Crash Course: Color Theory

I have a confession.  I have no inkling about color.  Whatever I know is purely instinctual.  I’m much more comfortable staying to grays, and reserving color for symbolic purposes (think Dexter’s inability to see any color other than blood as red).

I’ve spent my life playing to my strengths: lines and values.  And another confession?  I’m an illustrations artist secretly learning to be more painterly.  I got into digital photography largely to explore color and composition without necessarily having to worry about the theory of color (or how to apply paint).  To boot, I have historically ignored the study of any and all artists or art theory, basically on the flawed assumption that doing so would pollute my own artistic voice.  In recent years I’ve started to return to my visual arts roots of pencil and ink, and also started exploring digital art as a means to explore both color and painting techniques.  But to this day, I feel, if not crippled as an artist, severely handicapped by own art asceticism.

Yesterday, I had an opportunity to spend 90 minutes talking with Kirsi H., an art tutor through my company’s online platform.  My intent for the session was to dig into practical color theory, something I feel is a enormous (and embarassing) gap in my knowledge.  During our conversation, Kirsi mentioned a few things that had been lurking in the back of my head.

  • My work often looks unfinished – which is very true, as I often get overwhelmed by the application of color past the initial coloring phase of my study of values in gray.  Namely, I give up.
  • Starting my values in grays versus another color (e.g. burnt umber as was traditionally done) results in muddied colors – something I had observed but I did not understand why.  Now I know!

Lastly, she gave me a slew of excellent resources.  Most notably, a 60-minute YouTube session from ArtGerm where he explains how to leverage values.  I cannot recommend it enough.  It really changed my view of my process.  Between my time with Kirsi, and arguably the longest hour of YouTube ever (only because more than watching I wanted to go and do!), I was revved up to get down and dirty in color.  Wink. Wink. Nod. Nod.

While I have yet to tackle her second point (that is for later today), I decided to go back to a piece of work that I have had a love-hate relationship with for quite some time.  I’ve been so frustrated and embarrassed by it that I did not think I’d ever share it.  Not so now.  And given that I’ve learned so much about my craft from watching YouTube and reading other artist blogs whom I admire, I thought I’d return the favor to the art community.

Step 1, Values


I would not say I’m completely satisfied with this particular piece as it relates to its values.  Nonetheless, it is one of the few stages in my process I have little or no trepidation.  But as noted previously, this is where I will need to change my process going forward; namely, move away from grays to another color such as burnt umber or yellows to help soften my colors for the next step.

Step 2, Rough Coloring


In this next phase, I start to apply color.  Depending on the mood I’m trying to achieve, I will create a layer on top of the values and set the layer to “Add” or “Screen”.  And as nearly every other artists will note, it is important to experiment with different layer settings to achieve your own artistic vision.

Since I did not set out to create this blog until after I finished, the above has some coloring details, but as you can see, it is still very rough.  Also note how colors look muted, even muddy.  This is an artifact of me leveraging only grays in my previous step of values study.

It is important to note that historically this is normally as far as I would go with my work.  And to be honest, till yesterday this particularly piece represented the furthest I had gone, and still it was not far enough.  Part of this conservative approach was dictated by my own fears and assumptions.  In particular, I’d keep the values separate from the other layers, working under the false assumption that I should be able to achieve a finished coloring just by application of a “glaze” on top my values similar to the masters.

Maybe someday I’ll achieve that level of kung fu application of color, but one thing that stood out in my conversation with Kirsi: I have been arbitrarily limiting myself to match whatever I believed “only professionals do.” And that is just wrong, wrong, wrong.  And more so, such thinking is darn-tooting limiting.  My technique ought to be as unique to me as is the finished product I achieve to produce.  Given that insight, the next steps emerged for me last night.

Step 3, Detailed Coloring


As noted, after my session with Kirsi, I thought I’d would try something new (for me).  In this step, I just exported the output from step 2 into a PNG file, and then re-imported it back into as a new file.  Part of the impetus for this export was purely as a measure of safety, as I knew I could always just go back to the original file from step 2 and start all over again.

At this step, I’m basically painting directly onto the imported layer.  Again, following Kirsi’s suggestions I started to clean up the image using progressively smaller and smaller brush sizes.  I also started to add details to parts of the image, such as leaves to the background.  I’m not mucking much with layers, but just brazenly applying (digital) paint directly to the canvas.

Step 4, Finished Coloring


I thought I was done late last night.  But then I awoke this morning, and realized I could push my envelope even further.  I started to add layers back to the image, adding a layer for color dodge in order to punch the backlighting, and further enrich the color palette with some cools (blues) around the shadows to help provide better depth.

Final Thoughts

Full disclosure, the above has been broken into four (4) steps.  But I have additional steps that I just failed to archive for purposes of this blog.  They include both roughing in outlines, 3-value shading to get depth and light sources nailed.

Like any piece of work, I’m not completely satisfied.  But I think I made an important breakthrough with regard to not only my process and technique, but also with my comfort using color in a more natural and realistic manner.

Author: Ward

I’m the creator and operator of this little corner of the internets, writing on all things related to art and more specifically my experiences trying to figure this whole thing out. I guess I’m trying to figure out life, too, but mostly I just post about art here.

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