Color Theory, Color Choices

This post definitely contains artistic depictions of the nude female form. I have warned you!

In my last post here, we spoke about color theory. I wanted to speak a little more about my own color choices while I am in my process of painting.

As an artist, you have three major elements to work with: shape, color and texture. If you’re a sculptor, shape (or form) and texture become more evident than color; but as a painter, shape and color become more evident than texture, though texture still comes into play. Some painters sand their ground (their board or canvas) to get a very smooth surface, so texture is less evident, or conveyed only in shape and application. But other painters, myself included, will use a textured ground to get a particular effect.


Illustrator Ashley Wood often uses a textured board for his paintings, as seen above. Notice the texture made by impasto application of gesso and paint. This work appears to be on a board that has some holes in it as well. I find that really exciting. (Above piece by Ashley Wood, who holds all rights).


In my painting Blond Study, above, I used a very textured canvas, which I prepared by applying a couple of layers of opaque paint over a work I was not happy with. Those layers of paint laid over the original painting, and formed interesting textures over which to paint the figure.

Aside from shape (the shapes expressed in your painting, in this case the figure and impressionist background) and texture (less evident in a painting), the artist’s primary tool is color. What colors will you use? How and why will you use them? Blond Study is a good place to start talking about color choices, and I’ll be referring back to some of the color theory we discussed in my last post.

When I post paintings on social media, my followers (both of them) often comment that my color choices shouldn’t work, but surprisingly, they do. In truth, I love experimenting with odd color combinations. In Blond Study, I had painted over an older piece using colors I knew would cover the canvas; Payne’s Gray, which is dark and opaque, into which I painted two different hues of yellow. I knew I’d want to make the model’s hair blond (yellow), so I wanted yellow in the background to accentuate this.

After I sketched the model, I began thinking about color choices. To harmonize with the backing, I used a combination of Payne’s Gray and Prussian Blue for the darkest shadows on the model. Payne’s Gray is an obvious choice for shadow, but Prussian Blue is not. I like my shaded areas to pop, but remain dark, and the blue does that. I then used a combination of Unbleached Titanium (which is a neutral), Titanium White (also neutral), Cadmium Orange and Cadmium Red for the flesh tones (so red and orange were the only vibrant colors, as opposed to neutrals). None of these should actually work as flesh tones, but they harmonized well and ended up working. I added Orange to the Payne’s Gray and Yellows in the backing and to small areas of the figure to bring drama to both (note the orange shadowing on the model’s fingers).


Why did these colors work? The backing is Payne’s Gray, which is a gray (neutral) tinged with blue. Looking at the color wheel, blue is juxtaposed with yellow and red (they form the primaries triangle); I did not want to use obvious reds, so I focused on primary, secondary and tertiary colors in the yellow third of the color wheel: yellow, orange and green-yellow (the wheel above does not show tertiary colors: see below). The green-yellows are not at all obvious, but if you look closely at the model’s hair, you’ll see that using yellow over the blue tones of the shading produced a green-yellow hue in the darker layers of the blond hair. My model did not have green in her hair, but this hue brings out the textures in the yellow portions of the hair. The blue shades are also apparent in the darkest portions of the hair.

Here’s a wheel that shows tertiaries:


Moving on… here is another example:


My process for this study was similar. I did a background in three shades of green (Green-Yellow, Hunter’s Green, and Permanent Green Light). Yellow is adjacent to green on the wheel, and red is opposite, so I used these two colors for the figure, with Purple shading (bridging the colors Red and Blue), and touches of Orange (bridging the colors Yellow and Red: see color wheels). I allowed a lot of the green backing to show through.

People are not green, nor are they yellow. But the shapes in the piece tell your eye that this is a person, and the darks and lights tell your eye that there is light falling on the person, and that there is shadow where light is not falling: light and shadow are the ways in which our eye detects form, so the eye perceives the form of a model. The yellows allow the light areas of the figure to pop against the greens of the backing and the purple of the shadows (consider the positions of yellow and purple on the color wheel). My decision not to use blue allowed these colors to stand up for themselves, and to accentuate the warm nature of the palette (blue is a cool color; as is green, which becomes the only cool tone in the piece. Purple, with its red component, acts as a warm color).

