Choosing the Right Colors All the Time

Choosing the Right Colors All the Time

A lot of new artists want to know the best way of choosing the right colors all the time. I understand that because it was once one of my biggest concerns too.

I learned through experience that there really isn’t such a thing as “The Right Color.” The more horses I drew, the more I learned that I could create realistic colors by combining many different colors. Even if I drew the same color of horse twice, I could get similar and equally realistic colors using different color combinations.

Even more important, color really isn’t the most important thing to get right. Value is. Get those values right, and you can make almost anything look realistic no matter what color it is.

Choosing the Right Colors All the Time

Meet Pee Wee.

Choosing the Right Colors All the Time

No, she’s not a magenta-colored cat, but she looks just as much like a cat and like herself in magenta-colored light (above) as she does in green (below.)

Choosing the Right Colors All the Time

Both of those unique color selections could make a more interesting portrait than Pee Wee’s actual color.

Well. Maybe not for everyone.

The point is that it’s not the color that makes each of these three images look like a cat in general and like Pee Wee specifically. It’s the values, the details, and an accurate drawing.

What I’m really trying to say is that if you can draw a realistic looking cat with the wild variations in color above, then it really doesn’t matter which shade of gray or brown you choose to draw the cat’s actual color.

Two Things to Consider when Choosing the Right Colors for Your Drawing

Consider the Lighting

Lighting affects color selection more than anything else because the color of the light changes the way colors appear.

During the day, snow in our front yard looks “normal.”

At night, the snow still looks normal, but the colors in this scene are very different from the colors in the first snowy scene. The interesting thing (to me anyway) is that the snow in both images reads as natural.

If I were to draw this street scene but use whites and grays for the snow, it just wouldn’t look right.

Whether the light comes from a natural source like the sun or moon, or from an artificial source like street lights or Christmas lights, the color of the light affects the way you see the colors in your subject.

Consider the Surroundings

The things around your subjects also influence the colors in your subject, especially if your subject has a reflective surface. The more reflective a surface is, the more other colors show up in it.

Water, for instance, usually reflects the color of the sky. That’s why it looks blue, and that’s why it can look so many different shades of blue.

But water also reflects the colors of the objects floating in it. If you’re drawing a duck swimming in the water, then the colors in the duck will also appear in the water.

The same is true of metallic objects like the Christmas ornaments shown below. When you look at these three ornaments, you immediately think “red, blue, and yellowish-gold.” Right?

But look at the red and blue ornaments. The blue ornament shows some nice purples in the areas that are near the red ornament. And the red ornament also shows some nice purples (though slightly different purples) in the side that faces the blue ornament. That’s because red and blue mixed together create purple.

The yellow ornament also reflects the colors of the other two ornaments. To draw these ornaments so they look real, you have to use those additional colors.

Even objects that aren’t shiny can be influenced by reflected light. Ordinarily, you’d never consider using bright reds to draw a white kitten, but look at this little guy. Sitting on a red towel that’s bathed in bright sunlight, he turns red! Quite bright red in some areas.

Other factors also play a role in how you choose colors, but light and surroundings are the two most obvious.

The Bottom Line

What it all boils down to is that you need to study your reference photo closely, and then draw what you see in the photo, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense. It takes practice and the ability to trust your eyes and not what your brain is telling you, but it can be done.

Would You Like More Information on Choosing the Right Colors?

I’ve written several posts on the topic of color selection. Type “choosing colors” or a similar keyword phrase in the search bar at the top of the side bar.

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  1. Patricia Wilson

    This was very helpful and it goes with saying that we are conditioned only to see things in a certain light. I especially liked the example of the little, white kitten and the reds.

  2. Gail Jones

    Such a good article about remembering values. I am currently drawing a tree knot type thing that was growing on the ground under the tree. I suppose it came up from the roots of said tree. I am drawing with 6 Luminance pencils to try that brand of colored pencil out, for the first time. So, since the colors will be slightly different, I converted the photo to black and white to get my values correct even in a slightly different color combo. Should be fun.

    1. Gail,

      That’s a good way to learn about a new brand of colored pencils.

      I often turn reference photos to either gray scale or sepia tones (depending on the type of under drawing I’m doing.) That’s a perfect way to see values without the interference of color.

      Thank you for sharing that tip.

  3. Kay Merrill

    Color is my nemesis when using colored pencils…or paint for that matter…I’ve learned through my quilt designing/constructing the importance of value, value, value! I love your posts.

    I so enjoy your weekly newsletters even though I don’t have time to really peruse them.

    1. Kay,

      Color can be difficult. I used to struggle over making the right color choices, too.

      Then I realized there were several different color combinations that could produce the same or very similar final colors. I think that’s worthy of a future post, so thank you!

      You are right, though. Value is more important than getting the exact right color.

      Thank you for your comments on the newsletter, too. It’s always encouraging to hear that readers enjoy them!

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