A 3-Step Process for Choosing Colors

When I answered the reader question that published this past Wednesday, I was reminded of a color mixing method I learned from a book for oil painters. It’s quite a simple 3-step process for choosing colors, so I thought I’d share an adaption of it for colored pencil artists.

A 3-Step Process for Choosing Colors

Color selection and color mixing can be a confusing and complicated looking process. That’s why I was so impressed with the process I’m about to describe. When I first read it, it seemed quite simple and logical. I wished I’d have thought of it on my own, it was so obvious!

Let’s look at a sample project. Here’s bright and cheerful rose bud. The colors are vibrant, so they’re perfect.

A 3-Step Process for Choosing Colors

Step 1: Identify the Main Color

The first step is identifying the main color for each area. This rose has a pretty strong shadow as well as strong highlights. To keep things basic, let’s start with the highlighted part of the rose.

The main color is clearly red. But what type of red? Is it a warm red with a lot of yellow in it, or is it a cool red with blue in it?

The beauty of colored pencils is that you have several options in the red color family. So don’t just choose a red out of the box and call it good. Since you can’t mix colored pencils the same way you can mix wet media like oil paints, find the closest match possible for the red in the sunny parts of the rose.

I chose two colors, then made these color swatches. It didn’t take much more to show me which color was closest.

NOTE: If you make swatches, make part of the test swatch as saturated as possible so that the paper doesn’t influence the appearance. I make a saturated bar at the inside ends of each swatch, so I could compare them more easily.

STEP 1: Test your initial choices (if more than one) to find the best match for the base color.

I’m not naming colors because this isn’t about color names. It’s about selecting colors from the pencils you have. This method works with every brand of pencil.

Step 2: Choose the Influencing Color

Unless you happen to have an exact color match (not impossible, but also not very likely,) you next need to figure out what color you need to add to the red to get a closer match.

How do you do this?

Look at that rose again. What is the second most obvious color you see in the sunlit part?

I see a lot of yellow, so I chose two colors, yellow and yellow-orange, and layered them over the swatch of red color I made in step one: Yellow on the top half, yellow-orange on the bottom half.

Then I layered the base red over half of each one of those.

So what you see here is red-yellow-red on top, then red-yellow, then red-yellow-orange, then red-yellow-orange-red on the bottom.

Choose an Influencing Color for Each Area

The colors above are for the petals on the front of the rosebud.

Look at the petal in the back. That’s a little cooler than the petals in the front. There is some yellow, but yellow isn’t a clear influencing color.

Nor are the colors I’ve chosen good influencing colors for the shadowed parts of the rosebud.

Once you choose the base color or colors, you can further fine-tune the colors by choosing different influencing colors for each area.

I’m not naming specific colors; I’m describing a process. I don’t know what brands of pencils you have or what this rose looks like on your digital device.

But you can do this. Take your time examining the rose, and the pencils you have for each step of the process.

Step 3: Do You Need a Tint Color?

Many times, once you’ve decided on the base color and the influencing color, you find that you need to make additional adjustments. You need a third color to tint the mix of the first two colors.

At this point, other factors start to play a bigger role. Things like the type of paper you use, your drawing method, and how you want the finished drawing to look. All of these things determine whether or not you need a tint color and what color you choose.

If you do want a tint color, continue trying colors on your color swatch.

That’s the 3-Step Process for Choosing Colors that I Learned as an Oil Painter

I have no doubt this process will work for colored pencils, and for any other medium you use.

Are three colors all you’ll ever need for any subject? No. There will be times—probably lots of times—when you’ll find it necessary to add more colors for details and those little adjustments that come at the end of a drawing project.

Also be aware that in most cases, you’ll have to cycle through the three colors you’ve chosen in order to develop full color saturation and vibrancy.

But it is a workable method for choosing colors for any drawing you’ll ever want to do, and in any medium.

And once you understand the principle, it won’t take long for this 3-step process for choosing colors to become second nature.

2 Replies to “A 3-Step Process for Choosing Colors”

  1. I enjoyed your article with the horse pictures and how you started. There was a fountain of information in this and how to make your drawings better. These articles, also, help me when designing my greeting cards even though they are stamped images. The coloring of these images use many of your hints and techniques and make a better finished product for me.

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