Technique Tuesdays: Working With Color

Working with color is what makes our art exciting, what gives it a mood, an energy, and a feeling. We may have our favorite palettes, but when we shake it up a bit and try something new, breakthroughs happen. It’s like seeing the world with new eyes.

Exploring color is something artists naturally love to do, and these techniques are all about playing, having fun, and experimenting with color in a variety of media. Shake up your artwork and get ready to see what happens.

1. Green is the most prevalent color in nature, as Gina Lee Kim points out, with shades ranging from the lightest mint to the deepest olive. When it comes to watercolor paint there’s certainly no shortage of greens, and Gina shows the best way to use them for a mixed-media painting of birch trees in her Art Lessons Volume 3: The Serenity of Green. “When I do use green straight out of the tube,” she says, “I use it sparingly. Otherwise I think the color appears too bright and unnatural in a painting.” Varying your strokes and using many different shades, she adds, is key for creating natural looking greens. For this composition, try using all the shades of green on your palette and a medium round brush to create the first layer of leaves. Splatter dots by tapping your paint-filled brush over the page, and vary your brushstrokes for added interest. Add more leaves, using a lighter shade of green and smaller round brush; this creates dimension. Looking at trees in nature, leaves are on multiple planes, with brighter ones appearing closer than darker ones.

Using shades of Green from Cloth Paper Scissors Art Lessons Volume 3 by Gina Lee Kim
Myriad shades of green are prevalent in nature, so reflect that palette in your artwork. (Art and photo by Gina Lee Kim)

2. It’s tempting to collect every single color of paint made, but Chris Cozen says that’s not necessary. Understanding how different types of acrylic paint and mediums work is the key to having an unlimited rainbow of hues. In her article “Calculating Your Color Options” in the January/February 2013 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine, she demonstrates ways of working with color by mixing colors and mediums to increase your options. Start with a primary triad; Chris uses quinacridone red (a cool red); anthraquinone blue, and hansa yellow medium. All are deeply saturated colors with intense pigments and strong tint strength, so you you just need a little bit of paint to get great color. Now, combine those first three colors to get secondary colors: red and yellow for orange, red and blue for violet, and yellow and blue for green. Then, add an interference color to the red-blue-yellow triad. Interference paint lends an opalescent quality that refracts light, and Chris’s favorites are interference violet and interference green. Next, create a third set of colors with a single iridescent paint color. The metallic reflective qualities of iridescent paints result a high sheen that allows the light to dance on the surface. Chris often reaches for gold or silver for this.

Working with color using acrylic paint and mediums.
Working with color is fun when you start with a limited palette and create an array of shades with a few key mediums. (Art by Chris Cozen)

3. When it comes to working with color, Elizabeth St. Hilaire says we should embrace the unexpected. For example, why not create a cow in shades of purple? In her book Painted Paper Art Workshop, Elizabeth says, “Representing the dark areas of a dairy cow with deep purples and blues rather than the more expected shades of gray and black makes for a much more interesting painting.” The secret, she adds, is paying attention to values: “As long as the value range is light and dark enough (and everything in between) for the shading to form volume and dimension, it doesn’t matter what color it is.” So make that cow purple. Or magenta. You can use any color you want in a painting, Elizabeth says, as long as you get the values right.

Working with color using unexpected colors; from Painted Paper Art Workshop by Elizabeth St. Hilaire
When you use unexpected shades of purple for a cow, working with color becomes much more fun. (Art by Elizabeth St. Hilaire, photo by Christine Polomsky)

4. Creating artwork with colors that pop is easy, and in Art Lesson Volume 10: Wielding Complementary Colors, Dina Wakley offers a few secrets for using color to make standout art journal pages. Complementary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel, and Complementary colors are exactly opposite each other on the color wheel, like red and green, blue and orange, and yellow and purple. Dina says complementary color schemes are visually exciting, and provide a powerful visual pop. To use them most effectively, she offers a few tips: Choose one shade as your dominant color, and use its complement to accent your composition. If both colors are used equally, they may compete for attention and create confusion. Also, if colors aren’t exactly opposite on the color wheel, but are almost opposite, the hues will still create visual pop and impact on a page. But beware—they’ll also turn muddy if they’re mixed when wet. Whenever there’s lots of distance between colors on the color wheel, both the visual impact and the mud-making potential increase.

