Are you looking to bring some fresh color and visual panache to your next painting, but aren’t sure how to accomplish it? Try this four-step method to break out of your color box and break new ground in your work.
Step 1: Choose Your Scene
The first step is to decide what you’d like to paint, and consider the color pitfalls that may be inherent to the scene. When using reference photographs, look for an image that has fairly clear shapes of dark, middle and light values. I’ve chosen a scene that was captured during a paddle boat ride with my family in Holland. It was a beautiful midday view from the river. I love the big trees and point of view from the paddle boat, but there is a lot of green! Ask yourself how you might shift the color palette away from the local colors presented in the scene, and reimagine it entirely.
Step 2: Create a Thumbnail Sketch
The best way to begin this process of reimagining your scene is to create small thumbnail sketches that allow you to explore shape, value and design options. Try to clarify the big shapes of your scene into abstract forms that generalize the large value masses. Simplify the values down to just three values of dark, middle and light shapes. Finally, make sure you get clear on the overall design of your scene, making any necessary changes to the format of your painting. I chose to interpret my river scene as a square composition instead of the horizontal view presented in my reference.
Use whatever drawing materials you are comfortable with to thumbnail sketch, but make sure to develop strong dark, middle and light shapes in a simplified design. As a pastel artist, I enjoy using small broken pieces of neutral-toned hard pastels for sketching. Black, gray and white hard pastels were used to create this neutral thumbnail on Strathmore Toned Gray paper.
Step 3: Activate Your Scene with an Underpainting
Now that you’ve developed a clear plan for your painting in the thumbnail sketch, decide what size you will paint your color study. For my painting, I chose a UART 400 Premium Mounted Board, and cut it to 9x9” square. Keep your color studies fairly small to explore color ideas without being overwhelmed with scale.
Allow the basic value shapes of dark, middle and light to provide direction to your underpainting, choosing with an entirely different color than the local colors of your scene. Is it green? Use red! Would you like to explore a golden hour feeling? Choose warm golden ochres. Feeling moody? Try violets! The values and shapes of your thumbnail sketch will provide you with the necessary guardrails to allow your exploration into new frontiers of color. I chose to activate my scene with a warm red-ochre underpainting, leaving all those troublesome greens behind me.
Step 4: Develop your Color Study with a Limited Palette
Once your underpainting is established, interpret the values of the scene with a color zone to develop your unique palette of color. In this case, I chose to keep all my colors warm and moving toward the orange/red/ochre color zone. Use a color wheel to identify a preferred color zone as a very helpful way to accomplish this. I used reds, oranges and ochres in the trees instead of greens, and interpreted the blue sky and water into warm pinks and golds.
Don’t allow yourself too much time on these color studies. Just explore and experiment, trying other variations if you aren’t crazy about your initial results. It’s great fun to reimagine the landscape in new and fresh colors using this simple painterly technique. Be playful and explore!
Check out many opportunities to develop your creative potential!