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How to Choose Colors For A Painting

You may have ask yourself: how do I choose colors for a painting? How to choose colors for an art piece is not easy. You may wonder how to make colors work together. As I an artist who is all about colorful artworks, I will give you my top tips. Read on!

How to Choose Colors For A Painting Learn to Paint Pin

This article will be in two parts: in part one, I will talk about the basics of color theory, and in part two, I will teach you how to actually use that knowledge.

And if you are interested in learning more, check out my beginner’s guide to painting with colors.

Part One – The Basics

First, you need to know about the basics of color theory.

You probably heard of primary colors and the color wheel before. It’s pretty straightforward and I will outline the essential here for you without entering too much details. To know how to choose colors for a painting, the basics are necessary.

color wheel to choose colors for a painting

The Color Wheel

The color wheel shows you how colors relate to each other. You have your primary colors in the middle, which are yellow, cyan, and magenta (basically yellow, blue and red). The secondary colors are what you obtain when you mix these primary colors together. Then, the tertiary colors are when you mix a primary color with a secondary color.

Primary colors cannot be obtained by any combination of other colors. Hence the name. These three hues are the foundation of everything. Virtually all other colors can be derived from these three.

When I paint with acrylics, I almost only use the three primary colors and I do my own mixes with them. Very rarely do I use another tube of color. For instance, I don’t have green. I just mix yellow and blue together to get the shade I want.

These colors can be modified by adding black, white, or grey.

  • Add black and you will get a shade (dark blue versus blue)
  • Add white and you will get a tint (light blue versus blue)
  • Add grey and you will get a tone (the color darkens, it will be less intense and vibrant)

Color Combinations

Color theory tells us that there are two ways to use colors: contrast and harmony. This is obtainable by using three color schemes: analogous, complimentary, and triadic.

Now, you can see on the wheel above how colors complement each other. If you choose two that are next to each other the contrast will be minimal, which is know as analogous colors.

On the contrary, if you choose colors on opposite ends, there will be a strong contrast. These colors are complimentary.

Look at the two digital paintings below. The one on the left was made using primarily analogous colors, whereas the one on the right was made with complimentary colors.

The third color scheme is called triadic. It’s when you use three colors that are evenly spaced on the color wheel. It creates harmony and contrast at the same time.

Color Psychology

How I choose colors for a painting depends on the effect I want. This brings us to color psychology. Of course, the perception of color is highly subjective and sometimes it’s even rooted in culture. For instance, white in western culture is pure and innocent whereas it symbolizes death in many eastern countries.

Typically though, there is a universal meaning to colors, they evoke the same emotions. Color psychology is often used in advertising. Red is going to be an attention grabber, it’s bold and bright. White is going to be used to show cleanliness and freshness, and so on… It’s all about emotions. For instance:

  • Red: excitement, anger, passion
  • Yellow: warmth, energy
  • Orange: happiness, dynamic
  • Blue: soothing, calmness, sadness

When painting, it’s going to be all about warm colors and cold colors. When I choose colors for a new painting, this is what I have in mind first.

Warm Colors

Warm colors are orange, yellow, red, and everything in between. They will evoke feeling of warmth, excitement, passion, but also anger and hostility. They are dynamic.

Take my two artworks below. On the left, the warm colors evoke a warm fall day. On the right, they convey anger through the lioness’ roar.

Cold Colors

Cold colors are on the blue side of the spectrum. They make us think of winter, they are calming and soothing, but can also convey sadness. It’s important to know which feeling you would like your audience to experience when you choose colors for a painting.

Take the two digital paintings below. On the left, the deer is quietly resting on an abstract background. There is a feeling of serenity emanating from him. I called this painting “Meadow Trance”. On the right, it is a more dynamic painting, yet it is still soothing due to the cold colors. I had a baby nursery in mind when I painted this one and I called it “Unicorn Dream”.

Keep in mind these are just the basics rules when painting. Nothing stops you from mixing every single colors on the spectrum and making it work! Trial and errors are the best way to learn.