Notice I also used brush strokes to achieve texture. That’s the influence of my love for Ashley Wood, and Impressionists like Manet and Monet. The job of every artist, musician and writer is to synthesize their influences, and from that synthesis, create a unique style identified with themselves. This takes a combination of craftsmanship, regard for one’s influences, and honing one’s own instincts. This makes you greater than the sum of your parts, so to speak.

For my two most recent pieces, I decided to use fantasy colors to depict mythic creatures.


This Faun began as a dream I had where I saw myself painting a green figure on an orange canvas (I really do paint in my dreams). I woke up thinking about that color combination. If you look at the color wheel, you’ll see that green and orange occupy opposite sides of their half of the color wheel, separated by yellow.  Taking tertiaries into account, they have the variants of green-yellow and yellow-orange to play around with and to separate them tonally. Remember that colors become defined when placed near other colors.

In this case I began by painting a canvas Orange, then adding Purple tree forms: Purple (violet) is directly opposite yellow, the uniting color between green and orange, so in a sense green, orange and purple form a triangle of secondaries. That’s slightly more complicated color theory. Think of it this way: if you see the color wheel divided into halves, green, yellow and orange form half the wheel: they can pop when shaded with any color from the other half: blue, violet (purple) or red. I used the middle color, purple, for the tree forms. I used red for shading on the figure. I would also use a Purple (Magenta) for eyes, lips and nipples. So we have a triangle of colors on the color wheel. The base of the triangle is formed by  green and orange: the point of the triangle can be any of the three opposite colors, blue, purple or red. When the point of the triangle is purple, it is a triangle made up of the three secondary colors.


I started the figure by creating areas of light and shadow, allowing a lot of the Orange to show through. This created three “zones:” a neutral zone (Orange is NOT a neutral color, but it was neutral in relation to the piece because it’s the background color), a dark zone, and a light zone. I developed the figure by developing the three “zones,” using reds to blend with the lights by mixing with Titanium White, and to darken the darks by applying impasto. I added the antlers using purples and neutrals (Parchment, Titanium White, Mars Black) as well as green.


I then used green to highlight elements of the piece. I also chose a green bird (a wren) as my Faun’s companion. Even though green is a cool color, the greens stand out on the predominantly Orange and Red palette. The slashes of body art also stand out in the palette (look at the finished piece above the two in-progress photos).

Last, let’s talk about another recent mythic piece, a Satyr:


For this piece I began by painting the canvas  green-yellow and turquoise. I knew I wanted to use purples for the figure, and looking at the color wheel once again, green-yellow is directly opposite purple (purple is often called violet by artists: I’m using the terms interchangeably here). I used dark browns for the tree forms (burnt and raw umber and sienna). These are neutral colors, but dark enough to stand out well against the palette.

I let the blues come forward in the purples of the figure (making them true violet hues), and then used an opposite shade of purple, Magenta, for eyes, hair, lips and nipples. I let a good deal of Titanium White show in the lightest areas of the figure. The Satyr’s companions are Lilac-Breasted Rollers; I chose these birds because they are native to Greece, but also because their lilac breasts and blue-green plumage would pop in the palette. I added green to the Satyr’s eyes to harmonize with the background.

Why does this work? I kept the palette very simple, setting yellow-greens against their opposite, violets (magentas and lilacs). I kept the “zones” of the figure simple as well: very blue-ish purple for the darks, violet for the mids, and lilac with a good deal of white for the lights. Purple is a mix of red and blue, so it can act as a cool or a warm tone: against cool greens, it acts as a warm. The much warmer magenta of eyes, lips, nipples, body paint, and hair pops because of the overall palette. The birds have such a varied plumage that they help to bring the simpler color scheme together.

I’ll leave you with a final recent study, a seated figure. Take a look at the palette, which is a contrast of cools and warms, and see if you can come up with some ideas about why the schema works (if you think it works…).


Thanks for looking, as always. Please “like” and comment.

You can follow me on social media. I post my paintings, and my photos. Lately I’ve been photographing things I find while out walking: dead animals, cemeteries and autumn blooming flowers.

My Instagram is killthehero2

My Twitter is killthehero3

My Deviantart is where I post the majority of my paintings and photos.





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