Building Color Confidence


My painting Cascade Glow (pastel, 22x28) represents a triadic color scheme of dominant green, soft violet and soft orange.

The majority of painters love color. It is the most frequently mentioned motivation for painting, next to light. Color can also be one of the most difficult aspects to orchestrate within the confines of a composition. Representing every perceived color in a scene frequently leads to a confused painting that lacks visual harmony.

One of the ways artists have overcome this is to use a predetermined color scheme. By working within the confines of a system, color harmony and visual consistency are more easily obtained. Some of the most popular color schemes are:

  • Monochromatic: Monochromatic color schemes involve one hue (color) altered in tint (addition of white), shade (addition of black), and tone (addition of grey). The monochromatic scheme relies on lightness, darkness and saturation to produce a varied appearance. It is calm and well balanced, but lacks color contrast, often making it less appealing to the painter. Example: Red altered with the addition of white, black, and grey.
  • Analogous: An analogous color scheme relies on hues that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel. One color dominates the scene with its brother and sister colors for accent. Tints, Shades, and tones are employed as well, making it a variation on the monochromatic color scheme but with more color richness and nuances. Example: Dominate color Red and adjacent colors Red/Orange and Red/Violet altered with white, black, and grey.
  • Complementary: This color scheme consists of two opposing colors on a color wheel, which creates high-contrast. It is imperative that one color dominates with the opposite, complementary color, subordinate. Tints, shades, and tones of the opposites are used. Warm and cool opposites create the best outcome. Example: Red and Green.
  • Split complementary: This is a variation of the complementary color scheme where the opposite color is split into it adjacent colors. It produces the same high contrast effect of the complementary scheme without the same degree of tension. Example: Red and the adjacent colors of Green, Blue/Green and Yellow/Green.
  • Triadic: The triadic color scheme uses three colors that are equally distanced from each other around the color wheel. This scheme creates a sense of balance and harmony while retaining a degree of the complementary schemes contrast, making it a popular choice among painters. It is important that one color dominate with the others acting as accents. Tints, shades, and tones are employed to alter the appearance of the hues. If the scheme looks intense, try altering some of the colors with additional grey to create more harmony. Example: Red, Blue, and Yellow. Note: one of the most popular triadic color schemes is: Orange, Violet, and Green. Since they are mixed from the primary colors a natural harmony already exists.

The key to using these color schemes is to remove your preconceived notions about what color certain subjects ought to be and to simply work within the color range that the individual scheme allows. You’ll quickly gain a deeper understanding of the popular statement: Value does the work and color receives the glory. It is not that color shouldn’t be an important element within a painting, in fact it can be the motivation, it’s just that it has to be orchestrated. The color schemes/systems mentioned above are not meant to be formulas for how to paint. Instead, they provide a better understanding of the power of color, making us more intuitive when we next arrange the varied palette of nature across a painting surface.


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One thought on “Building Color Confidence

  1. Mary Ann Pals

    I took a color theory workshop from Larry Blovits many years ago because I never knew what color to reach for when I wanted to change a local color of something that would create harmony within a piece. That single workshop opened up a whole new color world to me.
    At first my newfound knowledge was overwhelming. So I tried choosing one color scheme, a split complimentary color scheme (violet, yellow-green, yellow-orange) and did a couple of small paintings using just that one color scheme. That way I could examine the impact tweaking those few colors made to my work. Eventually I framed one of those learning pieces and it sold almost immediately. Great feedback! I was hooked.
    Now with every new piece of work I begin, I scribble my color scheme along the side of my surface (or reference photo). I’ve internalized color schemes to the point where I’m not consciously thinking about them, but they’re there, unifying my art and creating an impact.
    I realize color is just frosting on the cake, but oh man, what frosting!