When you use color theory, you use color smartly and manipulate your viewer's emotions. Also, it's important to know how to combine color; color mixing is a lost art. We can buy almost any color these days, but knowing the base colors and how to get there requires color intelligence.

Below is the work from one of the artists who participates in the color theory class; Vivian C. below her excellent studies, are comments she made on what she learned by doing the studies. Her observations are on point, and a good example of why we do studies to begin with...

  • I tried to match your profile of colors in each study (still a bit dependent on your guidance and approaches).

  • I used a black pastel pencil to fine-tune some of the lines in the house, pilings, and porch. I'm still not as comfortable getting the right angle on my pastel to create clean lines.

  • My house seemed to grow with each study.

  • My favorite study was purple and yellow, although I see certain aspects of each study that worked better than others (e.g., the ocean in 1st study; sky/clouds in 2nd study, the horizon in 3rd study).

  • I did not use a lot of orange in study #1 or red in study #2.

  • I took much more time with each of the studies since I had the luxury of watching and pausing the videos while painting. The result might be an "overworked" or "overly detailed" study.

  • I seem to lean toward precision and detail while I paint, overly depending on realism versus abstract or loose painting. This may be related to the time factor mentioned above.

Use color wisely and you will elicit an emotional response from your viewers. Give it a try and see what happens.


Thanks for sharing this information Shawn❤️

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We always learn so very many things through Shawn’s posts! She’s so talented yet so modest and open to share her wealth of knowledge with us...Thank you 💜


Thanks for sharing this Shawn🤩 Luv your very precise critiques, Vivian, on your own work! It’s easier being able to watch the replay and stop whenever you need to! I remember doing a colour study live and I managed but barely 😜 However, what matters is getting instructions from an awesome teacher like Shawn...wouldn’t you agree??? Great work! 🥰

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You’re welcome 😉 Luv it when people comment on the blog! Wish more people would participate! 😜

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