Part Two – Put it into practice

But how do you actually know which color to use? How do you know to sprinkle a splash of blue on that part of the painting? How do use so many colors and make it work?

These are the questions I had when I started. I knew all the theory but I had no idea how to apply my knowledge in real life and how to choose colors for a painting. I was taking an art class and I remember seeing that man painting a bear using all kinds of colors and it was so beautiful! I wanted to be able to do the same but had no idea how. How did he know to use blue there, red there, and yellow there? How did he know it would work? I just couldn’t fathom the logic behind it.

Well, a good part of it is instinct to me know. What unlocked my creative mind and made me see how colors work together? Drawing shoes.

Yes, shoes.

Practice makes perfect

In my Art and Design school, my teacher gave us an assignment: pick three colored pencils, and draw a shoe. We each put one of own shoes on the table and started drawing. Quickly, I realized that not all colors are equals.

When you only have three options, you have to make smart choices. Sure, your drawing can look great with virtually any three colors you’ll choose, but some will just work together better.

For instance, for the dark parts – the shading – blue usually works great. It’s a darker color. For where the light comes from, yellow is perfect. I realized there are:

  • Darker colors: blue, purple, red, forest green…
  • Lighter colors: yellow, orange, pink, lime green…

So it’s best to pick three colors that are somewhat complimentary. Pick a color that is on the “lighter” side, one that is on the “darker” side, and the third one you can have fun with. I’m not saying this is a universal law, I mean, blue can be light if you pick cyan, but in general that’s how it works.

In fact, most shades of blue work great for darkening an area. That’s one of the tip I learned from my art teacher, never use pure black (unless it’s for something very specific), always mix it with blue. So instead of using black, try using a dark blue instead and you’ll see your painting will be richer.

Here, have a look at how I created my bumblebee painting:

When choosing colors for a painting becomes instinct

I drew hundreds of shoes using only three colors! Let me tell you that by the end of it, I had a pretty good understanding of how colors related to each other, and I finally understood how the man in my art class had painted that colorful bear.

Instead of using white, or mixing white with another color to make it lighter, I will use bright yellow, amber, or lime green.

Instead of using black, I will choose a royal blue, burgundy, or forest green.

So my advice to you if you are struggling with using colors in your paintings is this: put your shoe on the table, pick three colored pencils, and draw it. Again and again.

Soon, you’ll be able to choose colors for a painting like a champ!

How to choose colors for a painting colorful lion portrait

Rules are meant to be broken

With all this said, nothing beats experimentation. Try whatever you feel like! Rules don’t matter in art, they are meant to be broken. You need to know and understand the basics, but you are free to let your creativity carry you anywhere you’d like. So when you choose colors for a painting, keep in mind the theory but don’t limit yourself. You may fail, but you’ll learn from your mistake.

One of the reasons I love digital painting is because you can endlessly play with colors. As long as you layer your work, you can change part of the painting without erasing the rest. It’s very intuitive. Sometimes, I try a color scheme and end up with something completely different in the end.

For my pet portraits, I let the customer pick the three main colors they want and I just make it work, whatever they choose. Three colors allow for almost endless variations because you can mix them together so many different ways. The color splatters are not as random as you would think though, I plan in advance where each color will go.

Get a custom portrait of your own pet in my shop!

In conclusion, there are many different ways to choose colors for a painting and you need to experiment to find what works for you. Splash those colors away on your canvas!

If you’re a beginner and would like to go into more depth, go read this article.

Ask your questions in the comments!

Related topics:

How to Use Colors in your Paintings

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5 Comments

  1. Very good and usefull article, thanks!

    1. You’re welcome, glad it could help!

  2. […] colors or has a monotone look, the color that you choose will give your piece the perfect mood.  Flo Art Studio describes it well:  Typically though, there is a universal meaning to colors, they evoke the same […]

  3. Good stuff I’m a nubie all this helps

  4. […] touched on the subject before in this post but I will go more in depth here, and it will be specifically geared towards […]

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