Working with complementary colors from Cloth Paper Scissors Art Lessons Volume 10 by Dina Wakley
Using complementary colors in the right ratios makes images pop. (Art and photo by Dina Wakley)

5. Creating an array of skin tones is easy, following Pam Carriker’s techniques using acrylic paint featured in the Fall 2015 issue of Faces magazine. For example, you can get a wide range of neutral tones with the primary color triad of red, yellow and blue. Mixing them in equal amounts on your palette results in a neutral gray. Create a six-spoke color wheel, and paint one spoke with the neutral gray mix. Add a bit of white paint to that, which creates a tint of that color, and add it to the right of the original neutral gray. Add a little of the original neutral gray to the tint you just made, creating a little darker tint, and add that to the color wheel. Add white and black to the original neutral gray to create a tone of that color, and add it to the next spoke on the wheel. Add more black to the tone for an even darker tone, and place that in the next spoke. For the last spoke, mix a bit of black into the neutral gray mixture to create a shade of that color. Pam points out that this is only the beginning of working with color to create skin tones; by adding even more colors to the mix, the color combinations are infinite.

Working with color to create skin tones by Pam Carriker from Faces magazine
Working with color to create skin tones is easy using Pam Carriker’s paint techniques from Faces magazine (Art by Pam Carriker, photo by Sharon White Photography)

6. Pastel shades don’t have to be soft-spoken and demure; punch them up with colors that add a little zing. In Art Lesson Volume 5: Pastels with a Punch, Jenny Cochran Lee starts by creating pastel monoprints on deli paper, using a gel printing plate and acrylic craft paint. To give those prints more personality, accent them with marks, using bolder colors. For example, use Derwent Inktense pencils to create a pattern over the prints. Dip a small paintbrush in water and lightly paint over the pencil lines to create a smudged, watercolor effect. Add more color to the pencil lines with Faber-Castell Gelatos. Add even more interest with Prismacolor colored pencils on top of the designs. Finally, draw small highlights with a white paint pen.

Making pastels pop with color from Art Lessons Volume 5 by Jenny Cochran Lee
Punch up pastels with pops of bolder colors, using a variety of color media. (Art and photo by Jenny Cochran Lee)

7. Creating color studies is a great way to improve your art practice. In her book Paint Mojo, Tracy Verdugo says, “Some colors may challenge you more than others, and these are the ones that, when you explore them, open up a whole new world creatively.” She recommends filling a color journal with color study pages to encourage exploring various shades, and go more deeply into the energy of each color. To start, create a strong area of color by building a background with a large piece of colored paper. Use watercolor pencils or crayons to add more color to the paper, and bring in patterns with a rubber stamp and an ink pad. Create layers with paper, drawings, and any other items that resonate. Move them around the page until you find a pleasing arrangement, and adhere them. Increase the color with paint, crayons, or pencils. Augment the layers by punching holes in some of the papers, revealing what’s underneath. Thread ribbon or fabric through the holes for a beautiful embellishment. Gather words that reflect the feeling of the color, and add them to the page. Finish with more stamps and additional words.

Creating a color story for working with color, from Paint Mojo by Tracy Verdugo
When working with color, creating a color story helps you see the energy and mood of various shades. (Art by Tracy Verdugo, photo by Santana Verdugo)

8. Techniques for working with color are sometimes dictated by the media we choose, and how we use that media. Jane Davenport shared interesting color effects with water-reactive Tim Holtz Distress Crayons from Ranger in her A Look At… column in the September/October 2016 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine. She says the crayons are “choosey in their water-reactivity,” which determines how subtle or bold the colors appear. For example, a thick application is needed to make the color react with water on a page. “That’s a handy quality,” she says, “because you can create different effects by varying the amount of crayon and also playing with how much water you use.” Become a mad scientist in your own studio, experimenting with various colors and mediums to see how they layer, blend, or resist each other.

Exploring color with Jane Davenport from Cloth Paper Scissors magazine
Different color media can define how colors react and interact. (Art and photo by Jane Davenport)

Let us color your world with these information-packed resources from the North Light Shop!

Cloth Paper Scissors 2015 Art Lessons Collector's Edition Color Explorations
Discovery all the ways you can be working with color in the 2015 Cloth Paper Scissors Art Lessons Collector’s Edition, Color Explorations, which includes all 12 Art Lessons.
Become fearless about working with color by learning techniques with paint and mediums in Acrylic Color Explorations by Chris Cozen.
Become fearless about working with color by learning techniques with paint and mediums in Acrylic Color Explorations by Chris Cozen.
Color Page by Page: Using Color Wheels in Art Journals with Pam Carriker
Explore the color wheel as never before with the techniques and tips in the video Color Page by Page: Using Color Wheels in Art Journals with Pam Carriker.
Get inspired about working with color with the mixed-media art featured in Incite 2: Color Passions, edited by Tonia Jenny.
Get inspired about working with color with the mixed-media art featured in Incite 2: Color Passions, edited by Tonia Jenny.


Blog, Mixed-Media Painting Techniques, Mixed-Media Techniques


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